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The singular relationship of Nancy Foster and Tony Hall

TOUCH OF LOVE

December 13, 1992|By Gelareh Asayesh

It is a sunny afternoon, and the 96-acre campus of the School for the Blind is full of the whirring sound of lawn mowers. Students are gathering at the track, where they often run in tandem, a blind student holding on to the arm of one who can see.

In the wide, cool, linoleum-floored hallways of the buildings, an adult is occasionally seen bending over a child. Despite the institutional overtones of buff-colored walls and faintly antiseptic smells, there is a sense of self-containment about this place. Notices posted by elevators tell of births and other family events in the lives of teachers and staff. School employees often troop en masse to a ballet recital, a track meet and, occasionally, a funeral. For many of the children here, the school provides the only family they have.

As in any family, there are pettinesses and squabbles and disagreements. But there are invisible ties as well. Staff members share close friendships. Students act like siblings. Deep connections develop between children and staff.

"You basically don't meet people like this in your normal walk of life," says Howard Smith, who works at the school with his wife, Pat, and has a foster daughter who attends. "It takes a special type of person to work here. People are drawn to each other."

At the Maryland School for the Blind, 325 men and women are responsible for taking care of some 200 students, five days a week, 24 hours a day. The majority of the children live on campus, in dorms and cottages, and go home on weekends and holidays. The children come from all over Maryland. It is not uncommon for them to come to the school at age 5 and leave at age 21, when under the law their right to a free public education ceases.

Once, the private, state-funded school served mostly children who were healthy apart from their blindness. Today, those children are in their neighborhood schools as part of the movement called mainstreaming. For those who remain, being blind is often the least of their difficulties. About 95 percent of the students at the school have multiple handicaps. At least 85 percent are retarded or developmentally disabled. They are so dependent that the central challenge of the school is teaching independence.

The staff teaches students how to tie their shoes and how to cross an intersection, how to brush their teeth and how to read, how to drink from a cup and how to hold a spoon. They clean them and feed them. They change their diapers. They teach them Braille and they teach them about the birds and the bees. They are full-time, paid parents even though they are required to maintain professional distance.

School policy prohibits staff from socializing with students. Nevertheless, relationships such as that between Nancy Foster and Tony Hall are accepted. These are relationships that typically develop over time, says Kirk Walter, assistant superintendent at the school. It is left to the school and the staff to negotiate the gray areas that result. The dual role of parent and staff member, acknowledges Mr. Walter, can be "a little uncomfortable."

Yet school officials recognize the inevitability of strong attachments, the difficulty of maintaining distance.

"Our staff have to really care about what they're doing, otherwise it's a hard way to make a living," Mr. Walter says.

*

When Nancy first got to know Tony, he was notorious for his tantrums. During one burst of rage, he threw a metal object and broke an instructor's nose. His teacher, Julie Gaynor, had her own method of dealing with his rages. She had one of the aides walk him down to the school gym, where Tony would run on the treadmill until he was exhausted.

The first time Nancy had to walk Tony to the gym, he pinched and pushed her. He wanted a fight. She was terrified, but ignored him. He ran until he was drenched with sweat.

Afterward, Nancy took him to the bathroom and wiped him down with damp paper towels. It became a routine. The anger. The run. The calm afterward as he let Nancy make him comfortable. He would be grateful and relaxed, and he'd say, "Thank you, Nancy."

He started asking for her when it was time for the treadmill. After a while, he no longer needed that outlet. It was a process of coming to terms with himself. In sharing that process, Nancy began to know Tony.

"I guess I saw then that Tony wasn't a bad boy," Nancy remembers. "He just had a lot of emotions inside that he didn't know how to deal with."

When Tony had to have surgery to remove a tooth that had grown in his sinuses, Nancy and Julie Gaynor took turns at his bedside. Tony was covered in dried blood, tubes running into his veins. He was in pain, but he didn't cry or complain. He was 14.

She was helping him to the bathroom when his body revolted at the drugs in his system. He threw up all over himself and her.

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