Close your eyes, spread your wings like a bird, and fly across the ocean to a land far, far away – a land of light, music, and dancing. A land filled with joyous people, beautiful art, and amazing sights. One of these sights is the Eiffel Tower! Can you guess where we are? We are in PARIS!!! Yes, that beautiful, sparkling city in France with the Eiffel Tower that stretches high into the sky and almost touches the clouds! After reaching Paris, we turn and fly 20 miles east – across rivers and meadows to a small town called Coupvray.
In Coupvray lives a leatherworker named Simon-Rene Braille and his wife, Monique. The year is 1812. They have four children: two daughters and two sons. One of these sons is named Louis (Loo-WEE). Louis loves to play with his brother and sisters in their little stone house or the vineyards nearby. It is fun to play hide-and-seek or search for snakes and creepy crawlies.
He also loves to spend time with his papa in his workshop. It smells of horses and leather and woodsmoke. It is the perfect place for adventures – like crawling under papa’s workbench to hunt for monsters or throwing wood in the fire-breathing dragon’s mouth. Papa says it is not a dragon – it’s just a wood stove!
One day when Louis is 3, he climbs up on a wooden bench and looks at his papa’s tools. He picks one up. His Papa warns him not to touch it but then someone comes into the shop and Papa goes to talk to him. Louis picks up the sharp, pointy tool and pretends he is papa. He jabs the tool into the leather, but it bounces up and hits him in the eye. Louis starts crying and papa runs to him. He takes Louis to the house and calls the doctor. The doctor wraps Louis’ eyes and tells him not to touch it. But they hurt – a lot. And soon Louis cannot see at all.
His world turns black. He doesn’t understand why he can’t see when the bandages come off. What happened to the light? Why can’t he see mama and papa and his brother and sisters? He can hear them, but it feels like he is in a dark room with no windows or doors. He is very scared. “When will I see again?” he asks. His mama and papa say they do not know.
But his parents are wise – they think of ways to help Louis. They teach him how to use a cane to walk. By waving it from side to side when he walks, he won’t bump into things. They teach him to count steps to learn how many steps it takes to walk to the kitchen, the vineyard, or papa’s shop.
They also teach him echolocation. That means finding things by making a sound and listening for the echo like bats and dolphins do. Have you ever tried yelling in a tunnel or through a cardboard tube? They sound different, right? Louis learns how to understand these echoes and knows if he is walking by an open field or a tall house. It is easy to tell when he is walking by the river because of the gurgling sounds, or in the park because of the squawking ducks.
But he misses seeing things…and he misses seeing the faces of his family. Some days he is very sad.
But he decides to make a game of it. He listens very hard to the sounds around him. Swish swish – the sound of fabric dragging on the cobblestone road. That’s Mrs. Blanchet with her long skirts going to the market. Clippety clop, clippety clop every morning at dawn. That’s Mr. Monet delivering cheese and milk with his horse and wagon. Ding ding, ding ding! That’s the best sound of all – that’s Louis’ friend, Pierre, on his new bike, coming to take him for a ride.
Louis’ sisters help, too. They make letters out of leather strips or straw tied together. His papa pounds nails into boards in the shape of letters. They teach him the letters of the alphabet by feel.
At night, Louis plays dominoes with his mama. He feels and counts the little dots on the tiles and is very good at the game. This dot game will eventually change Louis’ life!
Louis keeps growing but his eyes never see again. He goes to school and listens to the lessons. Pierre reads the books to him. Louis is very smart and learns quickly.
Then one day when Louis is 10, his parents tell him they are taking him to a school in Paris called the Royal Institute for Blind Youth. He is nervous to go – he’s never been away from his house, his family, or his town. But he is also excited to try something new. He wants to learn new things, like how to read!
The school is not what Louis expected. It is cold and big and it smells funny – like old bark from the riverbank. The food is yucky and there is never enough heat or hot water. Some of the boys are mean – they are older and play tricks on him. He feels very alone and scared and misses his family. But he stays because he REALLY wants to learn to read.
He listens to the school lessons and remembers everything. He also learns to play the piano and the cello by feeling the keys and the strings.
One day his teacher takes him to a room filled with books. He can tell it is a big room by the echo their feet make when they walk inside. It sounds like they’re in a big cave. And it smells very dusty. They probably don’t clean the room very often. THUNK. The teacher dumps a heavy book in front of Louis. He tells Louis to run his fingers over the paper. Wow – it is very bumpy! He tells Louis those bumps make letters, and those letters make words. He teaches Louis how to “read” the bumps with his fingers. This “bump” language was invented by Captain Charles Barbier for soldiers on the battlefield. They can read these bumpy messages at night by feel without using a light. But this “bump” language is very long. Several sentences can take up a whole page!
Louis wonders: Can he make a new language with these bumps? One that is easier and shorter and doesn’t take up so many pages? His teacher builds him a wooden frame that holds paper. The frame has a sliding metal bar attached to it that slides up and down the frame. The bar has openings in it so Louis can punch holes through it into the paper in neat rows. He uses a tool called an awl – the same tool that hit Louis in his eye. He slides the metal bar down the frame and punches rows of dots in the paper with the awl. He makes a dot message!
He can finally write and read without seeing! He practices for years with this frame and awl until he is 15. Then one day, he tells his teacher, “Read something to me.” The teacher pulls a book from the shelf and starts reading out loud. Louis punches the paper in his frame with the awl. “I will read it back to you,” he says. And he reads every word perfectly while sliding his fingers over the bumps he punched on the page! He has created a new language from six dots!
How does this work? Well, imagine you have a domino. The number six on a domino tile is represented by three rows of dots: two dots on one line, two dots on a second line, and two on a third line. By punching dots in different patterns, you create a code. Every pattern of dots is a different letter of the alphabet! Once you memorize the dots and the letters they represent, you can read and write the code! Neat, huh? It’s like reading a bunch of dominos – but it’s a language instead of a game! That domino game with mama sure came in handy!
After Louis graduated, he stayed at the school and became a teacher. He taught there for many years. Sadly, over the years he caught lots of chest colds that made him very weak and tired. One day when he was 43, he was taken to the hospital, where he passed away from illness.
Louis lived a short life but was an amazing inventor – and by the early age of 15! He created a language called Braille, which is named after him. Braille is used by millions of blind people around the world today. You can even see his Braille language on public signs. The next time you are in an elevator or a public building, look at the signs. Do you see bumps next to the words or numbers? That’s Braille – the language Louis created!
What do you think of Louis and his invention? Would you like to learn Braille and teach it to your friends? Look it up online. You could swap secret messages back and forth by writing lines of dots on paper!
Louis was very brave. He could have stayed at home, afraid to go outside or explore the world around him. Instead, he was driven by a desire to learn and read. Because of his desires and perseverance, he accomplished great things at a very young age! Louis teaches us that no matter what challenges we face in life, with focused determination we can work through our obstacles and accomplish great things. Also, his life teaches us that where there is darkness, there can also be light. Meaning, even when things seem at their worst and we may not know the way forward if we hold on there will be a silver lining or a new path to lead us out of the darkness.