Back to school

November 8, 2014 • Posted in blindness, Braille, public speaking, questions kids ask, technology for people who are blind, Uncategorized, visiting schools, Whitney by

I practiced with Whitney ahead of time, so when the Dukes of Distinction presentation started Thursday night, we knew exactly what to do: follow fellow

That's the York High School Commons all done up for the ceremony.

That’s the York High School Commons all done up for the ceremony.

distinguished alum Dr. Robert Chen (“I go by Bob, he said when we were introduced) down the red carpet, stop when Bob stops, and pivot 90 degrees to the left to face our audience. Whitney guided me beautifully, and as the audience cheered, I gave Bob a nudge.

“It all feels a little odd, doesn’t it?” I whispered. Bob agreed. He’s a leader in immunization research at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and he’s working now on HIV prevention research at the CDC and serves on the World Health Organization’s HIV Vaccine Advisory Committee. I’m guessing he’s won an award or two before. “The organizers are all taking it so seriously, though,” he whispered back. “You don’t want to disappoint them.”

And you know what? We didn’t. The event was well-organized, the room was full of positive energy and pride, we kept our talks relatively short, and everyone enjoyed the assortment of chocolate covered strawberries, brownies and cookies — especially Floey’s five-year-old little brother Ray, the youngest person there.

Hearing my brother Doug play at Fitzgerald’s was a perfect way to celebrate afterwards, and the alarm rang way too soon the next morning: all of the Dukes of Distinction had to be back at York at 7:30 a.m. to spend the day visiting classes. An entourage of high-energy well-organized students whisked us from one twenty -minute visit to the next, and after a while, I lost track of how many there were in all. I do know we visited:

  • a gym class (they were doing yoga!)
  • an animal behavior class
  • a creative writing class
  • a children’s literature class
  • a calculus class
  • the student newspaper staff
  • three different sophomore English classes
  • A concert band rehearsal
  • and a partridge in a pear tree.

My sisters Cheryl, Marilee and Bev came along with Whitney and me to all these classes, and all four of us were surprised at how much we enjoyed the calculus class. Leslie Davis Stipe (a friend from my York High School days) teaches that class, and she explained that it’s a “flipped classroom.” She makes videos explaining how to do calculations, students watch the video on their smartphones, home computers or at lunch in their high school’s high-tech Commons, and they can repeat the video as many times as necessary to help them understand. They return the next day to do what we used to call “homework” together in class. When we arrived, Leslie was circulating around the class while the students worked in small groups to do their exercises. It was great to see technology being used to make the most of a real-life teacher’s ability instead of trying to substitute for human interaction. Some other highlights:

  • The sophomore English students were all reading short stories and studying “identity.” One student asked if I thought my identity changed after I lost my sight. Another wanted to know if my sense of beauty changed, too.
  • The boys and girls cross country teams were heading to state championships in Peoria this weekend, and the band was coming along to play and cheer them on. When I told the band kids how much I used to love those bus trips, and that a lot always happened in the back of the bus, they laughed in agreement. It was reassuring to know some things really don’t change.
  • A creative writing student asked if it was hard for me to write without being able to see. “I don’t mean physically typing,” he said. “I mean, is it hard to describe things to readers?”
  • When the journalism teacher asked if anyone had one last question, a boy said he did. “Is it just me, or is that the most beautiful dog anyone has ever seen?”

Late in the day I had a one-on-one talk with a 16-year-old student who is losing her sight due to Stargardt’s disease. She seemed relieved when I told her I know what that is. I understood. “It’s nice to not have to explain that stuff all the time, isn’t it?”

We shared stories about friends who stick with us, and how difficult it is to learn Braille. She told me she might be going on a college visit early next year — it’s being arranged especially for high school students with visual impairments. They’ll go as a group to a number of colleges in the Chicago area. Each trip will include a talk by someone in the students with disabilities office.

By the end of our visit, she and I decided we’d try to arrange a presentation both of us could do together sometime. I’ll do my normal shtick, and she can demonstrate some of the new technology she uses to keep up with sighted friends her age.

York’s principal, Diana Smith, caught up with me at the end of the day and said she’d already heard from that student. “She told me visiting with you was the best thing that’s happened to her in high school.” If any of you blog readers are interested in having this 16-year-old and me come speak at your school, civic group, library, whatever, please leave your contact info in the comments here.

When 3:30 finally came around yesterday I was totally exhausted. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: teachers should be paid wayyyyyyyy more than they are now. Everyone should visit their old high school, too. I can’t promise you’d be given the royal treatment that I was (I was treated more like a Queen than a Duke) but boy, is it worth the trip.

Carolyn On November 8, 2014 at 7:32 pm

You have made me reenvision my alma mater. Thank you for reminding me of beauty and progress!

thom fehrmann On November 8, 2014 at 9:57 pm

Loved reading about your class interactions, especially from the student losing her sight. So glad your out there doing what you do so well.

bethfinke On November 9, 2014 at 12:27 am

Wow, Thom, so fun to find you in the comment section here –thanks for taking the time to leave a note. Your favorite Duke of Distinction (well, I hope that’s me) is coming to Champaign-Urbana this Thursday to speak at a U of I class, maybe we can get together? I’ll contact you…


bethfinke On November 9, 2014 at 12:25 am

Oh, Carolyn, I always forget that you went to York, too. Hmm. I may have to nominate you for the distinguished alumni award next year….


Lauren Bishop-Weidner On November 8, 2014 at 10:05 pm

Lovely post–especially loved the insightful questions you were asked! But I must quibble about that very last one. Whitney is indeed beautiful, but Ms. Cate isn’t willing to concede that “most” part to anyone just yet;-)

bethfinke On November 9, 2014 at 12:30 am

I didn’t tell you what I answered, right? Who knows, maybe I plugged Whitney’s absolutely gorgeous beautiful ears and said, “Thanks, but you know what? Cate is.”


Kim On November 9, 2014 at 3:03 am

Congratulations! So I’m wondering. Did your sense of beauty change?

bethfinke On November 9, 2014 at 10:56 am

Yes, it did.


bethfinke On November 9, 2014 at 10:56 am

Oh, I guess you might want to know *how*, eh?


Doug Finke On November 9, 2014 at 7:38 am

As always, well said.
Thanks for sharing.

bethfinke On November 9, 2014 at 10:57 am

Yes, and thanks for performing Thursday night. You were stellar.


Barbara Timberlake On November 9, 2014 at 8:39 am

Thanks for sharing this occasion. I felt as though I was there.. What a joy to live the story through your words. Hey world – pay attention!


bethfinke On November 9, 2014 at 10:57 am

Hugs back to you, Barbara.


Nancy B On November 9, 2014 at 9:42 am

Creative idea from your school, I haven’t heard of other high schools doing anything like it. And, always neat to hear about the interactions you had with the students. The world can seem like a pretty hard and mean place but hearing the students comments, like when I talk to my nursing students, makes things seem hopeful.

bethfinke On November 9, 2014 at 10:59 am

Yes, and I find myself fighting back my own cynicism, as in, “Oh, these poor things, once they get out in the real world they’ll….” It was really refreshing and energizing to be with all of them, and then, at the end of the day, I crashed. As did Whitney!


Sheila A. Donovan On November 9, 2014 at 9:54 am

Glad that the event went well. You deserved to be “Queen for a day.” To have your family around you was a bonus. To see your brother play at Fitzgerald’s was the cherry on top! Congrats!

bethfinke On November 9, 2014 at 11:00 am

You’re right: it was like a fairy tale.


Cheryl On November 9, 2014 at 2:50 pm

We might have to curtsey to “The Duchess of York” for awhile but your award was well deserved. I know “Floey’s” highlight was watching you walk the red carpet. I enjoyed all of it, especially spending time with the students on Friday. We may have been in the presence of a future “Duke of Distinction”.

bethfinke On November 9, 2014 at 3:03 pm

Oh, I’m positive we were, Cheryl. In the presence of many Dukes and Duchesses of Distinction, I mean. What a smart, self-confident and thoughtful group. And that was just my sisters. The high school kids were nice, too!


Jenny Fischer On November 9, 2014 at 4:15 pm

Oh my goodness – I need to contact Leslie Davis Stipe – I can’t believe she’s teaching calculus – we could barely make it through physics!! Sounds like fun Beth!!

bethfinke On November 9, 2014 at 7:34 pm

I think Leslie must pinch herself from time to time, too, about ending up teaching Calculus and Trigonometry at York! At the end of the day, when my sisters and I had a chance to review all that had happened during our visit , they were all most impressed with Leslie. “She’s so positive!” they said. “She’s so good with the students! She’s perfect for that job!” I hope you do write her, I know she’d like hearing from you as much as i do.


Leslie Stipe On November 10, 2014 at 9:35 am

Beth– Abby in my first period class heard your speech at breakfast and told me you were amazing and so funny and she wants to be your friend. You really wowed them.
Thank you so much for being pushy and demanding a visit to my math class–and thanks for not giving away too many of my high school secrets –my students think I was always a big math nerd and I don’t want to ruin that image for them.
Thanks also for connecting me to Jenny Fisher–I hope the next time she is in town we can meet.
It was wonderful spending time with you–so proud of my distinguished friend. And thanks for the kind words in your blog–see you soon.

bethfinke On November 10, 2014 at 9:52 am

Yes, the girls I had lunch with at La Brigade (would have mentioned that scrumptious lunch in my blog post but it was too long already!) were *amazed* to hear ou had a life outside of math class when you were in high school. Hope I didn’t share too much information….


Brad On November 9, 2014 at 5:06 pm


It’s really fascinating and encouraging to hear about a high school that seems to be working in positive ways.Calculus made easy? Wow. It sure is a lot different from when I was there and I felt a bit envious. You must have had an upbeat kind of exhaustion.

bethfinke On November 9, 2014 at 7:44 pm

“An upbeat kind of exhaustion.” Wish I’d have thought of that phrase, I would have used it in this blog post. Describes my post-visit feelings perfectly.


Cheryl On November 10, 2014 at 1:15 pm

Leslie Snipe’s class was wonderful. I could have used the technology they were using in that class back when Mr. Meitz was trying to teach me Algebra and Geometry at York. Leslie is a great teacher!

Bev On November 10, 2014 at 6:53 pm

I LOVED Leslie’s class. Leslie and Beth bantering about the old days was hilarious and fun. But, what I really enjoyed was seeing Leslie connect with her students with this (new to me) Kahn technique. It made so much sense! Sorta sums up what I witnessed all day. That is, teachers working to find the most effective way to communicate with students that are so eager to learn. It was a great day.

bethfinke On November 10, 2014 at 11:22 pm

Oh, Judy. You’re sweet.


Judy Spock On November 10, 2014 at 7:24 pm

LOVE your visit back to schoolŠBeth, What a treat for everybody involved! xxoojudyspock

From: Safe & Sound blog Reply-To: Safe & Sound blog Date: Sun, 9 Nov 2014 00:00:29 +0000 To: Judith Spock Subject: [New post] Back to school bethfinke posted: “I practiced with Whitney ahead of time, so when the Dukes of Distinction presentation started Thursday night, we knew exactly what to do: follow fellow distinguished alum Dr. Robert Chen (³I go by Bob, he said when we were introduced) down the red “

Deborah Darsie On November 11, 2014 at 1:25 am

Wow, what an eventful day! No wonder you and Whitney were enjoying your “upbeat exhaustion”!

Sounds like a trip down memory lane and a few detours to make new connections. What a wild few days!

bethfinke On November 11, 2014 at 9:14 am

“A trip down memory lane and a few detours.” That phrase ranks up there with “upbeat exhaustion” –wish I’d thought of *both* phrases myself when putting this post together! Thanks for the good words, Deborah.


Barbara Gaither On November 11, 2014 at 9:03 am

Beth-this whole experience has been delightful to read about. I can just imagine how wonderful it was to be recognized with such an honor by your school AND to have so many of your loved ones in attendance. I really loved hearing the deeply insightful questions that the kids ask of you (would love to hear your answers) and was moved by the story of the 16 year old girl. What a gift for her to get to meet you, to be inspired and given true hope for her future! Wow! Simply wonderful!

bethfinke On November 11, 2014 at 9:27 am

It was. Simply wonderful, I mean. And hmm. You and Kim (the first person to comment on this post) both expressed a desire to hear my answers to the questions. Maybe I’ll do that in a future post. Stay tuned!


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