Christian Wallace 2017-04-19 13:35:31
Students enjoy prom, sports and other typical teenage pursuits while being educated and learning life skills at the Texas School for the Blind. “Thirty minutes till showtime!” director Robert Pierson urgently calls to his actors. There’s a nervous energy in the makeshift dressing room. Students at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) in Austin are preparing to take the stage for the second night of their production of “Romeo and Juliet.” A teacher serving as a stage assistant applies makeup to the cheeks of the male lead, Tyler Chambliss. “Tyler, you look like a young man all of a sudden.” “That’s the point,” Chambliss responds matter-offactly. Next to him, Lexie Capps works her way with through a Mexican burger, while two other actors curiously finger the smooth white fur of a mink scarf. “Is this a fox?” “It’s a mink,” an assistant responds. “Is that like a snake with legs? It feels like it’s been run over by a car.” There are groans and giggles. Chambliss, his makeup done, lays his head down on a desk, quietly repeating his lines. The attention of other actors is on someone’s collapsible cane, which has gotten stuck in the middle. The rod is passed from one set of hands to the next, with everyone taking a turn at separating the stubborn joints. The cane is back to normal, and impromptu sing-alongs erupt followed by “break a leg” jokes. Chanel Davis, who plays Lady Montague, finishes the final touches on her lipstick. A slight smear of bright red is visible when she flashes Jordan Lister (Lady Capulet) a wide smile. “Feel how soft my hair is today!” she says, guiding her friend’s hand to her naturally curly hair. The two laugh about how Lister almost stumbled the night before while trying to exit the stage. “Jordan, make sure you don’t fall tonight!” Davis chides her. Someone squirts some hand sanitizer, and immediately the smell draws the room’s attention, setting off a volley of olfactory-based banter. “Can I get some? It smells so beautiful!” “You always have the best smells.” “You smell like lavender.” “You’re lucky your class is next to the coffee shop. That smells good.” “No one really has a smell to me.” Pierson, the director, grabs everyone’s attention: “Folks, the house is filling up!” In many ways backstage at TSBVI is no different than at any other high school. And during the day classrooms and hallways, filled with curious, energetic students, resemble their counterparts at regular schools. At the same time, the ordinary often is supplanted by the extraordinary at TSBVI. It’s here that young people with vision impairment take the steps necessary to take their place in a world designed for the sighted. Dedicated Staff In Gloria Bennett’s office, Halloween decorations are tacked to the wall next to posters embossed with braille. Miniature mountains of textbooks and school newsletters rise from two chairs that might otherwise be occupied by guests. Bennett is the Volunteers, Community Resources and Donations coordinator at TSBVI. It’s her job to raise money and to place volunteers. She regularly putts around the Austin campus in a golf cart giving tours to visiting teachers of the visually impaired (TVIs). Some of these admiring educators travel hundreds of miles from other states to tour the grounds. Bennett has worked at TSBVI for 27 years. “When I was about to get my 25-year pin,” Bennett recounts, “I thought, ‘Oh god, I never thought I would ever work at any place for 25 years. I must be so wonderful.’ And then there were 13 people who got their 25-year pins that year.” Bennett laughs. “But everybody here loves what they do, and everybody here works for the benefit of the kids.” Students at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired make their way to the cafeteria for lunch. The dedication to the students pays off. A survey last year of recent graduates showed that 77 percent were employed, enrolled in a post-secondary school or otherwise productively engaged such as caring for a dependent as a homemaker. The national unemployment rate for blind people and those with visual impairment of working age is close to 70 percent. Down a hall from Bennett’s office is the classroom of Jane Rundquist, the music teacher who students call “Miss Jane.” Rundquist talks with Bennett about accordion lessons for one of her students. “I asked for an accordion player. I didn’t find one,” Bennett sighs, frustrated that she hasn’t located a volunteer. Rundquist grins mischievously and rubs a pair of imaginary coins together in her fingers. “Oh, you’ve found one,” Bennett says, knowing where the conversation is headed. “You’re asking for money.” Rundquist pushes enthusiastically, “He’s a great kid. He’s got this accordion. He’s such a bright spirit.” In her classroom, visual arts teacher Gretchen Bettes points to paintings, clay sculptures and woven tapestries and relates details about the students who made them. Cheerleading coach Tammy Reed praises her charges and muses about the prospects of members of the school’s goalball team joining the ranks of the U.S. Paralympics squad. (Goalball is a team sport played by blind athletes using a ball filled with tinkling bells. As one student says, “It’s kind of a big deal.”) The teachers speak knowingly about their students’ ambitions, challenges and triumphs. The talk around school today is the prom, even though it is months away. TSBVI throws the year-end bash at the swanky Crowne Plaza. To many of the students, it’s the highlight of the year. This spring there will be an extra-special treat. A Houston-based group that wears professional-grade Star Wars costumes will crash the prom. Students who may not be able to see storm troopers marching on a movie screen will get a chance to visualize the characters in different way—touching the troopers’ smooth, slick armor and running their fingers over the forest of Chewbacca’s fur. The prom is representative of the value of TSBVI. While attending prom is a rite of passage that sighted kids might take for granted, access to the iconic adolescent experience is not such a sure thing for the visually impaired. In their local districts, the campuses and events like prom are designed for the sighted world. Not so at TSBVI. The classrooms, dormitories, pool, gym, and even the sidewalks were constructed with the visually impaired in mind. And at TSBVI everyone gets to attend the prom. Clayton Campsey, 17, works on his braille with teacher Kay Pruett during class. Math teacher Glenda Torrence helps Cameron find the starting point in braille while graphing slopes. Cameron Smith (left), 14, and Marc Mendez, 14, work on graphing slopes in eighth-grade math class. “The prom is really fun,” senior Kimberly Berry says. “They stay open till like one or two in the morning! That’s why we do it on Saturday, because we sleep in on Sunday. And everybody is, like, dragging on Monday.” Sleeping in is a luxury for Berry who typically rises at five every weekday. “I like to take showers in the morning, so I can wake up,” Berry explains. “I go eat breakfast at seven o’clock in the cafeteria, and then I get a hot chocolate right before first period. Gotta take care of that. My hot chocolate is my life.” The bell for first period rings at 7:50 every morning, but Berry is used to the early routine. This is her sixth year at TSBVI, and as a senior, her schedule is busier now than it’s ever been. She has cheerleading on Tuesdays, homework most nights, and, of course, she has to make time for the occasional Netflix binge. Students also contend with the challenges of living away from home in a dormitory. “It’s a lot of drama,” Berry says with a sigh. “But I don’t do drama. I stick to my schoolwork.” There are also weekly chores to be done like laundry; things can get a little chaotic with 14 girls living together. “It’s crazy!” Berry says. “Everyone is running around, like, ‘Where’s my sock!’ You lose everything. It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh.’” Senior Matthew Arnold is a student who has thrived here. He recently completed his fourth novel. Senior Emma Tarr has started writing fiction after conversations about literature with Arnold, while Ashlie Edmondson, also a senior, is currently working on the artwork for one of Arnold’s books. “Love, peace, and friendship—that’s my philosophy,” Arnold says. “You make friends, you find peace in them, and some you love.” TSBVI is a lifeline for the students. Junior Kristina Kozeluh, in her first semester here, declares, “It’s so much better than public school.” Teaching Independence There are nearly 50 schools for the blind in the United States. Most, if not all, are supported by Lions. Clubs or districts provide equipment and supplies, furnish dormitories and build playgrounds. Lions visit the schools to throw holiday parties, hold vision screenings and celebrate special occasions. In 1856, the Texas Legislature established what was then known as the Blind Asylum. Since then, the state of Texas has funded the school. In 1915, the name was changed to Texas School for the Blind. That same year the school relocated to a 45-acre parcel of land a few miles north of the University of Texas. Pupils of that era were taught academic subjects and learned to read braille, but they were also instructed in “life learning,” including how to decipher the world through touch, smell and hearing, how to organize one’s life systematically, down to the last button or zipper, and how to navigate from place to place with independence. Students were trained for what were thought of as “practical trades” at the time, such as making brooms. A good chunk of the school’s acreage was used as a working farm where students grew and harvested their own crops. The curriculum and the property have continued to evolve. A deaf-blindness program was added in the 1970s, and in 1989 the current name was adopted to more accurately reflect the diverse student body. The legislature approved the school’s request for a major renovation of the campus in 2008. Over the course of four years, all but two structures on the property were replaced with brand new facilities. Today, TSBVI can provide services to not just those who attend the physical campus in Austin but all 9,000 visually impaired students across Texas. The School for the Blind runs three different programs. Enrolling 160 students, the comprehensive program involves full-time immersion at the school. A committee must first determine that the local school district cannot fully meet a child’s educational needs. Then the parents also must agree with the decision. Of the relatively few students who are eligible to attend, most spend between one and three years at TSBVI (completely free of cost) before returning to their hometown districts. The students vary in age from 6 to 22, spanning from first grade to high school, with a specialized “exit” program for recent graduates transitioning to the working world. To help maintain the students’ ties to their communities, the school recently implemented “Weekends Home,” an initiative that allows pupils to return to their families every weekend or every other if the distance is greater than 50 miles. In the comprehensive program, residential instructors work in every dorm, helping students become more independent. Depending on their capabilities, students might practice doing laundry, dressing themselves or cooking during evening classes with residential instructors. Those enrolled in the comprehensive program have access to extra-curricular activities that might not be readily available to them in their local districts. At TSBVI, students can join the wrestling, swimming or track teams. Or they can compete in sports designed specifically for nonsighted persons such as beep kickball, “blind tennis” and goalball. In fact, TSBVI student-athletes travel across the country to compete against the six other schools for the blind that make up their conference. Joe Paschall, the head of the physical education department, is visually impaired. A role model for TSBVI’s students, he has completed multiple Ironmans and marathons. Paschall introduced golf at the school and next is bowling, a social activity that the visually impaired persons can do their entire life. More than 500 students participate in the school’s short-term programs held on the weekends and over the summer. As with the comprehensive program, students develop orientation and mobility skills and learn social, recreational and independent skills. “Just one weekend of instruction can completely change a student’s life at home,” Bennett explained. The outreach program is the last leg of the school’s three-part approach. Started in 1990, this department has 22 educator-consultants whose main objective is to train and educate TVIs across the state. Cooking teacher Kristy Sikes instructs Chloe Creel, 21, during cooking class. The three programs require a great deal of staffing, funding and coordination between agencies. Over the school’s 160-year history, no community organization has been more important to the school than the Lions. For most of the last century, the Austin Founder Lions Club has been a mainstay. Today this relationship is stronger than ever, and several other Austin-area clubs now also support the school. Lions assist with annual events such as the ice-cream social, the athletics banquet, the prom and parent’s weekend. The relationship between the Lions and TSBVI can be traced back to the 1920s when the Founder Club “adopted” an ambitious, visually impaired student with an extraordinary gift for whistling. Fred Lowery was born in Texas in 1909. His mother died shortly after giving birth, and scarlet fever took Lowery’s sight when he was just eighteen months old. Lowery’s father then abandoned him and his three older sisters on a stack of railroad ties. He ended up at the Texas School for the Blind. Lowery discovered his life’s calling at school when he heard “Taps” played on the very first Armistice Day in 1918. He learned to play several instruments and became an expert whistler when he discovered he could make two notes at once by shaping his tongue a certain way. The Austin Lions paid for acting classes and music lessons in Chicago. Lowery became a successful concert whistler who toured internationally with stars like Bing Crosby and as a soloist. The New York Times once described him as “the finest whistler who ever puckered a lip.” Today, the most obvious connection with Lions are the Leos at TSBVI. Lion Patti Robinson, a TSBVI employee for 35 years, founded the Leo club at TSBVI in 2010. The Leos’ first project was purchasing water filtration devices for villages in Africa, says Robinson, the school’s community coordinator. Leos also helped Bastrop, ravaged by wildfires, where some teachers and students lived. The club bought every fourth grader in Bastrop a baby tree. The club currently recycles eyeglasses, collecting 3,000 pairs in the last few months. Leos also will paint buildings at the Lions Camp in Kerrville, giving back to the place where they spent summer days. Not long ago, Lions and LEOs teamed up to plant a tree in honor of the campus’s centennial. For the TSBVI students, who sometimes feel cut off from the rest of the world, being a Leo forges a connection with their hometowns. “I just think being a Leo is an awesome thing to do for your community,” says President Ashley Pryor, a senior. “It’s a great thing to be a part of.” Vice president Kimberly Berry agrees. “I love being a Leo,” she says. “It’s a lot of work, like sorting through all those glasses. But at least you’re helping people see better— that’s the main thing. And whenever I get done with school, I definitely want to be a Lion.” A Sense of Joy A carnival atmosphere exists on Parent’s Day at TSBVI. Parents and children mingle at booths or sit at picnic tables in the school’s quadrangle. The University of Texas Lions Club has set up a purple and yellow inflatable tube man, its arms flailing wildly in an exuberant welcome. Austin Founder Lions have hauled an RV owned by one of its members to the campus so the UT students can do eye exams. Students perform a variety show for visitors in the auditorium. The talent displayed is wide-ranging from solo piano pieces and dramatic monologues to an effervescent electronic music performance. Miss Jane leads a group of choir students through “This Land is Your Land.” Students move on and off the stage using their canes or guided by an instructor. While they perform, they fold the collapsible sticks and holster them in a pouch on their belts. Each time an act ends, the other students cheer wildly. One of the students performing with the school’s celebrated classical guitar ensemble is junior Devin Gutierrez. He co-wrote “Etude in E-minor,” an original piece “in the style of Johann Sebastian Bach” with the ensemble’s instructor, Jeremy Coleman. “I have such a community of good players and friends here,” he says after the performance. “People think that when you play guitar, that all it is, ‘Oh, you go up there with all your rock band friends, and start strumming some chords out.’ No, it’s a team effort. I don’t know how to say this without sounding kind of cheesy and medieval—but you kind of get to the state where you’re one with the music. You and your teammates you’re playing with, you become the music. You play the song, and after you’re done, you have a little party, because, hey, it takes a lot of effort to sit up there and stay in the groove.” The day’s grand finale is the pep rally, which might be the school’s biggest to-do outside of the prom. Maroon and gold pompoms shimmering, the cheerleaders march into the center of the school’s gym. They move in perfectly synchronized steps, chanting, “Go! G-O! Go Wildcats! Go!” The crowd whoops and hollers and shakes plastic bottles filled with ribbons and rocks. Cheerleader Mikkah Margrave, 18, gets some help with her dance moves from cheerleading assistant coach Tee English. The attractive campus was renovated in 2008. The same scene could be taking place at any given high school across Texas. But there is something significantly different about TSBVI that goes beyond the bumps of braille on the posters and the sounds of tapping canes on the sidewalk. There is a palpable sense of joy in the gym. “TSBVI is one of the most kindest, most generous things there is,” says student Dixie Lucky. “It represents Miss Jane. It represents Miss Gretchen. It represents everyone on campus. This school is not just for the blind, because everyone learns here.” Leaning against the wall, Bennett watches the happy, hectic scene unfold before her. She is radiant. “This is what it’s all about,” she says, shouting above the music. The cheerleaders join them and soon everyone—teachers, parents, and students—are out on the floor dancing together.
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
This page can be found at http://digital.lionmagazine.org/article/Finding+Their+Way/2762897/400734/article.html.