by Colin Soloway
Often news articles about blindness focus on the old stereotypes of hopelessness and helplessness. However, with increasing frequency, refreshingly enlightened reporters are beginning to tell the real story of blindness. Here Colin Soloway, writing for the Raleigh, North Carolina News & Observer, details the experiences of Kathy Kannenberg during her first year as an elementary school math teacher.
Kathy Kannenberg always loved school, but when she was in fourth grade, her teacher considered her a discipline problem. "She asked me to read what was on the board, and I told her there wasn't anything on the board. She asked me again, and I told her again," Kathy said. "She thought I was smart-mouthing her, and she made me stay after class to write `I WILL NOT MOCK THE TEACHER' 100 times on the board."
But Kathy still insisted that there was nothing on the board. When she went to see the principal with her parents, a quick eye exam by the school nurse found that Kathy wasn't a troublemaker: She was legally blind.
Kathy's experience didn't sour her on school. She stayed in the classroom for the next 15 years, as a student, and finally as a teacher.
Now, in her first year at Ligon Middle School, Kathy teaches her sixth-graders more than math and science. Every day, she shows them that physical disability need not limit their ambitions or their achievements. Her efforts quickly have won her the admiration of her students, their parents and other teachers.
At midday, Kathy, tall and slender, patrols the aisles of her math class as her students arrange counting chips on their desks. Trying to give them a hands-on understanding of algebraic equations with single variables, she moves from student to student, probing to see if each student grasps the concepts the game pieces represent.
She calls each child by name. She steps confidentially between the desks. An observer never would suspect she is blind. Kathy, 23, says that despite her deteriorating vision, caused by rheumatoid arthritis, there is nothing she would rather be doing than standing in front of a class.
"I love teaching," she said. "I always seem to be in that role."
The principal who employed Kathy said her blindness was not a consideration "either way" in her being hired. "She was hired absolutely on her ability," he said. "We were just tickled pink to find someone to teach both math and science. But I think Kathy's disability and the way she deals with it bring something special to the classroom."
Outside the classroom, Kathy devotes herself to a broader goal: to educate the public about the circumstances and problems of the blind and visually impaired, and assist people with disabilities in leading productive lives.
Recently elected president of the North Carolina chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, Kathy works for the rights of the visually impaired. In the forthcoming session of the General Assembly, she hopes to see a bill passed requiring that blind children, or children threatened with eventual blindness, be exposed to Braille at the same time sighted children are taught to read.
Kathy seems to pursue challenges wherever they present themselves. When she was younger, she went to work at a local stable in exchange for riding lessons. She still rides whenever she can. She said her students were shocked to see a photograph of her on horseback.
"They asked me if that was really me," she said. "Then they asked if there was someone with a rope leading the horse. I told them it was just me."
When Kathy walks outside of class, she carries a white cane, but in the classroom, she finds her ways by different cues. "At first the children wanted to find out how far they could get away with spitballs, but sight isn't the only way to figure out who's doing what."
Kathy's principal said he has been impressed with her teaching this fall:
"I think she has been wonderful with both the children and their parents. The kids love her, and she won parents over immediately when she talked about handicaps to them at orientation."
Kathy described her first encounter with her students' parents at the open house before school started. "I stood up in front of them, and I told them, 'I guarantee
you that at least one person here is handicapped. Can you guess who it is?' They looked around at each other, and then I told them it was me." Kathy says her discussion with the parents made them more comfortable with her.
"I've got a couple of students in the class who are learning disabled, and I think their parents understand that I understand what it is like to be at a disadvantage." When asked to talk about their teacher, students in Kathy's sixth-grade learning skills class didn't mention her eyesight, or lack thereof. Instead they talked about what a good teacher she is, how much they like her and how much they feel she cares about them and what they are learning.
"She always says there are no dumb questions," one student said. "If you get something wrong, she'll make sure you understand it."
Another student said, "She explains, and keeps on explaining until we get it." "She makes things a lot funner," said a student named Robert. "She makes sure everybody understands what she's talking about. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would give her an 11." His classmates shouted their approval.