A teacher who cannot see leads pupils easily through labyrinth of law

December 24, 1992|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

Max Chibundu, professor of law, paces at the front of a smal room, his hands clasped behind his back.

He's doing his best to lead his 24 first-year students through the complicated world of civil pleadings.

It's a typical scene at the University of Maryland Law School -- the students looking overworked, the teacher in a tweed jacket.

Except for one student who has moved his coffee cup aside and rests his head on the table. Another student flashes hand signals to help a beleaguered friend who has no idea what answer Mr. Chibundu is waiting for.

Mr. Chibundu is oblivious. He is blind. He is also in complete control of the class.

"I don't think there is anything terribly significant to the pedagogical process that I can't do," he says later.

Even the hand signals don't bother him. He encourages his students to work together.

About the only thing he can't do as a teacher, he figures, is write on the blackboard.

There are only a handful of blind law school professors in the country and Mr. Chibundu believes he may be the only one who has been virtually blind from birth.

In a field grounded in vast numbers of written words, Mr. Chibundu has flourished, his colleagues say.

At the age of 35, Mr. Chibundu is considered a budding expert in issues of civil rights and securities regulation, a particularly arcane, rule-laden field.

"What a mind," says Professor Greg Young. "He seems to walk around with a library in his head. You don't get blown away too often by colleagues, but that's happened once or twice with him."

Maxwell O. Chibundu was born in the small town of Aba in Nigeria and grew up in a middle-class family in the capital city of Lagos.

At the age of 3, he had surgery for congenital cataracts and a detached retina. His vision was gone. Remarkably enough, he's not sure if he could see before that.

"It's quite possible, but I don't recall it," he says.

He wrote poetry, read voraciously and learned three Nigerian languages, as well as French and English.

By the time he was through with high school, he had outgrown Nigeria's limited resources for the blind.

When he came to live in the United States in 1976 to attend Yale, he was billed as one of the stars of the incoming class of 1980, a "blind Nigerian poet."

He left his family behind in Nigeria, and returns every few years; his next visit will be this spring.

After Yale, he earned a law degree from Harvard and a master's in diplomacy from Tufts.

He put in four years of mainly litigation work with Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering, a Washington law firm. He also did volunteer legal work for an anti-apartheid group.

He came to UMAB in 1988 and bought a house on Pratt Street, six blocks from the law school.

He walks to and from work without a cane or dog. He moves briskly along, his head turned at a slight angle to detect what's ahead. His only problem, he says, are the unmarked construction sites that pop up on many Baltimore sidewalks.

"He just plows ahead, almost catlike," says Michael Kelly, the former dean of the law school who hired Mr. Chibundu five years ago. "It's kind of scary."

Using computer disks

Mechanically speaking, it's not so difficult anymore to be a blind law professor.

His students put all their writing on computer discs, which a special piece of computer equipment reads aloud.

Mr. Chibundu likes to have the text played back at an astonishingly quick clip.

The computerized speaker blurts out long sentences, the words tumbling together.

Some law texts are printed in Braille.

Others are on audio tape or can be printed in Braille in Mr. Chibundu's office.

In some cases, people read to him.

As the professor talks in class one recent morning, his fingers move nimbly through a black notebook, devouring pages of the crisp white Braille notes.

The notes have some rather basic critiques of the students' most recent papers: "You have to obey the structures of language," he reminds them. His voice is high-pitched, yet soft, almost delicate, with a trace of an accent.

From time to time, he leans against the wall, his body completely still, his dark brown eyes seeming to gaze out over the class.

The subject this day is civil procedure.

It is one of those mind-numbing courses inflicted on first-year law students.

Mr. Chibundu takes the discussion beyond the rules and into the theory of procedure.

Students simply speak up when they have a question. He recognizes the voices and calls on them by name.

His method is patiently Socratic. Any question from a student is turned around and aimed right back.

As the discussion gets going, Mr. Chibundu abandons his notes. Page numbers, problems and answers are committed to memory.

He asks a student his answer for one textbook problem.

"I had [Rule] 12H, 2B," the student says, not at all confidently.

"Tell me about 12H, 2B," says a grinning Mr. Chibundu.

After a telling pause, the student catches up.

"There is no 12H, 2B," comes the sheepish answer.

'Want some coffee?'

"Want some coffee?" he asks a visitor in his cluttered second-floor office after class.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.