District’s only blind student graduating tonight|[05/22/08]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 22, 2008

A “fiercely independent” Chelsea Page will use her white walking cane – adorned with a green graduation tassel – to navigate her way to the stage to get her diploma tonight.

She will be among 191 graduating as Vicksburg High School says goodbye to the class of 2008.

“It feels really awesome,” she said. “It’s a really big accomplishment.”

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

The daughter of Michelle and Wendell Jarvis and Glen and Christi Page, Chelsea was born with optic nerve hyperplasia, which prevented her optic nerves from fully developing. She can see some colors and knows if a person is standing in front of her, but no details. She wears glasses to protect her eyes, she said, but they don’t aid her vision.

Chelsea transferred four years ago from the Mississippi School for the Blind in Jackson, where she had been a student since kindergarten.

She wanted to be prepared for what would come after graduation.

“I knew that whenever I went to college, I couldn’t just turn in a Braille essay,” Chelsea said, discussing the differences between the Mississippi School for the Blind and Vicksburg High School. “No doubt Vicksburg High has prepared me.”

GraduationsVicksburg High School – 8 tonight, Memorial Stadium,Warren Central High School – 7 Friday night, Viking StadiumSt. Aloysius High School – 10 Saturday morning, Vicksburg Convention CenterAfter switching to mainstream public school, Chelsea realized that since VHS wouldn’t be as accommodating as her previous school, she would have to be the one making adjustments.

“She has to adapt to the world, it won’t adapt to her,” said her mother, Michelle Jarvis. “She’s increased in every area – socially, academically and in her independence.

“If there’s any way she can do it by herself, she wants to do it by herself.”

Though other students in the Vicksburg Warren School District are visually impaired, Chelsea is the only one considered blind, said assistant special education supervisor Patricia Rainer.

At Vicksburg High, Chelsea plays saxophone in the band and is a member of the National Honor Society. She is also a member of the Louisiana Association of Blind Students, which allows blind students to network about various issues, such as the technology they use.

“My friends know that I’m blind, and that there’s nothing to it. Blindness is nothing but a characteristic, like having brown hair,” she said.

“What I have appreciated is how the kids have looked after her – it’s just beautiful to watch,” said Ann Habeeb, Chelsea’s English teacher. “Chelsea’s been remarkable, and a learning experience for all of us.”

Not that it’s always been easy.

“Some days have been hard,” Chelsea said. “Some kids who don’t know me have been like, ‘Watch out, she’ll hit you with her stick,'” Chelsea said.

“So many people have misconceptions,” she said. “They jump to the conclusion that, ‘Oh, I have to help her,’ and that is by far not the case.”

Adjusting to Vicksburg High came in steps.

In the 9th grade, she was accompanied all day by teacher’s assistant Dian Riley, but she gradually began to navigate the halls on her own. These days, she is aided by a piece of technology called a PAC Mate, which converts text into Braille. Chelsea uses it to take notes.

“The higher up you go in grades, the more the teachers lecture,” she said, explaining the convenience of the device. “It takes me a lot less time to do homework.”

In August, Chelsea will attend a six-to-nine-month program at the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston, which will teach independent living skills. After that, she hopes to be a counselor at the Center’s Summer Training and Employment Project, which offers high school students classes in Braille, cane travel, computers and other technologies. A veteran of the program, Chelsea found it to be a confidence-builder.

“By the time I left, I was calling a cab to Wal-Mart, asking for help there and calling a cab to pick me up again,” she said. “I had known how to cross the street, but I wasn’t confident. I gained independence.”

Chelsea hopes to earn a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, followed by a master’s degree from Louisiana Tech in teaching blind students.

All these plans make Jarvis a little anxious, but happy for her daughter.

“It’s a happy but sad occasion,” she said. “I’m nervous, but I trust them.”

Chelsea’s ready.

“I’ll miss knowing that people who can help me right there in the moment are there – in college I’ll have to ask for help. But I’m looking forward to helping other blind kids succeed as well as I have or better, and helping the public schools that can teach Braille or cane travel so that they can have the same social encounter that I have.”