The Elementary Years

At the early age of three my grandmother, a kindergarten teacher for most of her adult life, began taking me to her kindergarten classroom in Goodrich, Michigan. I reveled in those days and knew from the start that I was going to be a teacher – just like grandma. She had a passion for her students. I learned to tie my shoes, zip up my coat, play cooperatively and learned reading, writing, and math skills alongside the students in her class on those precious days I was allowed to go with her. If anyone asked, I knew exactly what I was going to be when I grew up.

At the age of four, I watched as all my neighborhood friends got on the bus to go to kindergarten. They were exuberant to begin their educational journey as I watched from a plate glass window – frequently crying because I wasn’t yet old enough to go with them. Missing the cut-off date by only three days left me on the inside while they got to go and experience the thrills of being in school. Mom saw my pain and thus began a homeschooling experience with hands-on learning provided each and every day for that long, arduous year of being separated from my friends.

I wanted to do homework with them, but they had no interest in schoolwork when they got home. So instead we would gather at a friend’s house, watch an episode of Kimba the White Lion on TV, then venture out to the swing set where we would play until we were all called home for dinner. I spent those afternoons standing on top of the slide, teaching and preaching to anyone who would listen.

When I was finally able to go to school and get on that coveted yellow bus, I was ecstatic. School was made for me. I loved the learning and the camaraderie school provided. I had a whole new set of friends. I adored my teacher who I knew lived in that classroom and prepared things just for my learning pleasure. One rainy day while waiting for the bus, the neighborhood bully pushed me into a mud puddle, soaking me from head to toe and covering my pretty dress in mud. I resolutely got on the bus anyway and off I went. Nothing was going to deter me from going to school. My teacher called my mom to bring in a dry set of clothes and I didn’t have to miss a day of school. But that was the last day I rode a bus. From that day forward, my mom and eventually friends, drove me to school every day.

Every evening I sat at the dining room table – a table that was intended for homework rather than dining – diligently working on my writing, spelling words, math problems. Two hours of homework every night for a kindergarten student seemed rather punitive and ridiculous to a mom who truly believed in, and understood the importance of, play time. After several weeks of watching me “slave away” for hours on all of my homework, she requested a meeting with my teacher and the principal. To sum up that meeting, no homework was ever assigned in kindergarten. What they all came to realize was that I had begun creating homework for myself!

Fast forward through elementary school – I had vision problems that nobody really picked up on until I was twelve years old. I was pretty good at hiding my vision loss. I didn’t want others to know I was different. I sat closer to the board when I was allowed to. I paid close attention when the teacher taught a lesson. I went home and practiced what I was struggling with in school that day. I could not figure out why my peers grasped and understood lessons before I did. Certainly none of them loved school or worked harder than I did. So, why was it so hard for me?

Bi-yearly vision tests provided by the health department did not show my vision loss. All I had to do was memorize what the other students were saying to the examiner and produce the same letters. The same line for 20/20 vision was used for years. F Z B D E. That’s all I had to know. F Z B D E. I got away with it until they changed that line for me. Then the gig was up.  I was caught. I was referred to an ophthalmologist who could really get to the bottom of what was going on with me. I saw him only briefly over the next three years. He pronounced to my parents and me that I was “legally blind” due to a disease called keratoconus – a progressive eye disease in which the normally round cornea thins and begins to bulge into a cone-like shape as the cornea becomes steeper and thinner. This cone shape deflects light as it enters the eye on its way to the light-sensitive retina, causing distorted, blurred vision as well as sensitivity to light and glare. Legally blind is defined by 20/200 vision – what “normal” people could see at 200 feet, I would have to stand 20 feet from the object to see it clearly. This bulging of the cornea additionally brings about acute astigmatism resulting in distorted images as light rays are prevented from meeting at a common focus.

It is unclear at exactly what age I began to be affected by the keratoconus. I had hidden it well for years. Seeing that first ophthalmologist began the difficult task of keeping me contact lenses and glasses that could meet my ever-lessening visual needs. Many prescriptions later I was finally referred to a corneal specialist at a major hospital in Michigan. My vision at that time had eroded to 20/500 and it was time to begin looking at corneal transplants as a possible way to restore some useable vision.

What did my visual impairment look like? That’s me on the far right.

Watch this YouTube link to see what a person with 20/200 vision is able to see:

Special education was not yet a term used in schools, nor was it a federal law. So, my parents and teachers alike began the difficult task of helping me however they could. It became time to move on to middle school.  7th-9th grade was waiting for me and was to provide my next adventure. My journey had abruptly taken a fork in the road and I was heading into something I neither understood, nor was prepared for.