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 (“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.