Originally created 02/18/99

Breaking boundaries



Stanley Lopez can't see. But the Augusta resident didn't let his disability stop him from becoming a student teacher or graduating from college with a degree in education.

Despite losing his sight in infancy, Mr. Lopez, who attended T.W. Josey High School, has shattered the negative stereotypes he encounters every day. Although many people thought it wasn't possible, he graduated with honors from Georgia Southern University's School of Education.

But only after teaching 16 weeks of world geography to ninth-graders at Southeast Bulloch High School in Brooklet, outside of Statesboro.

"It wasn't easy," he said. "Student teaching -- blind or not -- is rough, and I didn't have to just deal with the stigma attached to being a student teacher. I also had to deal with the stigma people attach to being blind."

The stint at the high school not only fulfilled his student teaching requirement but also taught him some valuable lessons about life.

"I respect teachers more today than when I got into it," Mr. Lopez said. "It's the hardest thing I've done in my life. But at the same time, rewarding. I tried my very best, heart and soul, every day."

Although he loved teaching, the politics and the bureaucracy of the educational system left him disillusioned.

"Many of the expectations are on discipline, not education," Mr. Lopez said. The salary for a beginning teacher didn't impress him, either.

"I'm not a fool. I'm looking where the job market is. I'm not limiting myself."

Mr. Lopez is seeking jobs in "alternative education," such as in youth homes or development shelters. He's also looking at companies that focus on education, including those that create textbooks. Although he's staying at his parents' house on Seelye Drive during his job search, Mr. Lopez is not planning to stay in Augusta. He wants to find a job farther south.

To find a job, Mr. Lopez said he must "sell himself" to potential employers just as any other recent college grad must. He explained how he has found ways of compensating for blindness, including using computer technology.

Wayne Aikins, director of the Disabled Student Resource Center at Georgia Southern, said Mr. Lopez hurdled all the barriers he encountered at GSU.

"I can't think of a single time that we did any campus training with him," Mr. Aikins said. "He took his guide dog and learned the campus because he knew he needed to get around. That's typical Stanley."

And, just as he learned to get around on his own, he found ways to succeed in the classroom while student teaching.

He made different versions of tests for every student to prevent cheating and used technology designed to assist the blind to create visual aids and study guides.

Still, Mr. Lopez admits there were problems.

"Some students will try to find the weakness in any teacher and take advantage of it," he said. "But the kids adapted to me quickly. It was harder to deal with the adults who have developed more preconceived notions."

Mr. Lopez said the principal and his supervising teacher were "very supportive. If we ran into stumbling blocks, we overcame them as a team."

Still, many faculty and staff members asked him during his student teaching if he was going to work in a blind school, he said.

"In some settings, as far as teaching for the blind, I'm sure he would make an excellent teacher," said Tom Bigwood, principal of Southeast Bulloch High School. "It's quite amazing he had the courage and determination to do it. We were quite inspired by him."

As Mr. Lopez searches for permanent positions, some potential employers question how he managed a classroom.

"I can't see who's throwing paper across the room. But when their backs are turned, neither can any other teacher," Mr. Lopez said. "All teachers face discipline problems. It just seems more obvious with me."

When he's asked those questions during a job interview, he says that he handles discipline issues the best way he can -- just as anyone else would.

"I don't have all of the answers. I can quote textbook stuff, but I learn by doing, just like anyone else."

There will always be students who are going to cause problems, he said. But most students treated him with respect.

"People underestimate kids. They expect them to be bad. But I have higher expectations of them."

Walt Simmons, director of the Savannah Association for the Blind, said employers should have higher expectations of Mr. Lopez.

"Some people just aren't aware that blind people can do anything that anyone else can do," Mr. Simmons said.

Employers' apprehension about hiring the blind stems from their limited knowledge, not the blind person's abilities, Mr. Simmons said.

"There's nothing new about blind teachers. They've been teaching in colleges and schools and universities for years," Mr. Simmons said. "What might appear to be a problem to a sighted person is not a problem to the blind person because they'll find a way to work it out."

Jenel Few, education reporter for The Savannah Morning News, contributed to this report. Jessica Rinck can be reached at (706) 823-3225.