Annapolis teen sees the big picture

Accomplished youth is not derailed by gradual loss of vision

May 19, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

When Clark Rachfal was young, he and his neighborhood pals would race their Big Wheels tricycles around the pool in his family's Annapolis back yard.

Inevitably, one or more of the boys would take a corner too fast and - plop - end up drenched.

"They'd all fall in," recalled his mother, Tanya Rachfal. "That's why we didn't know."

He was just like the other kids, except that his eyesight was starting to fail by the time he was 4. The family didn't know until he was old enough for his first eye examination at the pediatrician's office, where he couldn't discern the difference between the bunnies and the boys and girls drawn on the chart. They were told that Clark would eventually lose what sight he had.

They still don't know for sure what has caused Clark, now 17, to become legally blind. They know only that a degenerative disease has left him seeing shapes and colors and motion, and little else, and that he could wake up today seeing less.

They also know he has worked harder than most to graduate near the top of his class at Annapolis High School, which he will do next week, and that he will attend Towson University, to which he has earned an academic scholarship, in the fall.

"He's very self-motivated," said Kathy M. Graham, a teacher who has worked with Clark since he was in kindergarten. "He spends ages on his homework. He doesn't give up. He has not had a decreased workload [because of his disability]. He has done it all."

Lifelong friend Brad Smith, a Broadneck High School senior said Clark "doesn't really like to get a lot of attention for it."

Clark needed eight hours to take the SATs last year. He uses a CCTV machine, a device similar to a microfiche machine, that blows up words on a page to a size he can see. To take tests or do his homework, he magnifies the letters to an inch or more in height. It means he can read only a few words at a time, and he can see only a fraction of the graphs used in economics and calculus books.

"It definitely takes more time and effort to do stuff," he says with a shrug, "but I get it done." The letters aren't completely clear, but he can make them out.

To speed up studying, Clark's textbooks, even those for statistics class, are on tape, recorded by a company that has a variety of books on tape and will record to order what it doesn't have. A recent economics chapter was missing, and Clark enlisted his mother to read it to him.

"I'll read it, but don't ask me what I'm reading," she says.

`One of the top students'

No one goes easy on Clark, who wants to follow in the footsteps of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. Last summer, his mother assigned him summer reading: "Animal Farm," "1984," "The Great Gatsby." She will create another list this summer.

"Clark is certainly one of the top students I have," said James Harrison, who teaches Advanced Placement Economics at Annapolis. "What's most amazing to me is, economics is pretty visual. A lot of the concepts are graphed, like supply-demand analysis, for example. Clark has such a good grasp of that. I'm not sure how he does it."

Clark tries to play down his blindness, but that isn't always possible. He won't use a cane, saying that would be giving up. Instead, he has memorized the location of steps in the school corridors and knows that the blue hallways connect to the red, which connect to the green.

On a recent day, a substitute teacher, Mrs. Crosby, led Clark's advanced-placement statistics class. She kept asking him, in a way that would make any teen want to crawl under a desk, why he is "so special" that a reporter was following him through his school day.

She made him stand at the front of the classroom and tell everyone. He is legally blind, he explained to a group that has long known about his condition. His principal, Joyce Smith, figured he might make an interesting story, he said, a blush creeping over his face.

Making a checklist

When the Rachfals discovered their son had trouble seeing, the family visited ophthalmologists in Arnold, at Children's Hospital in Washington and at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore hoping to learn what was wrong with their son's eyes. They went to faith healers.

"We're not Catholic, but I took him to Catholic healing Masses all around the Washington beltway," his mother recalled. "I think it's all in God's hands."

Between those visits, Tanya Rachfal set out to complete a list of "must-sees" for her son. She knew that time could be running out. By age 18, the doctors told her, Clark would be able to see only shadows.

"We didn't know what to expect, or how fast to expect it," she said.

He was whisked to Disney World. He traveled to California and competed several times in track and field events in an Olympics for the blind. He traveled to Pittsburgh and to Mexico for church missionary work. Last year, he took a trip to the Grand Canyon.

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