Blindness no bar to classroom life Teacher: An instructor at a Baltimore County school gives lessons in English and serves as a role model for his sixth-grade class.

December 27, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Craig Borne runs his classroom at Parkville Middle School by what he hears and not by what he sees.

Pupils sometimes get away with passing notes in the classroom of Baltimore County's only blind teacher. But whispering -- much less talking -- during class is a definite no-no.

"Mr. Borne hears you no matter how quiet you think you're being," says 11-year-old Amanda Hubbel. "And he always knows who it is."

He knows which pupils are raising their hands only if they call out his name. His wife reads papers aloud for him to grade.

He walks with a cane through the Parkville school. When he wants to write during lectures, he turns to the chalkboard and asks pupils to guide him orally to a blank space.

To the Parkville Middle School community, Borne's lack of vision never interferes with instruction of his pupils in English -- his subject of expertise -- and life.

"He's just a terrific teacher, who is inspiring not only to the students but to all of the other teachers, too," says Parkville science teacher David Helm, who has been teaching 33 years. "He's instilled such a sense of integrity in the students that they ,, don't take advantage of him. He is the manager of that classroom."

Hired in the fall to teach sixth-grade reading and language arts, ,, Borne quickly erased any doubts about his ability to keep a class under control and teach subjects such as Japanese poetry and creative writing.

"When I came into class on the first day of school, I wasn't really sure what to expect," says sixth-grader Aubrey Newton, 11. "But it's really no big deal that Mr. Borne is blind. He's a good teacher who cares about us."

Baltimore County school officials believe Borne, 26, is the only blind teacher on the district's staff of 7,800 teachers.

Born with a rare disease, juvenile X-linked retinoschisis, that leads to a splitting of the retina, Borne lost vision in his left eye when he was 15 and eventually had it replaced with a glass eye.

His right eye failed in 1993 between his sophomore and junior years at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah. Suddenly, Borne's plans for a career as a chiropractor were derailed. "It's hard to read X-rays when you're blind," he jokes.

Borne went through a series of operations on his eyes that coincidentally changed them from brown to what he describes as "a nice shade of blue."

After a year of soul-searching, he turned to what he had been doing all of his life -- education. He had been superintendent of his church's Sunday school and taught swimming lessons for the American Red Cross.

Still, it wasn't easy. While Ramapo helped Borne adjust, educators in many New Jersey public schools were less than helpful in his student-teaching experiences and when he applied for jobs.

"I would come in for interviews, and all of the questions would be things like, 'What happens if you fall? How are you going to get to school? Will you have a dog with you?' " Borne recalls. "Nobody ever came out and said, 'We can't hire you because of your sight situation,' but they wouldn't ask about anything except my vision."

After a series of substitute teacher positions in New Jersey, Borne met a Baltimore County teacher at a wedding last summer. She told him that the district was planning to hire about 900 teachers and suggested he apply.

A couple of days after sending in his application -- which did not mention that he was blind -- he was called to interview for a vacant sixth-grade position. It wasn't until he strode confidently into Parkville Middle with a cane in his hand that anyone in the school system knew he was blind.

"We had two real issues: What were his instruction capabilities, and would he be able to maintain a safe and orderly environment?" says Assistant Principal Joseph Bugliosi. "Craig gave us the answers we were looking for."

School administrators had a few concerns about how the children might react.

A teacher and role model

"But we decided that we shouldn't underestimate our kids," Bugliosi said. "Let's give them a chance. And it's worked out. I think they've gained from Craig not just as a teacher but as [a] role model."

Borne was offered the job a day before teachers were required to report to the county schools, forcing him to leave his wife, Jean, in New Jersey to pack their belongings. For a month or so, Borne stayed with Helm, the science teacher who is also his sixth-grade team leader.

Now, more than four months into the school year, Borne has settled into his routine. His wife, who is finishing her master's degree in environmental policy, drops him off in the morning and picks him up in the afternoon.

Classroom routine

In the classroom, Borne is usually aided by Geri Schmidt, a paid parent helper who is temporarily serving as his "eyes" to help him adjust to Parkville. She sometimes writes longer passages on the chalkboard for Borne, fills out paperwork and keeps watch for trouble.

It's Borne who is in control.

He walks the halls with ease, the trademark clicking of his cane signaling his arrival.

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