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Blind student hits high note playing sax with VHS band

Chelsea Page navigates the hallway at Vicksburg High School Thursday with assistant Dian Riley.(Brian Loden The Vicksburg Post)

[11/5/04]To Chelsea Page, it doesn’t matter who wins tonight’s football game that pits the two local public high school teams against each other.

“We only care about which band plays better,” said Chelsea, a 14-year-old freshman and saxophone player for Vicksburg High School’s Pride of the South Gator marching band.

The good-humored comment is what residents, students, teachers and administrators have come to expect about the hometown rivalry between VHS and Warren Central.

But Chelsea, who is blind, is all about breaking expectations and stereotypes.

This is her first year to attend a public high school, and the transition from the Mississippi School for the Blind in Jackson, where she had been enrolled since kindergarten, has been a breeze.

“I love it,” she said. “It’s not nearly as far away from home, and the education stuff is more challenging, and there are lots more people.”

Her mother, Michelle Jarvis, agrees. “She got straight A’s the first nine weeks,” she said. “I can’t complain about that.”

Chelsea, who was diagnosed at 3-months-old with optic nerve hyperplasia, which prevents the optic nerves from fully developing, had always wanted to attend public school, but her mother first wanted her to have a command of braille, a system of reading for the blind that uses characters made of raised dots.

“She wasn’t getting instructed in braille anymore,” Jarvis said. “So, I called the (Vicksburg Warren School District’s) special education office, and it just worked out, by God’s grace.”

And since the beginning of school, things have done just that worked out.

“That was one of the things we worried about, that people would make fun of her,” Jarvis said.

“She came home from school the first day, and she was happy. And I said, Did anyone make fun of you?’ And she said, No. They’re all my friends,'” said Chelsea’s 13-year-old sister, Tiffany Page.

“Her teachers have been wonderful; I have no complaints,” Jarvis said. “I hope every year after this is as good as this year.”

Jarvis is also thankful that the band and its director, Vance Wigginton, have made no bones about Chelsea’s joining.

A 20-year band director, Wigginton said while he’s taught students with special needs, he’d never worked with a blind person.

“It has been a lot less of an adjustment than I thought it would be,” he said. “I was concerned about myself; concerned I wouldn’t do things I needed to do to adjust.”

But, he said, no adjustment has been needed, and the only way Chelsea is treated differently is that she is not allowed to march with the band.

“She is just a wonderful child,” Wigginton said. “She learns so quickly and is so independent and self-reliant.”

Plus, he said, other band students have taken it upon themselves to help her out.

“They’ll type her music into the braille machine,” he said. “They get along real well, and it’s made them more responsible.

“And on top of all that, she’s a good musician,” he said.

Chelsea started out in choir and in the band at the school for the blind in Jackson, but soon found she liked the band more. Now, she plays the piano, too. Her favorite song on the piano is “Lord I Lift Your Name on High.”

Chelsea said she plays mostly by ear, but she said with a laugh, “Sometimes, someone will say, Chelsea, it’s a G.'”

And that attitude is her greatest asset.

She wakes up in the morning happy and goes to bed at night happy, family members said.

Dian Riley, a teacher’s assistant who helps Chelsea, said she’s a joy.

“She wants to be independent,” Riley said. “Some students would love the opportunity to leave classes early, but she wants to stay until the very end.”

Chelsea tries to do as much as possible on her own, including preparing her own drinks and lunch. And her mother insists she’s just like any other teen when it comes to her room at home it’s a mess.

But in other ways, “She’s real unique,” Riley said.

“Sometimes I think I inspire people,” Chelsea admits. “Just because I’m blind, people think I can’t do anything, and you’re just supposed to sit there and let people pity you.

“That, by no means, is true,” she said.