Brave little girl threatened by fiscal meanness

MICHAEL OLESKER

February 11, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ANNAPOLIS -- Peggy Bartenstein is the face behind the arithmetic of despair. The legislators here talk of numbers that do not compute, of people who will have to suffer, and Peggy Bartenstein says you cannot do this to helpless human beings.

Tomorrow she'll tell the legislators to their faces. She will come here with others threatened by the state's newly realized poverty, and she'll talk to them of government money that's given her daughter, Julie, a life worth living.

Julie was born four years ago with a 14-ounce tumor at the base of her spine and had to survive major surgery just hours after her birth. When she was 3 months old, the doctors pronounced her profoundly deaf, and nine months after that they found she had cerebral palsy.

When the Maryland School for the Deaf embraced Julie last year, they began teaching her to communicate with her hands: a letter here, a word there, now more than hundred words that she and the world can send back and forth.

At the Maryland School for the Deaf, they work such routine miracles. There are about 100 students at the school's Columbia campus, and another 240 in Frederick, many of them multiple-handicapped like Julie, and all of them now threatened by the state's proposed Doomsday Budget.

Submitted 12 days ago by Gov. William Donald Schaefer as a dark possibility if the legislature doesn't approve a tax increase, the budget would close the School for the Deaf and send those from its little community of silence into a world not equipped to help them.

This drives a stake into Peggy Bartenstein's heart. She and her husband, William, brought Peggy here from Dallas last spring for one reason: the wondrous things they heard about Maryland's ** School for the Deaf.

A few months after they arrived, the tumor at the base of Julie's spine returned. This time it was malignant. More surgery followed, and then chemotherapy and long weeks inside a hospital.

But today, you look at Julie and see a child with hope. She has this angelic face surrounded by a halo of curls. She knows all her colors. She knows single-digit numbers and some of the alphabet, and her teachers say she'll be able to read.

At the School for the Deaf, she's also learning something else: She's not alone. She's part of a community, where she takes part in games and makes friends and sees that other people have the same problems as hers.

But, with all of that threatened by the state's darkening financial picture, parents and educators from the School for the Deaf, plus some from schools for the deaf in other states, are set to gather outside the Statehouse tomorrow morning to protest the possible closing.

"The politicians," Peggy Bartenstein says, "are afraid to raise taxes, but they're also saying there's no chance to keep the school open if they don't raise them. That's chilling to me.

"If you agree with it, then you're saying, I don't want my taxes raised for your child. It's like saying to a normal child, 'we'll let you come to school, but we won't teach you to read or write.' Is that what we're going to do to children now?"

The School for the Deaf budget is about $12 million. If that sounds like a lot, consider the option: you send these people into the world, many of them with their multiple handicaps, without the ability to survive.

They become a life-long financial drain on the state. The $12 million is multiplied many times over in welfare costs, in special support services for those never taught to take care of themselves.

"Julie has already surpassed my expectations," Peggy Bartenstein says. "And the school has told me she will reach her full potential, if only the school stays open."

The people inside the State House sometimes lose their way. Their briefing books are filled with numbers, which only sporadically translate to human pain. Tomorrow, they'll hear about some of the anguish behind the arithmetic.

After a morning rally outside the State House, there will be a Senate hearing where Peggy Bartenstein will speak, as will Dr. David Denton, superintendent of the School for the Deaf, and some students.

"You should have seen Julie's face when she started attending school," Bartenstein says now. "For the first time in her life, she was sharing friendship and love with people outside her family.

"And now, every morning when I drive her to school, she signs 'school' to me with her hand, and she points every direction to turn. At one time, I couldn't have imagined that. But you should see what goes on inside the school. These children share a bond that the hearing community couldn't begin to understand."

But they've got to understand. The state's going through a terrible time, and nobody wants higher taxes. Already, programs are being cut -- including a 19 percent personnel cutback at the School for the Deaf.

But raw numbers translate into human beings. At the School for the Deaf, these are human beings already cheated by life. And those inside the State House would have to be heartless beyond imagining to cheat them one more time.

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