Story By: Sarah Swords
It has been a bumpy and sometimes frustrating road, but I am on my way to Princeton University this fall. I want to teach history some day. But first, I need to unlock the knowledge in all those books. Those who don't know me are sometimes surprised that I have come this far. But, when I became trapped in a world of darkness, I realized I had two choices. I could be angry, feel sorry for myself and curse that which I could not change; or I could light a candle of hope, of faith. I have learned to take the gifts that God has given me and work around my limitations. I have also been lucky. Surrounded by a cast of characters that includes loving parents, wonderful teachers and supportive friends, I did not have to travel my road alone.
I have always loved school. With a child's curiosity I explored all sorts of things wanting to know why and how they worked. School was one of my favorite places to be, after all, what better place to see my friends and to have fun? The drawback was that little problem of doing work. I especially had problems when it came to reading. I can remember laboring over my red reader, the lowest level, while most of the students in my first grade class breezed through the yellow, more advanced ones. I was not in regular classes yet, and it was clear that my reading was keeping me from moving at the same pace as my peers. That was about the time my teachers realized I was dyslexic. My mother sent me to a reading tutor while I tried to decipher the written word, but I was often frustrated. One of my schoolteachers, Mrs. Thelma Whidden, taught me not to let things get me down, to keep working and finding other ways to learn. She was a friend. I began to like reading. I had always enjoyed the stories, but they seemed to be somehow kept from me. Now they were slowly being released.
In the fall of my sixth grade year, my family moved from California to Edina, Minn. My school records did not travel as fast as I did; as a result I was placed in the regular English class. When my records arrived my new teachers decided to leave me in that class since I was doing fairly well. My new classes were challenging, but I loved it. I had finally made the jump to all regular classes. That was the winter that I became ill. I was 11.
At first my doctors thought I had the common flu, but when the symptoms persisted for two weeks, they insisted that I go into the hospital for further testing. I did not want to go to the hospital -- that was a place for sick people. It was a sterile and depressing place. I soon learned how wrong I was. My room was bright; the nurses were cheerful and funny. My father brought me a very big teddy bear that I christened "Bubba." Bubba stayed with me through my hospital stay, collecting he same tubes, patches, bracelets, and other embellishments that I did. Even today he sits comfortably in a chair of my bedroom proudly wearing his hospital gown and oxygen mask. He reminds me of how happiness can find you in even the most uninviting places.
In the hospital, I became sicker. I had a seizure and was in a short coma. After days of tests and a long stay in intensive care, doctors finally diagnosed me with pseudotumor celebri. This rare condition is characterized by high-unexplained pressure on the brain. I didn't know then that the illness had damaged a portion of my brain and that soon I would lose my sight forever. About a month after I entered the hospital I was released on my 12th birthday. It was one of my best birthday presents. being released, my neurologist came in to examine me. I had been in such pain that I had not paid much attention to my fading vision. When I did focus, the image was blurred and doubled. He held up a newspaper and asked me to read. I could only make out the first letter, "Y." Yugoslavia, I guessed. I was right. He signed my release documents, but I would never be able to read print again.
It took a long time, but eventually, I returned to school where I began to learn the elementary skill of surviving in a world without sight. I learned to type, without looking at the keys, to read Braille, and to really, really listen. My dyslexia made reading Braille difficult so I was overjoyed when I received my assignments on tape. Suddenly I had access to information that had been locked in print. My grades improved, and I was placed in the gifted classes Meanwhile, my doctors kept telling me and my family that my vision would return as the swelling in my brain diminished. I went to a neuro-opthalmologist regularly, but my vision did not return. Instead it grew slightly worse and then stabilized. Not believing that I still could not see, my doctors sent me to specialist after specialist and finally to psychologists. Perhaps they thought my mind was suppressing the will to see. I don't really know. In search of answers, my mother took me to see a new neuro-opthamalogist for a second opinion. After reviewing my file a thorough examination, he informed me that I most likely had permanent brain damage and most certainly would never see again. These weren't exactly the words I was hoping for, but at least I could still use books on tape and maybe get a dog guide.
Knowing that I was going to be blind for the rest of my life, I set about learning how to lead a new life. I had excellent teachers who taught me to use a computer, read Braille even if my dyslexia made it ever so slow for me, and to get around using a white cane. In my first lesson of cane travel my instructor told me, "You are going to fall and you are going to run into things, but you just have to get up and go on. You cannot rely on other people to break your fall." Probably my best lesson in mobility was soon after my teacher had oriented me to my neighborhood. My mother gave me a few dollars and told me to go get milk from a nearby store. The store was only a 15-minute walk away but I was terrified. What if I got lost, how would I find milk in the store, and how could I pay for it? My mother would hear none of this. She needed the milk, and I was the one to go get it. Reluctantly I went to get the milk, and I returned in one piece. It took me a little longer than my sister or brother but it taught me an important lesson. You have to face up to your fears, life is not going to come looking for you, you have to go and find it!
When we moved to South Florida at the end of my eighth grade year, I had pretty much settled into life without sight. I made friends fairly quickly, and I found that it takes most people a little time to be comfortable with the fact that I am blind. Some people will not speak to me while others become very considerate trying not to offend me. "Have you seen this movie?" they will ask. Then quickly they retract the question for, "Have you heard this movie?" But I still "see" movies, "watch" television, and "look" for things I have lost. I try always to put others at ease. I have found a good sense of humor goes far.
In my four years at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, my teachers and I have found many creative ways for me to learn. I have used puffy paint graphs in math and science. I have a box lid used to make charts with tacks and string. With endless patience my math and physics teachers have used pickup sticks, tape and string to show me the intricacies of trigonometry and calculus. The art of teaching a visual subject to a blind student forced new heights of creativity for all. I spent innumerable hours in the library conference room with other student aids and with tapes taking tests or reading articles. Though I worked hard, it was the help of my devoted teachers and friends who really helped me learn. One of the chief problems for people who are blind is the lack of accessibility to information. My teachers, family, and especially my friends made sure that I somehow received the information that I needed. Though I need assistance or modifications in many areas, my biggest problem was getting up the courage to ask for help.
Most students have the goal of talking less in class, but my goals were to talk more. Joining the debate team helped me the most with this problem. A friend needed a partner in a duo competition, so I agreed to help him. During the competition, I was discouraged when I read my first ballot from a judge. "Poor eye contact," it stated. What did the judge want me to do? I was a little downcast until I read the next ballot, "Good eye contact." This was so funny it made me realize that you can't put too much importance on other people's opinions. Who can tell what good or bad eye contact is for a blind girl? Debate has helped me to be able to voice my opinions, to speak up and to deal with other people.
Graduating from high school was a great day for me. Not only was I afforded the honor of addressing my classmates as one of three valedictorians, but also I received my diploma alone, using only Carley, my seeing-eye dog, to guide me. . I will be attending Princeton University in the fall, hopefully to earn a degree in history or politics. I have chosen Princeton not only for its prestige but also because of the challenges it presents. An advisor there told me most colleges expect their students to go out into the community and be successful, but Princeton expects its students to conquer the world. That's why I decided it was the school for me. I am excited to attend Princeton. I know I can handle the work if I really try. The only way to lose is to give up. I know it will not be easy learning to navigate the campus and learning to live away from my friends and family.
The thing I am perhaps most concerned about is finding the natural supports, my friends who have spent so many hours helping me research or read or just study for a test. I know where ever I go the Lord will send me angels and somehow I can conquer the world -- or at least my small corner. Trying to learn the Princeton campus, I have started training with an orientation and mobility instructor. It has been easier to learn how I will travel from my dorm to various essential locations this summer when fewer students are in residence. This training will be ongoing throughout the school years. In addition to walking the routes and listening for traffic cues, I use a tactual map to give me a better spacial understanding of the layout. With experience and my guide dog, Carley, I hope to independently get where I need to go on or off campus.
I have the same apprehensions about actually going to college as any other student. Will I make friends easily? Can I handle the academics? Are light clothes washed in warm or cold water? And will Mom send chocolate chip or oatmeal cookies? (Carley hopes she will send Milk Bones too!) Often college is viewed as a "right of passage." For me college is a bold step into the "real world" of true independent living. Everyone approaches this adventure with some degree of fear and apprehension. I too sometimes wonder if I can handle the rigors of such a prestigious and demanding school as Princeton University. I also fear becoming disoriented, but I have faced and conquered these fears before. I am confident that I will do well. I will succeed. Dyslexia and blindness are two things I cannot change about myself, and there are so many other more important things to worry about that I can't spend my time crashing up against these barriers or feeling sorry for myself. Instead I try to spend my time finding ways around them. Life is too short and too much fun to spend in depression.
There is a Chinese proverb that has helped me: "It is better to light a single candle than to sit and curse the dark." There are so many problems in this world, but if I can make one thing better, find some spot of happiness, then one light at a time, I can make my whole world bright.
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