by Adelmo Vigil
From the Editor: Adelmo Vigil is the president of the National Federation of the Blind of New Mexico and has worked for a long time for the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. Less known are Adelmo’s early years and overcoming the obstacles that could have cost him two wonderful careers. Here is what he has to say:
When I think about why I am in the National Federation of the Blind, my greatest reason is that I want to give what has been given to me. Because I have been blessed, I want to share that blessing, and my hope is that telling this story continues my payment.
I started school in the small town of Amalia in New Mexico where my family lived. I could not see well enough to read, and everybody knew this. But what none of us knew was what to do about it. It wasn’t until I was thirteen that the nurse at my school said I needed to go to the school for the blind, and for two years they continued trying to have me read print. At age fifteen a doctor examined my eyes and said, “I am sorry to tell you that you are going to have to learn Braille.” She thought she was giving me bad news, but I was happy—very happy. She was saying I could learn to read, and I thought about all that had been out of my reach before. I would learn Braille, and to my heart and mind this was a dream come true, something I thought impossible. I could learn through reading and not rely entirely on listening and memorization. I could look at things I wrote and not be counted off if, in my nervousness, I forgot. I would be graded on what I could think about and write and not on my memory as I pretended to read.
So after two years at the school for the blind, at age fifteen I finally learned to read for the first time. Blessed: it is what I felt then and what I still feel today. I learned to run track, and, most important to me, I learned to wrestle. I didn’t know it at the time, but being a wrestler would one day give me a fantastic opportunity and a way to make some money.
One of my jobs at the school was to help with the younger children. Again this was a blessing because I realized that I liked working with them both in the dormitory and in the gym teaching the younger ones how to wrestle. This is when I decided I wanted to teach, and I’ve never regretted that decision.
Walking across the stage during high school graduation, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to take the next step to becoming a teacher, and that step was going to college. I enrolled in Western New Mexico University located in Silver City. I started in 1973, and the campus was my home until 1977. No one expressed any reservations about signing me up for education classes, so I was on my way to becoming what I wanted most to be, a person who could be to others what some wonderful people had been to me.
In my third year I happened to meet a man in a speech class we were taking, and we struck up a conversation. His name was Travis Columbus, and this stranger who was fast becoming a friend said he was a schoolteacher in the Silver City school district. When I said I was in training to do the same thing and would soon be ready to student teach, he said that he would be glad for me to work in his third-grade class. He even went so far as to check with his principal to see if this generous offer would be supported, and the principal was enthusiastic about keeping Travis’s commitment.
Before I knew it, I was sitting in front of my advisor reviewing graduation requirements. Both of us knew student teaching was next, and he said he would be contacting the school for the blind to see if they would take me. As politely as I could, I said that I didn’t want to teach at the school for the blind. I had already worked with blind children and liked them, but I wanted to teach sighted students. He said, “No one will take you. Blind teachers do not teach sighted students.” When I said I had a teacher willing to take me, he sounded surprised, but to his credit he took the phone number of my teacher friend and said he’d get back with me. Since I was the one who had the most interest in getting this done, I said I’d see him the next week, and this I did. I was pleasantly surprised to find that he had indeed contacted Mr. Columbus and his principal. Both were as good as their word, and my advisor seemed surprised.
I did my student teaching and came through with flying colors. Then came the harder job of finding work. Since I student taught in the Silver City school district and this was where my wife Soledad and I had located, I started by looking there for a job. But as the season for getting a contract wound on, I decided I had to act. As July turned into August my hope began to turn to a firmer realism. I started by talking with the principal of the school at which I had interned. He said I had not been contacted because my name did not appear on the list principals used for hiring. He suggested I set up a meeting with human resources. This I did, and though the director gave me an interview, I never felt like he was serious. The interview ended with him telling me he would get back to me, and when I never heard anything from him, I sadly concluded I was right.
I got myself a meeting with the superintendent of the Silver City district, and my friend Travis was on my side again, picking me up from home and driving me to the meeting. The superintendent met with me, and to his credit he was honest. “When people open your application and see that you are blind, they just don’t think it is worth the risk,” he said. I asked if he knew about affirmative action, and he said that indeed he did. “Affirmative action is why we try to find people with Hispanic surnames.” I wondered whether Vigil wasn’t a Spanish surname, but I didn’t say anything because he had already given me the reason why I wasn’t being taken seriously for any of their positions.
Disappointed but thinking ahead, I asked the superintendent what he thought I should do. He said I should go visit each of the principals so they could get to know me, and maybe that would allay some of their fears. Once again Travis was there to pick me up. I told him what the superintendent had said, and Travis immediately said, “Well, let’s go see the principals.” So we went to the elementary schools in Silver City. There were at least three of them, and we went to each one. They all knew Travis, and with his help I got a meeting with officials of each of them. The thing I most appreciated about Travis was that he accompanied me, but he never tried to speak for or answer any of the questions asked of me.
The principals all gave the same story when it came to why I wasn’t getting called. They said my name wasn’t on the list of available candidates distributed by the personnel director, so they weren’t even seeing me, let alone passing me up. We asked one of the principals if we could have a copy of that list, and he said yes. I am glad he didn’t get in trouble for that, but I am very grateful he gave me the list.
So the next place we went was to see an attorney. He advised we would have to go through the human rights commission and file a grievance. This we did, and that started a process of investigating the school district to see why they did not hire me.
The district stuck to their guns, but in the meantime I kept looking for work. Soledad and I went down to the college administration offices to look at postings. We found two openings, one in Shiprock and the other in Cimarron. Neither opportunity was close to Silver City, but I thought, “Well, I’ve got to do something.” I called the district in Shiprock and told them I was interested in the job. I talked with the personnel director, and he said, “Can you be here by Friday?” This was on a Monday, I had no idea how I was going to get there, but, of course, I said sure. Shiprock is about 350 to 400 miles from Silver City, and our car was not in any shape to drive that far. When I told the dean of the University I was applying there and had an interview, much to my surprise he said, “Well, we’re going to fly you over there.” I don’t know how they did it, but they flew me there, and I was picked up by a former student. I spent the night with him, and the next day I went to the interview.
But forgive me—I’m getting a little ahead of myself. You see, after my phone call on Monday, I started thinking about the length of the trip and all of the trouble people were going to on my behalf. So I called the personnel director in Shiprock, and I said, “I want you to know that I’m blind.”
He said to me, “Mr. Vigil, that doesn’t matter. To me what matters is that you have gone through school just like everybody else. You’ve gotten your education just like everybody else, so I’m not at all concerned about you being blind.”
Little did I know that by that time he had received all kinds of calls, faxes, and letters from people in Silver City who were supporting me. This included the university dean and the basketball coach who was the housing director. He was a good friend of mine who was always there with me. There were other people I had worked with, and it was very inspiring to see how all of them believed in me.
When I got to the interview, I was carrying a letter from the principal, as well as another letter from someone I can’t remember now. The principal said, “Well, I’ve never had so much correspondence about a candidate as I have for you.” In his interview he told me that I would be teaching remedial math in the elementary school. He said that, because the school was on the reservation, housing would be provided, and he told me the apartment in which I would be living. So after he says all this, he up and asks me, “Now, do you want to come and work for us?” I said yes, he said okay, and then he asked when I could start. So a week later there we were, Soledad, me, and my son all moving to Shiprock.
I taught remedial math for three years, and I was then transferred to teach the third grade for another six. I then taught first grade for a year, and the second grade for yet another six. I also coached the junior high and high school wrestling teams.
While I was teaching at Shiprock, the Silver City school district was still holding on to its notion that blind people should not teach in their classrooms. They therefore kept up the fight to keep me out of the public schools. Finally, during one of the board meetings, a board member said to the superintendent, “I see that Travis Columbus is supporting Adelmo. He works for us; why is he doing this?”
The superintendent said that he didn’t know. The chairman of the board then said that he would go and talk with Travis. He told Travis, “You know that Adelmo is suing the district, and we notice that you are supporting him.” Travis said, “Indeed I am, and I will continue to support him because I believe in his capability to teach. You are sending away an excellent teacher who can really help our kids. I know that I work for this district, and if you guys don’t think it is right for me to support Adelmo, then I will move to a different district.” So the chairman of the board went back to the next meeting and told the superintendent, “You know, what you need to do is settle this now. Travis is not backing down, Adelmo is not backing down, and we’re going to lose.”
So the superintendent offered me a job back in Silver City, they paid for my attorneys, and this was the settlement to which we agreed, though I did not take a job there. I was already working, was enjoying teaching at Shiprock, and I didn’t really think that I would be treated fairly by an administration and a school board that I had put so much time and energy into suing.
In all of the time I spent at Shiprock, I worked in several schools. Although the work was good, and I got good reviews, there were a few bumps along the way. The first principal I worked under would let me teach, but he wouldn’t let me engage in any of the activities that were assigned to other teachers. I could not do lunchroom duty. I could not supervise recess. I couldn’t do anything that involved supervising the kids outside my classroom.
I heard about another principal who worked in the district, and his school was just three miles down the road. I heard that he was very open-minded and willing to work with people, and in fact he hired a woman who was in a wheelchair. She said that she really enjoyed her job, so I met with that principal and asked for a transfer. When I went for my interview with Mr. Baxter, I made it clear to him that if I got the job there, I would want to have duties just like all of the other teachers. His words I remember to this day: he said, “Adelmo, if you’re going to be working here, you’re going to have all of the duties that teachers have, just like everybody else.”
I said, “Thank you. I appreciate this.” Two days later, the principal at the school at which I worked came up to me and said, “Well, Mr. Baxter is going to take you, but I want you to know that I really had to twist his arm to get him to do it.” Of course I knew this was not true, and I worked for Mr. Baxter until he retired.
In the new school I still taught third grade with all the duties required of all teachers, and Principal Baxter was true to his word. He required me to take on all of the responsibilities given to other teachers, and he liked my work so much that he started assigning me other outside activities. I really enjoyed it, but eventually I had to admit to myself that I was becoming involved in too many things. I decided that he and I had to have a talk. I told him that I thought I should not take on anything else because I didn’t want the children I was teaching to suffer. He agreed, but I still remained very involved in all of the school’s extracurricular activities.
When they moved the third-graders to a different school, I went as well. To put it mildly, the principal and I were locking horns, so eventually I transferred back to the original school where I had started all of this, and by that time the school had a new principal, Mrs. Eva Stokely. I taught first grade for a year, and about halfway through it Eva retired, and a new principal took over. Her name was Genevieve Jackson. I had known her previously. She had a blind daughter, and I helped her learn Braille. So after a year teaching first grade, I asked her if I could move to the second grade. I found the first graders very sweet but a little too immature. She said that indeed she thought there would be an opening in the second grade, and, true to her word, I was transferred.
One of the things I remember most fondly about working for this principal was that, every time she was out, she left me in charge of the school. She would tell the other teachers, “Mr. Vigil is in charge. If anything comes up, you guys let him know.” So teachers who were working with kids having trouble brought them to me, I would take action, and I would report to her the next day she got back.
These added responsibilities were not only important to me in my career advancement as a schoolteacher, but they were also helpful in convincing me that I had some interest and aptitude in administration. So after teaching second grade there for six years, I applied for a job at the orientation center run by the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. The job was in Alamogordo, Dr. Schroeder hired me, and I worked at the commission from 1993 until 2007, the year of my first retirement. I had a lot of different jobs before my retirement, and I became the deputy director in 1997.
I liked the work at the commission so much that I have now retired three times from it. After my first retirement, when they called to ask that I help in teaching cane travel, I accepted. Dr. Eddie Bell had always encouraged me to get certification in the field, so in 2009 at the National Convention in Detroit I took the tests for the National Orientation and Mobility Certification (NOMC) and passed. I have been certified ever since. But retirement was still calling to me, and so I retired for a second time. Surely twice was enough, but no, not so fast.
When the director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind, Greg Trapp, needed my help, I signed on again as the administrator of the orientation center and worked there until 2012. After helping the new director through the transition for a year, I retired from the commission for the third time. But I guess I am still not settled with my retirement because I do consulting and teaching for different states, working as a cane travel instructor. I tell people that I have done pretty well at everything I worked at except retirement.
In 2012 I was elected as the president of the National Federation of the Blind of New Mexico, and in 2016 I was elected to the national board, so I now find myself with a job which sees to any unfilled time in my semi-retired state. That job is helping blind people achieve their potential through self-organization and a little bit of advocacy.
My wife and I both retired in 2013, though she seems to have been better at staying retired than I have. We enjoy it very much. I have been asked several times if I would like to return to the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. I tell them that I have loved working there, but I really do want to be retired. Still it is hard for me to keep my hand out of holding down some kind of paying job. Since last May I have been working part-time as a cane travel instructor and helping the administration of the Freedom Center for the Blind in Alabama. It is certainly not full-time work, but it keeps me traveling, and there is enough work to do that I can clearly say I am not yet fully retired.
I enjoy time with my family. Of course, there is my wife Soledad, and we have two children. Currently the oldest is forty-two and the youngest is thirty-nine. My wife and I have seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild. They help to round out what has been an absolutely wonderful life for me.
I feel fortunate that blindness did not stop me from living a first-class life. The teenager who could not read went to a school for the blind where they taught me how to do it. There I saw the miracle that teachers can perform in the lives of their students and was able to become a teacher. Seeing that administrators could help even more people, I was pleased to serve in that capacity, and now, as grandpa and great-grandpa, I clearly see that I still have the capacity to combine love and service. It’s funny how doing something for others can so enrich our own lives, and I will be forever grateful to all of the people who have had a part in helping me truly live a life that the odds were against me living. When a man has enjoyed the love of a good woman, a fine marriage, several challenging careers, and the joy of being a parent, grandparent, and great-grandparent, what more can he ask? Blindness has not been the characteristic that has defined me. The desire to succeed, the determination to think ahead, the making of good friends who care about me, and an organization that stands for all of this and lets me help in its noble work makes my life a joy I dare not take for granted. I put my energy into this organization and share this story with you because I want to expand that sharing. I want people to know that hope is not a fantasy and that dreams are not silly things that happen to us when we are asleep. Dreams can drive us, and acting on those dreams really can get us where we want to go. Let’s go there together and bring with us everybody we can.