Jay Copp 2017-08-17 10:30:59
Lions played a role in her rise to excellence The sleepy-eyed students quietly trudge into English class. It’s 7:30 a.m., an ungodly hour for these high schoolers. The May weather outside is warm and inviting, and summer break looms. Today’s topic is a pantoum, an obscure form of poetry. Teacher Kathy Nimmer, 48, plunges ahead at Harrison High School in West Lafayette, Indiana. Don’t worry: she’s got this. In a soft voice, a girl volunteers to read a pantoum, a poem with repetitive lines. It was not written by some long-ago aesthete. It was penned by one of them—a former student of Nimmer’s. “We have a model poem, but use a student’s poem when it’s better than the model,” Nimmer says. “What should we write about?” she asks the class. “Purple!” a student cries. “Purple? Usually, it’s life or friendships or something big. Let’s write about love. Write one sentence on ‘luuuv.’ Keep it classroom-appropriate.” After two minutes, Nimmer explains how the 22 students will create a classroom pantoum, a three-dimensional one. Students will come forward two at a time to replace other students and eventually read their line twice before being replaced. The complicated choreography is potentially a train wreck, but Nimmer’s instructions are precise. The students follow the plan. None of their sentiments are sappy or snarky or clichéd. “Love is an unending struggle.” “Love can draw people together or apart.” The students complete an endearing ensemble performance. “Yeah, that was clappable,” Nimmer congratulates the class. Confidently strolling among the rows of desks, Nimmer, a teacher for a quarter century, commands a classroom without being commandeering. A trait common to the best teacher, she carries within her a fierce desire for her students to succeed. “She’s my No. 1 teacher of all time,” says senior Eleanor Sammons, a track star who will run for the University of Wisconsin. “She’s the most creative, the most passionate. She’s so loving and supportive.” Near the school’s entrance is the colorful Casey’s Mosaic, created two years ago by writing and art students. Inspirational phrases run across it: “Dream exuberantly.” “Savor the life you have.” Casey, a student of Nimmer’s, died tragically at age 23. She was quiet, and Nimmer never felt she forged a bond with her. But after her funeral her father came to the school with a gift: the money donated to the family after Casey died. The father wanted to use it for the writing program. Casey had confided in her father how much Nimmer’s class had meant to her. Nimmer’s teaching skills have not exactly gone unnoticed. In 2015, she was one of the four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year award. After the award she spent a year giving speeches for students and teachers— 370 inspirational talks. She gave a TED talk. She met President Obama at the White House. Local television stations and newspapers jumped all over her story. Today, people in Lafayette recognize her. On the same day that her students made a pantoum, an elderly woman ahead of her in line at a restaurant did a double take: “Hey, you’re the teacher who went way up on the list.” Yet her career in the classroom began horribly. Her classroom was “chaos,” she says. One day a boy threw a backpack at another student and shattered a window. “I was mortified. It was humiliating,” she recalls. Even before that horrible day, at her first open house for parents, a shrill woman gestured toward her and said, “I will not expose my son to this.” A bold boy, more prescient than he or anyone realized, muttered, “Give her a break.” A Master Mentor The Tippecanoe School District in the Lafayette area covers 437 square mile. Its 19 schools enroll 12,500 students. One of the most remote schools is Cole Elementary, situated off a quiet country road and surrounded by vast acres of fertile farm fields. After her writing classes, Nimmer has driven here to huddle alone with teacher Brittany Bredar, whose fourth-graders are at recess. Bredar tells Nimmer that a boy in her class is from a troubled family. His “reputation” has left him isolated from his classmates. Bredar discreetly encouraged an even-keeled classmate to befriend him. The troubled boy shoots baskets alone in the gym, and Bredar says, though she is not a basketball player, she is considering shagging the rebounds so he is not alone. Nimmer listens attentively, nods her head in affirmation and proffers advice. “She reads cues really well. She picks up on nuances. ... She sees better than most sighted people.” A stay-at-home mom, Bredar studied to be a teacher at night. Her first full year has not been easy. “I’m a reflective person, and I reflect on how I handled things, how I might have done better, on my drive home,” she says after finishing her session with Nimmer. “There are behavioral issues to deal with. There’s classroom management. Family life comes into the classroom.” Asked what difference Nimmer has made for her, Bredar begins to cry. “So many words come to mind. She’s my voice of reason, my voice of motivation. I’m more comfortable now, more confident. …. I try to talk to my husband about school, and he doesn’t get it. Kathy gets it.” After Nimmer won her national award, the school district happened to create a new position of mentor for rookie teachers. Nimmer got the job. She still teaches two classes at the high school, but she also counsels the 70 new teachers, either brand-new or new to the district. Down the hall at Cole, in his office, Principal Mike Pinto can easily tick off the qualities that make Nimmer a good mentor. “She has an amazing sense of humor. She’s very kind. She’s real. Humility—that’s a good word, too.” But what stands out among her soft skills are her perceptive abilities. She quickly sizes up people and situations. “She reads cues really well. She picks up on nuances,” says Pinto. “She sees better than most sighted people.” Nimmer is blind. She began losing her vision as a second grader. Her retinas were degenerating. By ninth grade, the low point of her life, large print no longer helped. In college she used a cane. By the time she became a teacher only faint perceptions of light were left. Colleagues of Nimmer long ago stopped being astounded at the concept of a blind teacher. Instead, their astonishment turned to her uncanny abilities as a teacher. Her blindness is now almost an afterthought to them. Her unceasingly high level of attentiveness and engagement in the classroom take center stage. “When you see her interacting with students in class, you wouldn’t even know she was blind. She’s just an amazing teacher,” says Superintendent Scott Hanback. “Her blindness does not define her. What defines her is her love for the kids.” Yet for her students, her blindness is not so easily pushed to the side. In the first few weeks of class they habitually raise their hand to answer a question. They soon learn to say their name before speaking. As for homework and tests, they submit their work electronically, and Nimmer has text-reading software as well as an audio digital device to make comments. Her students know not to pet Nacho, her service dog, when he is harnessed and working. But before class, as he lies near her, a student or two invariably plays with him. Like his owner, Nacho is a classroom favorite. Students like how he nudges the bell on the classroom door with his nose before entering the room. Nacho came from Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York, supported by Lions. Nimmer knows the layout of her room and walks freely in certain spaces. But the students remain aware of her disability. At the end of the writing class, a girl tentatively approaches her and slides a white envelope in front of her. “I know you can’t read it. But it’s an invitation to my graduation party,” she tells her. It’s hard to say if Nimmer would have held the same sway over her students if she had her sight. But it’s certain she has a gift to connect with them. Early in her career her class had two girls: Jennifer and Sydney. The latter loved English class and writing. The former wanted nothing to do with literature. But they became fast friends in class, bonding over Nimmer’s service dog. And together they did a big presentation in class: staging the classic scene at the water pump in “The Miracle Worker” where young Helen Keller, thanks to Anne Sullivan, understands the word “water.” The performance was indelible. “It was just so vivid,” says Nimmer. And significant for Nimmer as a teacher uncertain of her ability. The reluctant English student had come to revel in stories. “I realized I could reach any student. Jennifer embodied that for me,” she says. A second moment of growth and discovery related to students’ personal lives and challenges. When is it appropriate to get closer to a student when they are in crisis? What is the appropriate approach? Years ago, Nimmer had a student in distress. Her mother had cancer, and she was in a downward spiral. Nimmer wavered but finally reached out to the family. The mother, who eventually died, was “super supportive of me connecting so well with her daughter.” One year three students were killed in a grisly car accident. One of the students had been taking her class. “The bell rung, and the class was totally silent. There was his desk in the front row—empty,” says Nimmer. “I tried to say something. I teared up. I didn’t know what to say.” But she knew what to do. “Writing is good therapy. I didn’t tell them what to write. There is the power of the written word. It’s an avenue to understanding and strengthening and it gives comfort,” says Nimmer, who herself wrote a letter to the student’s parents. Grateful, the parents wrote back. Redemptive Suffering Nimmer was able to reach out to others because of her own setbacks. Her suffering and her passage through it freed up her heart. Nimmer grew up in Munster, Indiana. Her vision failing her, her parents enrolled her in the Indiana School for the Blind (heavily supported by Lions) when she was a 6thgrader. The school was 160 miles away in Indianapolis. It was tough being away from her loving family. “My heart said ‘no,’ but my head said it was the best place to go,” she says. But as a 9th-grader she found herself lost. It was hard to master Braille and impossible to read and learn as easily as she did before. That was “a dark time,” says Nimmer. Depression set in. A gymnast, she foolishly ate way too little. Anorexia gripped her. The turning point for Nimmer was an all-day counseling session her parents arranged with her pastor. His message resonated with her and gave her hope. “I thought when I lost my vision I lost my importance. I felt I lost value as a person,” she says. “He helped me realize your abilities don’t give you value. Otherwise, only rock stars, athletes and artists would have value. He showed me I had something to give to others. We’re created to serve others. God knows he has a reason and purpose for each of us.” When she returned to school she became much more involved. She served on the school council and played the school song on the piano at assemblies. Her teachers, especially her piano teacher Linda Francisco, became her trusted mentors. “They gave me the courage and confidence I needed,” she says. So what should she do with her precious life? She wanted to help others as her teachers at the Indiana School for the Blind helped her. She thought back to her third-grade teacher in Munster, Mrs. Riggs. Her tenderness had saved her. “I thought I just needed glasses. I was going blind,” she says. When she returned to school, Mrs. Riggs wrapped her up in a big hug. Then Mrs. Riggs showed her to her desk, gave her assignments and carried on like a teacher should. “She showed me she could still teach me and I could still learn,” she says. So when as a new teacher her class was in chaos Nimmer was upset but not defeated. She had experience in rising from a dark depth. She prayed. She made a list of ways for her to improve her classroom management. She worked at becoming calmer and more poised. “I realized if I was uptight, then my students would be uptight,” she says. “Being more animated—more positivity—made a difference.” Her initial stumbles were a gift; she could better teach students who stumbled. She could walk with struggling new teachers because she had walked in their path. “I’ve been ashamed. I’ve cried. I could use that for others,” she says. A Wings Wizard It’s a long way from Munster to the White House. And it was a long wait for President Obama in the hot sun, especially for Elias, her service dog then. White House interns kindly brought him a water bowl emblazoned with “Bo Obama” (the president’s dog). Accustomed to dealing with a roomful of teenagers, Nimmer was not afraid to joke with the president. Obama chuckled when she told him about her harnessed companion, “He’s about ready to retire, but he waited until he could meet you.” The year of touring the country and speaking to packed halls was a heady experience. Invariably, after a talk, a teacher, administrator or parent would rush to the podium and introduce a blind child to Nimmer. The local newspaper the next day would carry a quote from the child or a parent on how the encounter would inspire achievement. But what sticks with Nimmer even more are the youths that seemed to face an especially tough road, those for whom her example or rhetoric would collide with particularly grim circumstances. She met a sobbing teenager. His house had burned down. Actually, it was his grandparents’ house: his parents were out of the picture. The boy had autism. “I think he realized how fragile life is. One day he’d be on his own,” she says. “He was so alone. He did not fit in. I was quaking and crying. It will be awful for him. “You always want to fix things. I had no answers. But I needed to show him I cared. I don’t know what I did for him, but I was a part of his story.” For her students, she also will be part of their stories after high school, as they encounter success and hardship. Parents give their children roots and wings. Teachers mostly provide the latter. Nimmer’s students are certain they’ll remember the warm nest she built for them. “If I have obstacles in my life, I’ll think about how happy she was and how she dealt with her blindness,” says Sammons, the track star. “I feel grateful for what I have.”
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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