No one has ever boarded three flights and traveled 1,500 miles from another country to be part of Illinois State’s Human Library, but Amanda Coleman has been through more. The soft-spoken woman from Nova Scotia, Canada, wanted to tell her story, which was hard to listen to.
At 18 months old, she was blinded in one eye, stabbed by her mother. After a six-week hospitalization, she entered the foster care system and didn’t come out for 20 years, moving from the city to the country and back again, each time leaving her school, her bed, even the family pet. She came to know loss in a profound way.
The mother she knew the longest, the one who fostered her for 10 years, died when Coleman was still in grade school. “When I was 18 months old, I lost my eye and my mom. When I was 11, I lost my mom again,” she said.
But it was another relationship that proved as difficult, the one with her injured left eye. When she was in her 20s, she tried to convince an eye surgeon to remove it, replacing it with glass. He refused because she could still see a little color and movement. A second surgeon recommended a colored contact lens to mask the damaged pupil.
“I struggled with this every time I looked in the mirror,” she told the students at her round table. “I went through all these things to try and disguise my injured eye.”
A few years ago, that changed. While she was in a first aid class, a huge tear fell from her injured eye onto her book. “I started crying,” she said. “To know that eye could still function was amazing.”
Freshman Lori Michelsen asked if the injury ever kept her from doing anything. “No, I’m here,” she said, smiling. At 47, Coleman has volunteered in parts of the world that need healing, including Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe. “I wanted to connect with others who’d gone through adversity,” she said. “It’s part of my healing journey.”
While working on her master’s in education, she was searching online for human libraries, where the books are humans and the stories are their lives. She landed on Illinois State’s program. Although she had no idea where Normal, Illinois, was, she sent an email, asking to participate. Katie Pratt, who works in University College, which oversees the project, was thrilled.
Coleman was one of 52 volunteers to visit the Bone Student Center on September 21 to talk to first-year students on topics ranging from immigration to sexuality in the black community to growing up as the child of a 9/11 survivor. Nearly 700 students had the opportunity to have a 30-minute small group conversation with their human books.
Coleman shared an altered book she’s working on, titled The Girl With the Injured Eye. “Sometimes we have things we don’t like about ourselves,” she said. “I think it’s unpleasant to look at my eye, but people say they don’t even know I have an injured eye. What I think is a flaw in me, people don’t even notice.”
When she was 12, she met her birth mother, who struggled with mental illness. A student asked Coleman if it was difficult to forgive her. “It was a bit of a process,” Coleman said. “But she deserves healing in this lifetime as well. If I’m angry at her, it’s not going to help her heal or help her move on. We’re all at different places in our life for healing, and that’s what I wish for her.”
This was the first time Coleman told her story to a group. Freshman Kailee Ross said she wouldn’t have noticed anything was different about her: “You don’t really think about the struggles people go through. Looking at her, you can’t see that. We think we have all these struggles, but she has a really hard struggle.”
Encouraging the students to share their own stories, Coleman urged them to understand and accept their differences. “My eye is a part of me, this resilient part of myself. I see it in a very different way now. I see it as a gift. It helps me be strong when things are difficult.”
For more information on how to get involved with the Human Library at Illinois State, visit UniversityCollege.IllinoisState.edu/Human Library.