Teaching a lesson of tolerance

A blind high school educator aims to open his students' minds to people's differences

May 14, 2006|By KATIE MARTIN | KATIE MARTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Gary LeGates has been teaching foreign language in the same Westminster High School classroom for the past 30 years.

In addition to discussing the words and grammar of another language, he tries to show students the similarities and differences they have with people of other cultures.

But LeGates said his students learn another important lesson: about interacting with disabled people. LeGates has been blind since birth.

LeGates, 55, of Westminster, was recognized last month at the Outstanding Teacher Awards. He was one of eight educators selected by the Chamber of Commerce to receive this year's award. The four high school, two middle school and two elementary school teachers were chosen from among nearly 200 student-nominated teachers countywide.

LeGates said he finds it easy to stay fresh after so many years of teaching because every group of students is unique and reacts differently to class material.

"I try to keep up with things," LeGates said. "I use a computer in my classroom. But mostly, I just teach and interact with the kids."

LeGates teaches Latin and French - and offers students the chance to independently study Greek. He said he has two students enrolled in independent studies this semester.

"Of course students love mythology, and they enjoy learning about how ancient people thought about things," LeGates said.

In addition to the foreign language curriculum, he thinks it's important to teach his students about working with disabled people.

"I might be the only blind guy they ever meet," LeGates said.

He wants students to see that disabled people are just like anyone else.

"I hope that in the future they would hire a handicapped person or interact with them, or even marry them," LeGates said.

He said that calls on students more than other teachers do.

"I tell them don't raise their hand, or they'll die of fatigue," LeGates said.

John Seaman, Westminster's principal, said he came to know LeGates when his son was a student in LeGates' foreign language class.

"My son will tell you today that in his high school career and undergraduate work he never had a teacher he admired more," Seaman said.

Seaman said his son, who graduated from Westminster High in 1993, had LeGates for four years of Latin.

LeGates "knew them as individuals and cared about them as individuals," Seaman said. "He knew what their interests were and kept them highly motivated."

Seaman said LeGates is always concerned that there are things the school doesn't ask him to do because he is blind - such as lunchroom duty.

But, Seaman said, LeGates won't let that hinder his involvement as a faculty member because he makes sure he has an equal or more difficult task.

"He's not going to let work get away from him," Seaman said.

Seaman said that Latin is not usually a popular course, but that it is at Westminster because of LeGates.

"People just like Gary," Seaman said. "People speak to him, and he always knows who's speaking to him."

LeGates is guided around the halls of Westminster High by Trinket, a guide dog who is a Labrador and golden retriever mix.

He got Trinket about six years ago after losing hearing in one ear, which made it more difficult to get around.

"Of course, the students love my dog," he said.

Outside the classroom, LeGates sometimes speaks to groups like Scout troops about guide dogs.

A member of the Westminster Baptist Church, LeGates teaches Sunday school and leads prayer meetings.

He is also involved with the alumni association for the Maryland School for the Blind in Baltimore, which he attended.

LeGates also attended what is now McDaniel College, where he earned a bachelor's degree in Latin, French and education. He also earned a master's degree in classics from Pennsylvania State University.

"I liked working with students, and I liked my subjects," LeGates said. "I just wanted to share them."

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