Wed | Sep 30, 2020

Blind teacher sees future in kids

Published:Saturday | January 18, 2020 | 12:33 AMJudana Murphy/Gleaner Writer
Camille Wilson-Barnes, a blind health and family life educator at Kingston High School, interacts with Tanoya Darling-Salmon (right) in a class session on Wednesday.
Camille Wilson-Barnes, a blind health and family life educator at Kingston High School, interacts with Tanoya Darling-Salmon (right) in a class session on Wednesday.

“They’re just excited. Let me settle them down,” she whispered, as the Gleaner team entered grade 9K at Kingston High School on Wednesday afternoon.

With her right hand raised, she began the countdown: “Five, four, three ... let’s go!”

In a matter of seconds, health and family life educator Camille Wilson-Barnes settled the slightly noisy class of 35 students for a session about the involvement of teenagers in gangs.

Without knowledge of her white cane that leaned in the corner, you would not know that the educator was blind.

“I hope you’re all standing,” she said, shortly after instructing the students to recite the HFLE pledge to officially begin the class.

She manoeuvred the rows between the desk without the help of her cane and got the class in full swing.

For the journaling activity, she asked: “Who needs paper? Call your name and I’ll find you.”

Quite familiar with their voices and their location in the class, Wilson-Barnes distributed the folder leaves with ease.

As the Mico University College volunteer read the testimony of a gangster, she interjected on several occasions, asked questions, and interacted with the students.

Wilson-Barnes was born to visually impaired parents who fell in love while attending the School for the Blind, 36 years ago. She was genetically predisposed and was diagnosed at birth as visually impaired.

The educator characterised herself as a social person and explained that she was desirous of a career that would allow her to interact with, and impact, people.

“I went to Mico and I did guidance and counselling ... . When I was on teaching practice, I went to Innswood High and it was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done, and I decided that I was going to stay in that career,” she recalled.

APPLYING FOR TEACHING JOBS

Before Mico, she attended the same institution where her parents met and then transitioned to St Hugh’s High School, under the integrated system, as she proved herself as being capable of handling academics.

“I wrote to all the schools in Jamaica to get a job and I got five interviews and I was successful in one, because most of the other principals decided that they weren’t gonna try me because they weren’t sure how a visually impaired teacher would work in the system,” she explained.

She was given three months by then principal of Kingston High, Charles Reid, to prove herself and the short months have flourished into 12 years. Reid is now deceased.

Wilson-Barnes recalled that the first few months of teaching were not as difficult because she had partial vision.

Her life would take an about-turn.

“I went back to university and I lost all my sight. It was very devastating.”

Her return to the classroom in 2015 proved difficult, but with support from her colleagues, she transitioned.

Chief among her challenges is maintaining discipline, followed by physical hiccups on the road as she traverses to school.

“Most teachers, they can see – they have the advantage of sight, so they would basically look on a child and maybe give eye contact, but because I can’t, I try to use psychology,” she said.

“What I try to do is motivate, so I try to let [students] believe in [themselves]. If you’re acting up, I’m going to tell you that I expect better,” she explained.

When matters get beyond her control, grade coordinators come to her aid and are the main reason she continues to thrive in the environment.

“As a blind teacher, I could not do it all alone, and the children also help. You have some children who are very mature and they will try to get the others in line.”

Acting principal Andrea Gray-Dwyer described Wilson-Barnes as an asset to the secondary institution.

“It has been a tremendous experience. Where Camille is concerned, there is no element of ‘disability’. She is very multifaceted, she’s goal oriented, she has a strong sense of purpose and, above all things, she loves children,” Gray-Dwyer said.

STUDENTS BRIDGE THE GAP

With the partnership of the National Youth Service, an assistant is usually provided for Wilson-Barnes. However, the acting principal said that last year support was not available but “the students stood in the gap”.

Fourteen-year-old Saphaire Campbell is one such student. When The Gleaner visited, she volunteered to write the responses from students on the whiteboard.

“She knows our voices different, since she has us from grade 7, so when she hears us speaking, she just says, ‘Crystal, stop the talking ’.... To us, it come like she nuh blind, ‘cause as we talk she know seh a we,” Campbell said.

Another student, Crystal Nicholson, explained that with Wilson-Barnes as teacher, cooperation is key.

“She always tells us to separate the desks so she can walk in the middle,” she said.

Kiara Weston has developed a close bond with the educator in the more than two years she has taught her. “

Ms Barnes is like a mother to me, she looks out for me very well ... . Every moment I’m here with Ms Barnes, I like it,” said a smiling Weston.

You may wonder how the educator prepares for a new school term.

She explained that the first step is for her coordinators, during the orientation process, to inform students that they will be taught by a blind teacher.

“I will not see you. However, I will teach you and I will be your best teacher,” is the reinforcing mantra used by Wilson-Barnes.

Acknowledging the fact that people’s names are important, she makes an extra effort to learn them along with their voices and personalities.

The mother of one dedicates her time outside of academia to her teenage daughter and to advocacy with the Combined Disabilities Association.

“It’s the best job in the world. I wouldn’t trade my job for anything, even if I’m getting double the salary,” the enthusiastic educator said.

judana.murphy@gleanerjm.com