Eleven-year-old Jason Johnson's inquisitive mind sometimes ponders shapes and colors -- swirling clouds, fire-engine reds -- that he has never been able to see. But the spunky seventh-grader seldom dwells on what he can not do as a blind student.
With a weekly schedule that includes an active course load, drum lessons, Nintendo video games, neighborhood basketball and football games and riding his bike, Jason isn't missing out on much.
Blind since birth, the result of a detached retina, Jason is among approximately 70 students with varying degrees of vision loss attending county public schools in the county. Instructional aides, who transcribe class assignments into Braille and act as liaisons between teachers and students, are provided on a case-by-case basis.
"Hey Derrick, what am I missing not being able to see?" the Southern Middle School seventh-grader yells across the lunch table to his friend.
"I don't know, man," answers Derrick Hawkins, also a seventh-grader, as he continues to eat his sandwich.
Jason's only real complaint, in fact, is that his school desk is not large enough to hold his Braille writer, books for class transcribed in Braille, and his notebooks.
"I could use a little more room," admits Jason, who is of slight build with dark, sandy-colored hair and brown eyes.
But both boys were much more interested in knowing who would be there for the seventh grade basketball game after school in the gym -- a game in which Jason will be one of the players. An aide provided by the school helps him sharpen his aim at the basket.
An instructional assistant, Marilyn Wirth, makes sure Jason has everything he needs to keep up with his lessons. For example, Wirth prepared raised maps of the Middle East for his social studies class and transcribes exams to Braille, then rewrites them for teachers to correct.
Wirth recalls the time Jason's class discussed the formation of clouds.
She brought in cotton balls to help him understand aspects of nature that he has difficulty grasping.
"I wonder what different colors look like, like paint and the colors red and blue, and what happens if you mix them together," Jason says after some thought.
But his perceptions of the world in general, he believes, are pretty accurate.
"My math teacher said that if I could see, it wouldn't be that much different," he says.
It's hard to imagine that being able to see would make that much of a difference in Jason's life, particularly while watching him scurry through the hallways to class. Most times, a friend hangs onto the back of his knapsack -- more as a goodwill gesture than an aid.
And there seems to be a lot of goodwill among his classmates.
Seventh-grader Bobby Webb tags along to make sure he doesn't run into trouble in the crowded hallways; Joey Gough and Derrick make sure he is facing in the right direction during stretching exercises in phys-ed class.
Joey is also Jason's running partner today for their five-minute laps around the school gym. As they finish, the two stop to feel their pulses, then plop down on the gym floor alongside their group.
When gym is over, Jason zips down the stairs to the locker room, where he changes out of the required blue gym shorts and gold T-shirt back into his school clothes.
Although smaller than most of his classmates, Jason doesn't seem bothered by the baggage he carries -- including a waist pouch, knapsack, cane, and a 10-pound Braille writer, which serves as his pencil in class.
Jason is an eager participant in class discussions. As each question is asked in language arts and social studies, his hand flies into the air. In social studies, his class is reviewing for an upcoming test on the Middle East. Jason volunteers to go to the front of the class and point out the Caspian Sea and Kuwait on the overhead projector. First he locates it on his Braille map, then teacher Vonnie Allen slides his finger onto the projector.
After lunch, Jason leaves his friends for one class period to work with special teachers sent over to improve mobility skills -- which involves non-stop use of his cane, an instrument he'd just as soon do without.
During the school day, because he is so comfortable with Southern's layout, Jason often races down stairs holding onto the railing -- something his mobility instructor, Alice D'Gama, taught him.
Her job also includes preparing him for unfamiliar environments where he will not be able to innocently feel his way around. On this day, she has scattered stools and wastepaper baskets down the long corridor, so he can work on using his cane to judge the width and stability of objects before hitting or passing through them.
"Don't touch if you do not know what it is," she tells him. "Your cane is supposed to do the job, to figure out what it is."
He is also learning the proper way to have a sighted person guide him.
But after about 20 minutes of instruction, he begins to tire and his wit resurfaces. Two stools are spaced only inches apart, but he tries to make it through.