A Boy of Unusual Vision
Calvin Stanley is a fourth-grader at Cross Country Elementary School. He rides a bike, watches TV, plays video games and does just about everying other 10-year-old boys do. Except see.
This article won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.
First, the eyes: They are large and blue, a light, opaque blue, the color of a robin’s egg. And if, on a sunny spring day, you look straight into these eyes—eyes that cannot look back at you—the sharp, April light turns them pale, like the thin blue of a high, cloudless sky.
Ten-year-old Calvin Stanley, the owner of these eyes and a boy who has been blind since birth, likes this description and asks to hear it twice. He listens as only he can listen, then: “Orange used to be my favorite color but now it’s blue,” he announces. Pause. The eyes flutter between the short, thick lashes, “I know there’s light blue and there’s dark blue, but what does sky-blue look like?” he wants to know. And if you watch his face as he listens to your description, you get a sense of a picture being clicked firmly into place behind the pale eyes.
He is a boy who has a lot of pictures stored in his head, retrievable images which have been fashioned for him by the people who love him—by family and friends and teachers who have painstakingly and patiently gone about creating a special world for Calvin’s inner eye to inhabit.
Picture of a rainbow: “It’s a lot of beautiful colors, one next to the other. Shaped like a bow. In the sky. Right across.”
Picture of lightning, which frightens Calvin: “My mother says lightning looks like a Christmas tree—the way it blinks on and off across the sky,” he says, offering a comforting description that would make a poet proud.
“Child,” his mother once told him, “one day I won’t be here and I won’t be around to pick you up when you fall—nobody will be around all the time to pick you up—so you have to try to be something on your own. You have to learn how to deal with this. And to do that, you have to learn how to think.”
There was never a moment when Ethel Stanley said to herself, “My son is blind and this is how I’m going to handle it.”
“When Calvin was little, he was so inquisitive. He wanted to see everything, he wanted to touch everything. I had to show him every little thing there is. A spoon, a fork. I let him play with them. The pots, the pans. Everything. I showed him the sharp edges of the table. ‘You cannot touch this; it will hurt you.’ And I showed him what would hurt. He still bumped into it anyway, but he knew what he wasn’t supposed to do and what he could do. And he knew that nothing in his room—nothing—could hurt him.
“And when he started walking and we went out together—I guess he was about 2—I never said anything to him about what to do. When we got to the curbs. Calvin knew that when I stopped again, he should step up. I never said anything, that’s just the way we did it. And it became a pattern.”
Calvin remembers when he began to realize that something about him was “different”: “I just figured it out myself. I think I was about 4. I would pick things up and I couldn’t see them. Other people would say they could see things and I couldn’t.”
And his mother remembers the day her son asked her why he was blind and other people weren’t.
“He must have been about 4 or 5. I explained to him what happened, that he was born that way and that it was nobody’s fault and he didn’t have to blame himself. He asked, ‘Why me?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know why, Calvin. Maybe there’s a special plan for you in your life and there’s a reason for this. But this is the way you’re going to be and you can deal with it.”
Then she sat her son down and told him this: “You’re seeing, Calvin. You’re just using your hands instead of your eyes. But you’re seeing. And, remember, there is nothing you can’t do.”
It’s spring vacation and Calvin is out in the alley behind his house riding his bike, a serious looking, black and silver two-wheeler. “Stay behind me,” he shouts to his friend Kellie Bass, who’s furiously pedaling her bike down the one-block stretch of alley where Calvin is allowed to bicycle.
Now: Try to imagine riding a bike without being able to see where you’re going. Without even knowing what an “alley” looks like. Try to imagine how you navigate a space that has no visual boundaries, that exists only in your head. And then try to imagine what Calvin is feeling as he pedals his bike in that space, whooping for joy as the air rushes past him on either side.
And although Calvin can’t see the signs of spring sprouting all around him in the neighboring backyards—the porch furniture and barbecue equipment being brought out of storage, the grass growing emerald green from April rain, the forsythia exploding yellow over the fences—still, there are signs of another sort which guide him along his route.
Past the German shepherd who always barks at him, telling Calvin that he’s three houses away from his home; then past the purple hyacinths, five gardens away, throwing out their fragrance (later it will be the scent of the lilacs which guide him); past the large diagonal crack which lifts the front wheel of his bike up and then down, telling him he’s reached his boundary and should turn back—past all these familiar signs Calvin rides his bike on a warm spring day.
Ethel Stanley: “At 6, one of his cousins got a new bike and Calvin said, ‘I want to learn how to ride a two-wheeler bike.’ So we got him one. His father let him help put it together. You know, whatever Calvin gets he’s going to go all over it with those hands and he knows every part of that bike and what it’s called. He learned to ride it the first day, but I couldn’t watch. His father stayed outside with him.”
Calvin: “I just got mad. I got tired of riding a little bike. At first I used to zig-zag, go all over. My cousin would hold on to the bike and then let me go. I fell a lot in the beginning. But a lot of people fall when they first start.”
There’s a baseball game about to start in Calvin’s backyard and Mrs. Stanley is pitching to her son. Nine-year-old Kellie, on first base, has taken off her fake fur coat so she can get a little more steam into her game and the other team member, Monet Clark, 6, is catching. It is also Monet’s job to alert Calvin, who’s at bat, when to swing. “Hit it, Calvin,” she yells. “Swing!”
He does and the sound of the ball making solid contact with the bat sends Calvin running off to first base, his hands groping in front of his body. His mother walks over to stand next to him at first base and unconsciously her hands go to his head, stroking his hair in a soft, protective movement.
“Remember,” the mother had said to her son six years earlier, “there’s nothing you can’t do.”
Calvin’s father, 37-year-old Calvin Stanley, Jr., a Baltimore city policeman, has taught his son how to ride a bike and how to shift gears in the family’s Volkswagen and how to put toys together. They go to the movies together and the tell each other they’re handsome.
The father: “You know, there’s nothing much I’ve missed with him. Because he does everything. Except see. He goes swimming out in the pool in the backyard. Some of the other kids are afraid of the water but he jumps right in, puts his head under. If it were me I wouldn’t go anywhere. If it were me I’d probably stay in this house most of the time. But he’s always ready to go, always on the telephone, ready to do something.
“But he gets sad, too: You can just look at him sometimes and tell he’s real sad.”
The son: “You know what makes me sad? Charlotte’s Web. It’s my favorite story. I listen to the record at night. I like Charlotte, the spider. The way she talks. And, you know, she really loved Wilbur, the pig. He was her best friend.” Calvin’s voice is full of warmth and wonder as he talks about E.B. White’s tale of the spider who befriended a pig and later sacrificed herself for him.
“It’s a story about friendship. It’s telling us how good friends are supposed to be. Like Charlotte and Wilbur,” he says, turning away from you suddenly to wipe his eyes. “And when Charlotte dies, it makes me real sad. I always feel like I’ve lost a friend. That’s why I try not to listen to that part. I just move the needle forward.”
Something else makes Calvin sad: “I’d like to see what my mother looks like,” he says, looking up quickly and swallowing hard. “What does she look like? People tell me she’s pretty.”
The mother: “One day Calvin wanted me to tell him how I looked. He was about 6. They were doing something in school for Mother’s Day and the kids were drawing pictures of their mothers. He wanted to know what I looked like and that upset me because I didn’t know how to tell him. I thought, ‘How am I going to explain this to him so that he will really know what I look like?’ So I tried to explain to him about facial features, noses and I just used touch. I took his hand and I tried to explain about skin, let him touch his, and then mine.
“And I think that was the moment when Calvin really knew he was blind, because he said, ‘I won’t ever be able to see your face…or Daddy’s face,’” she says softly, covering her eyes with her hands, but not in time to stop the tears. “That’s the only time I’ve ever let it bother me that much.”
But Mrs. Stanley knew what to tell her only child: “I said, ‘Calvin, you can see my face. You can see it with your hands and by listening to my voice and you can tell more about me that way than somebody who can use his eyes.”
Provident Hospital, November 15, 1973: That’s where Calvin Stanley III was born, and his father remembers it this way: “I saw him in the hospital before my wife did, and I knew immediately that something was wrong with his eyes. But I didn’t know what.”
The mother remembers it this way: “When I woke up after the caesarian, I had a temperature and couldn’t see Calvin except through the window of the nursery. The next day a doctor came around to see me and said that he had cataracts and asked me if I had a pediatrician. From what I knew, cataracts could be removed so I thought, ‘Well, he’ll be fine.’ I wasn’t too worried when his pediatrician came and examined him he told me he thought it was congenital glaucoma.”
Only once did Mrs. Stanley give in to despair. “When they knew for certain it was glaucoma and told me that the cure rate was very poor because they so seldom have infants born with glaucoma. I felt awful. I blamed myself. I knew I must have done something wrong when I was pregnant. Then I blamed my husband,” she says, looking up from her hands which are folded in her lap, “but I never told him that.” Pause. “And he probably blamed me.”
No, says her husband. “I never really blamed her. I blamed myself. I felt it was a payback. That if you do something wrong to somebody else in some way you get paid back for it. I figured maybe I did something wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what I did that was that bad and why Calvin had to pay for it.”
Mrs. Stanley remembers that the doctors explained to them that the glaucoma was not because of anything either of them had done before or during the pregnancy and “that ‘congenital’ simply means ‘at birth.’”
They took Calvin to a New York surgeon who specialized in congenital glaucoma. There were seven operations and the doctors held out some hope for some vision, but by age 3 there was no improvement and the Stanleys were told that everything that could be done for Calvin had been done.
“You know, in the back of my mind, I think I always knew he would never see,” Mrs. Stanley says, “and that I had to reach out to him in different ways. The toys I bought him were always toys that made noise, had sound, something that Calvin could enjoy. But it didn’t dawn on me until after he was in school that I had been doing that—buying him toys that would stimulate him.”
Thirty-three year old Ethel Stanley, a handsome, strong-looking woman with a radiant smile, is the oldest of seven children and grew up looking after her younger brothers and sisters while her mother worked. “She was a wonderful mother,” Mrs. Stanley recalls. “Yes, she had to work, but when she was there, she was with you every minute and those minutes were worth a whole day. She always had time to listen to you.”
Somewhere—perhaps from her own childhood experiences—Mrs. Stanley, who has not worked since Calvin was born, acquired the ability to nurture and teach and poured her mothering love into Calvin. And it shows. He moves in the sighted world with trust and faith and the unshakable confidence of a child whose mother has always been there for him. “If you don’t understand something, ask,” she tells Calvin again and again, in her open, forthright way. “Just ask.”
When it was time to explain to Calvin the sexual differences between boys and girls, this is what Mrs. Stanley said: “When he was about 7 I told him that when you’re conceived you have both sexes. It’s not decided right away whether you’re going to be a boy or a girl. And he couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘Golly, suppose somebody gets stuck?’ I thought, ‘Please, just let me get this out of the way first.’”
And I tried to explain to him what a woman’s sexual organs look like. I tried to trace it on the table with his fingers. I said, well you know what yours look like, don’t you? And I told him what they’re called, the medical names. ‘Don’t use names if you don’t know what they mean. Ask. Ask.’”
“When he was little he wanted to be Stevie Wonder,” says Calvin’s father, laughing. “He started playing the piano and he got pretty good at it. Now he wants to be a computer programmer and design programs for the blind.”
Calvin’s neatly ordered bedroom is outfitted with all the comforts you would find in the room of many 10-year-old, middle-class boys: a television set (black and white, he tells you), an Atari game with a box of cartridges (his favorite is “Phoenix”), a braille Monopoly set, records, tapes and programmed talking robots. “I watch wrestling on TV every Saturday,” he says. “I wrestle with my friends. It’s fun.”
He moves around his room confidently and easily. “I know this house like a book.” Still, some things are hard for him to remember since, in his case, much of what he remembers has to be imagined visually first. Like the size and color of his room. “I think it’s kind of big,” he says of the small room. “And it’s green,” he says of the deep rose-colored walls.
And while Calvin doesn’t need to turn the light on in his room he does like to have some kind of sound going constantly. Loud sound.
“It’s 3 o’clock,” he says, as the theme music from a TV show blares out into his room.
“Turn that TV down,” says his mother, evenly. “You’re not deaf, you know.”
From the beginning, Ethel and Calvin Stanley were determined their blind son would go to public school. “We were living in Baltimore county when it was time for Calvin to start school and they told me I would have to pay a tuition for him to go to public school, and that really upset me,” Mrs. Stanley says. “I had words with some of the big honchos out there. I knew they had programs in schools for children with vision problems and I thought public education should be free.
“We decided we would move to Baltimore city if we had to, and I got hold of a woman in the mayor’s office. And that woman was the one who opened all the doors for us. She was getting ready to retire but she said she wasn’t going to retire until she got this straight for Calvin. I don’t know how she did it. But she did.”
Now in the fourth grade, Calvin has been attending the Cross Country Elementary School since kindergarten. He is one of six blind students in Baltimore city who are fully mainstreamed which, in this context, means they attend public school with sighted students in a regular classroom. Four of these students are at Cross Country Elementary School. If Calvin stays in public school through the 12th grade, he will be the first blind student to be completely educated within the regular public school system.
Two p.m. Vivian Jackson’s class, Room 207.
What Calvin can’t see: He can’t see the small, pretty girl sitting opposite him, the one who is wearing little rows of red, yellow and blue barrettes shaped like airplanes in her braided hair. He can’t see the line of small, green plants growing in yellow pots all along the sunny window sill. And he can’t see Mrs. Jackson in her rose-pink suit and pink enameled earrings shaped like little swans.
(“Were they really shaped like little swans?” he will ask later.)
But Calvin can feel the warm spring breeze—invisible to everyone’s eyes, not just his—blowing through the window and he can hear the tapping of a young oak tree’s branches against the window. He can hear Mrs. Jackson’s pleasant, musical voice and, later, if you ask him what she looks like, he will say, “She’s nice.”
But best of all, Calvin can read and spell and do fractions and follow the classroom work in his specially prepared braille books. He is smart and he can do everything the rest of his class can do. Except see.
“What’s the next word, Calvin?” Mrs. Jackson asks.
“Eleven,” he says, reading from his braille text book.
“Now tell us how to spell it—without looking back the book!” she says quickly, causing Calvin’s fingers to fly away from the forbidden word.
“E-l-e-v-e-n,” he spells out easily.
It all seems so simple, the ease with which Calvin follows along, the manner in which his blindness has been accommodated. But it’s deceptively simple. The amount of work that has gone into getting Calvin to this point—the number of teachers, vision specialists and mobility instructors, and the array of special equipment is staggering.
Patience and empathy from his teachers have played a large role, too.
For instance, there’s Dorothy Lloyd, the specialist who is teaching Calvin the slow very difficult method of using an Optacon, a device which allows a blind person to read a printed page by touch by converting printed letters into a tactile representation.
And there’s Charleye Dyer, who’s teaching Calvin things like “mobility” and “independent travel skills,” which includes such tasks as using a cane and getting on and off buses. Of course, what Miss Dyer is really teaching Calvin is freedom; the ability to move about independently and without fear in the larger world.
There’s also Lois Sivits who, among other things, teaches Calvin braille and is his favorite teacher. And, to add to a list which is endless, there’s the music teacher who comes in 30 minutes early each Tuesday to give him a piano lesson, and his home room teacher, Mrs. Jackson, who is as finely tuned to Calvin’s cues as a player in a musical duet would be to her partner.
An important part of Calvin’s school experience has been his contact with sighted children.
“When he first started school,” his mother recalls, “some of the kids would tease him about his eyes. ‘Oh, they’re so big and you can’t see.’ But I just told him, ‘Not any time in your life will everybody around you like you—whether you can see or not. They’re just children and they don’t know they’re being cruel. And I’m sure it’s not the last time someone will be cruel to you. But it’s all up to you because you have to go to school and you’ll have to deal with it.’”
Calvin’s teachers say he’s well liked, and watching him on the playground and in class you get the impression that the only thing that singles him out from the other kids is that someone in his class is always there to take his hand if he needs help.
“I’d say he’s really well accepted,” says his mobility teacher, Miss Dyer, “and that he’s got a couple of very special friends.”
Eight-year-old Brian Butler is one of these special friends. “My best friend,” says Calvin proudly, introducing you to a studious-looking boy whose eyes are alert and serious behind his glasses. The two boys are not in the same class, but they ride home together on the bus every day.
Here’s Brian explaining why he likes Calvin so much: “He’s funny and he makes me laugh. And I like him because he always makes me feel better when I don’t feel good.” And, he says, his friendship with Calvin is no different from any other good friendship. Except for one thing: “If Calvin’s going to bump into a wall or something, I tell him, ‘Look out,’” says Brian, sounding as though it were the most natural thing in the world to do when walking with a friend.
“Charlotte would have done it for Wilbur,” is the way Calvin sizes up Brian’s help, evoking once more the story about “how friendship ought to be.”
A certain moment:
Calvin is working one-on-one with Lois Sivits, a teacher who is responsible for the braille skills which the four blind children at Cross Country must have in order to do all the work necessary in their regular classes. He is very relaxed with Miss Sivits, who is gentle, patient, smart and, like Calvin, blind. Unlike Calvin, she was not able to go to public school but was sent away at age 6, after many operations on her eyes, to a residential school—the Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind.
And although it was 48 years ago that Lois Sivits was sent away from her family to attend the school for the blind, she remembers—as though it were 48 minutes ago—how that blind 6-year-old girl felt about the experience: “Oh, I was so very homesick. I had a very hard time being separated from my family. It took me three years before I began getting used to it. But I knew I had to stay there. I would have given anything to be able to stay at home and go to a public school like Calvin,” says the small, kind-looking woman with very small hands.
Now, the moment: Calvin is standing in front of the window, the light pouring in from behind him. He is listening to a talking clock which tells him, “It’s 11:52 a.m.” Miss Sivits stands about three feet away from him, also in front of the window holding a huge braille dictionary in her hands, fingers flying across the page as she silently reads from it. And for a few moments, there they are as if frozen in a tableau, the two of them standing in darkness against the light, each lost for a moment in a private world that is composed only of sound and touch.
Republished with permission from The Baltimore Sun. All rights reserved.