Originally created 03/09/02

Blind student continues family teaching tradition



ATHENS, Ga. - The average age in this darkened high school classroom in Athens is probably 14. The 19 teen-agers discussing world history are attentive, jotting down notes and chatting about the parade of Edwards and Henrys in English history.

Pacing back and forth, a youthful-looking teacher in sunglasses presides over the discussion, cracking jokes about Henry VIII and reminding students of key Renaissance developments. It's a classroom scene similar to dozens of others unfolding across the sprawling public school, but it's the only one in which the teacher can't see what students are doing.

"Being blind's not so bad," University of Georgia education student Brian Oglesbee tells his class at Cedar Shoals High School. "When I eat in the lunchroom, I don't have to look at the food."

A fresh recruit to the ranks of public-school teachers, Mr. Oglesbee is teaching world history in Roger Edmonds' first-period class, a stint necessary for his graduation in May.

So far, his teaching days unfold like those of any other educator, with lectures and discussion, planning periods and grading.

Then it's back home to organize another day of trying to engage teen-agers who may or may not be interested in English kings.

"I try to make it as enjoyable as possible," he said. "My philosophy is make it enjoyable, and the students will learn."

Growing up in Thomaston, Mr. Oglesbee always knew he wanted to be a teacher, just like two of his aunts. His uncle is a high school principal.

But when Mr. Oglesbee lost his sight to retinal cancer at age 16, he wondered if he'd be able to carry on the family tradition.

How would he grade papers, call on pupils in class, prepare lectures? Eight years later, Mr. Oglesbee is doing all those things.

"I haven't come across anything yet I can't do," he said.

To teach effectively, Mr. Oglesbee relies primarily on his laptop and scanner, which, combined with the right software, reads aloud to him all the written material that he scans into his system. Feeling his way down hallways with cane, he easily finds his way back and forth from the teacher's lounge to his classroom.

He said he can tell by the students' voices when they're interested and paying attention, as they were during a recent discussion of world religions, peppering him with questions about Islam and Arabic culture.

Since a raised hand won't work in his class, students call out questions and answers.

"Today there was some talking, but it was OK," he said. "I want them to talk. By discussion, we're getting a better understanding."

Three weeks into his term, Mr. Oglesbee said he and his cane are still surprising people in the hallways.

He said he has yet to run into the discipline problems he's heard so much about in modern public high schools.

"I was wondering how I would handle a fight" between students, he said. "I haven't seen anything remotely close to an altercation."

Blind teachers are increasingly common across the United States, said Karen Kalivoda, the director of disability services at the University of Georgia. Advocates used to steer people without sight primarily into computer fields, but she said software technologies that translate words into speech have allowed the range of jobs to broaden, encompassing education, human services and other fields.

Mr. Oglesbee credits his mother, Jamie, with keeping him on track and active after he lost his sight.

"If it hadn't been for her, I'd still be sitting on the sofa," he said. "One day I finally got tired of her nagging. I said 'Maybe momma knows something."'

He attends Georgia football games regularly, listening to Larry Munson announce the game.

His golf game, he said, is better than ever, because he had to develop a more controlled swing in order to hit the ball. Golf partners help direct him toward the next hole on the course.

Cedar Shoals junior Geovanny Menjivar said students tend to forget that Mr. Oglesbee is blind, and like him because he keeps the class lively.

For a test review session, he set up a game of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? quizzing the students one by one in a mock competition.

"We hardly ever use the textbook," Geovanny said.

Other challenges in the classroom, such as unruly students, he handles by force of his personality, which he said is heavily stamped by that of his father, Randy, a sports fanatic and a part-time community college referee.

There are plenty of tricks to managing a classroom, he said, such as walking over to chatting students and standing over them during lectures, to get them to quiet down, or asking them the time-honored question: Is there something you want to share with the class? And there's always the pop quiz.

He figures he can prevent cheating in the future by giving each row of students a different test.

But his primary concern these days is the same as any other teacher's - nurturing students.

"It's just the thrill of seeing that you're making a difference in someone's life," he said.