How Attending a High School for Deaf and Blind Students Changed My Life
Some people use driver’s licenses for identification; we used ID canes. When you get a new job, there’s an orientation period. We had orientation and mobility. At this school, if you didn’t get something on your clothes while eating, you’re doing it wrong. If you run into at least one wall a day, you’re doing it right.
2004-5 weren’t great years for me. My face hung low and my disposition even lower after each passing day in public high school. My wonderful parents noticed how unhappy and ostracized I was feeling. A few weeks later, my mom took a visit to Florida. This is when The Call That Changed My World came: “I found the place for Gabe.”
I didn’t want to leave my home and family. After many tears were shed, my dad appealed to my athletic dreams. At this place, he explained, I could participate in any sport I desired. He wasn’t lying; I was on the wrestling team.. for one day (my own fault). Little did I know, the tears of 2005 would be overtaken many times over by the joys of 2006 and beyond.
The school is located in the Old City. When I first arrived, I was overtaken by the beauty of the Spanish moss entangled in the live oaks that lined the cobble stoned streets of St. Augustine. I was also overtaken by the enormity of the school; I’m surprised it didn’t have its own zip code! The Spanish-inspired buildings seemed to go on for miles, complete with a healthcare center, football field, greenhouse, and much more. This school felt like a foreign land.
As foreign as the compound itself seemed, the classroom was a different matter. The teachers all had licenses in visual impairment to keep them up to date on the best teaching methods for our conditions. Smartboards relayed teachers’ writing to our CCTV screens so we could see the information up-close, in a way that was comfortable for our eyes. They also dimmed or brightened the lights if we had any sensitivity. This was the first time I witnessed the world adapting to me in such a beautiful way.
Before I could participate in class, I had to find my way to it. During my first stint in “regular” high school, this was a daily terror. I ran into a glass-paned door and twisted my glasses into borderline unwearable condition (I didn’t see it there). While this filled my heart with shame and my nose in pain, the orientation and mobility specialists at the new school gave me confidence in navigating my surroundings. I could now go to Dunkin Donuts, socialize with friends, cross a street and explore my world independently.
With my first school day over, I realized I wouldn’t be going home that afternoon. Nope, for the next four years, I’d be housed in dormitories big and small. One of the first conversations I remember having with my roommate wasn’t what I did for fun, but instead “What was my condition?” The only other time I’d revealed anything relating to my lack of vision was to my eye doctor. An odd question in the best possible way.
After school, often there were activities planned by the recreation department. Dodge ball was a favorite. Don’t worry, the balls were soft enough to not detach someone’s retina. We played basketball with a the accompaniment of cane taps that guided every shot to the net. The most playful of rivalries existed between the “totals” (totally blind) and the partially sighted.
We all looked forward to Fridays. This was when a caravan of charter buses descended upon the music building parking lot, taking students to their homes in all reaches of the state. For those in Jacksonville and St. Augustine, the ride was short. For me in Pensacola, the trek was eight hours. I’d get home late Friday nights only to meet the bus again for another round of Sun Chips and Hardee’s on Sunday morning.
This was the best decision my parents have ever made for me. One that required great sacrifice, both in money and time. This school made me feel like a “normal” high school kid. I got into “normal” high school relationships and trouble, too. This story is but a fraction of the praises I could put upon the school on San Marco, St. Augustine itself, teachers and dorm staff, and my fellow students. The school gave me a sense of belonging and of home.
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Getty image by Zlikovek.