Those who have met Melissa Lagroue will tell you that she is an attractive, perfectly normal young woman. She graduated from college in June with a degree in elementary education and was married to John Williamson, a medical student, in mid-July. Because the young couple will be settling down near the medical school in an area in which teachers have been laid off in recent months, Melissa is going on to graduate school rather than looking for a job right away. Hers is a story repeated with variations thousands of times every summer.
But each human being is unique, with personal gifts to give and contributions to make. Melissa is blind and an active and dedicated member of the National Federation of the Blind. She understands that Federation philosophy is meant to be lived and that it works. When an education professor at her college told her two years ago that she had no business training to teach public school, Melissa rallied her forces and disputed that view successfully. (See the June, 1991, issue of the Braille Monitor.)
Melissa Lagroue student taught last year like the other members of her Birmingham Southern education-major class. But Melissa clearly made a profound impact on the children and teachers with whom she came into contact. On April 30, 1992, the Birmingham News carried a story by Scottie Vickery about Melissa Lagroue and her class. Here it is:
Elijah Evans has learned a lot more than spelling in school this year.
He and the other children in Naomi Goss's fifth-grade class at Shades Cahaba Elementary School have learned a lesson in humanity. And it was their teacher, Melissa LaGroue, an education major at Birmingham-Southern College who is blind, who enlightened them.
"I learned to respect people who don't have all the abilities that you have," said ten-year-old Elijah. "She didn't tell us that; I've just learned it by watching and stuff."
"It's been a good education for the kids," said Mrs. Goss. "From Melissa's perspective, she's not here to teach a lesson about blindness; she's here to teach school."
But if the children happen to learn something about determination along the way, that's fine with Miss LaGroue.
"Children can learn something from anyone who is not a mainstream, stereotypical teacher," she said. "A male teacher teaches children that a man can be nurturing.
"I hope when these kids are grown and have jobs, they'll look back on this and assume that blind people with the same background as their sighted competitors are equally qualified to get jobs."
Heather Brandt, eleven, already has a grasp on that. "She's just like anybody else," Heather said of Miss LaGroue. "She can teach just like Mrs. Goss can."
It doesn't surprise Miss LaGroue that the children consider her blindness no big deal. "Stereotypes are learned," she said. "They're certainly not developed by the children. If they've never been told that something is odd, weird, or not acceptable, they don't know it."
Miss LaGroue, who grew up in Birmingham and graduated from Huffman High School, said she always wanted to be a teacher.
And the only reason she ever considered another profession was that she'd heard teaching doesn't pay much.
She said she never considered her blindness to be an obstacle. "There is a National Association of Blind Educators, and I knew it was possible because I knew people who were doing it," Miss LaGroue said. "If anyone ever questioned whether I could teach even though I was blind, I gave them the telephone numbers (of the association) and told them to call."
Although she has a guide dog named Magic, Miss LaGroue mostly relies on her cane to get around at school. And it's not unusual to see students jumping over it as she walks down the hall.
"From an adult perception, it looks cruel, but from a kid's perception, it's a cane and it's moving, so why not jump it?" Mrs. Goss said. "The kids have not tried to treat Melissa like she's fragile."
Although she can't see students who are passing notes or throwing paper balls, Miss LaGroue said discipline has not been a problem.
"If a child makes a face at me, it doesn't matter," she said. "It doesn't affect me in the least. And if someone is throwing spit wads, you can bet one of the other children will tell me. I like kids to be well-behaved, but I don't believe in children sitting in their desks with their hands crossed."
Anthony Chapman, eleven, said he is surprised at how much Miss LaGroue knows about what goes on in the classroom, even though she can't see.
Soon after she began student teaching, Anthony said he didn't read his book like he was supposed to. "She caught me," Anthony said with a grin. "She found out some way that I wasn't reading my book. I guess she couldn't hear the flipping pages."
Antuan Crenshaw, ten, said he wondered at first how Miss LaGroue would know when the students raised their hands to ask a question. But he said she told them to say their name softly, and she would call on the first person she heard.
"If they say it (their names) real loud, she won't call on them just like I won't call on students who do this," said Mrs. Goss, waving her arm wildly.
Grading papers is another area in which Miss LaGroue has made adjustments. While the class is working on assignments at their desks, Miss LaGroue goes over spelling sheets with individual students. The children come up to her desk and spell certain words orally.
Although she has found ways to handle almost everything that might come up in the classroom, Miss LaGroue acknowledged that she has some limitations.
"I would not like to teach writing because I recognize my limitations in writing," she said. Miss LaGroue said she does write on the blackboard, but not as often as Mrs. Goss.
"But I could switch out with another teacher and have her teach writing and I'd teach health or science for her," Miss LaGroue said. I know that I'm better at teaching other things than some people might be."
Jamie Sparks, however, is impressed with Miss LaGroue's writing skills. A third-grader at Green Valley Elementary School, Jamie had Miss LaGroue as a student teacher earlier this year.
"She used to comment that Melissa wrote in a straight line when she wrote on the board, even though she couldn't see." said Lynn Sparks, Jamie's mother.
Jamie was so affected by Miss LaGroue that she is reading Helen Keller's autobiography, Mrs. Sparks said. "The children loved her in spite of the fact that she could not see," Mrs. Sparks said. "I hope they've learned a lesson that people are people."
Gloria Holder, the Green Valley teacher Miss LaGroue worked with, said she believes Miss LaGroue made a lasting impression on the children.
"Probably at this young age they don't realize the impact it had on them," Mrs. Holder said. "But I think they'll remember it for a long, long time."
And the students aren't the only ones who will look back on the experience and realize they learned something.
"I learned about determination, courage, and striving for what you want," Mrs. Holder said. "On Melissa's last day here, we all wrote her notes, and I told her I hope she learned as much from us as we've learned from her."
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