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Washington Voices

A Sense Of Touch With Some Special Help, Blind Student Chanelle Hill Is Learning With And Inspiring The Other Students In Her Standard Fourth-Grade Class

‘The Loneliest Ocean,” is Chanelle Hill’s latest short story.

In the tale, the Arctic Ocean learns that it’s OK to be small, cold and blue, instead of big and powerful like the Pacific.

The author’s innocent imagination flows from her like a rushing river. Printing her name is more of a struggle.

Hill, a 9-year-old fourth-grader at East Farms Elementary, is blind.

Sprawled across three feet of a classroom blackboard, and sloping downward at the end, is her first name.

“That’s the best you’ve ever written it,” congratulates vision teacher Pat Angove. “Now we’ve got to get it down to size so you can write it on your checks.”

Hill has always attended school with sighted students, and East Valley School District has gone to great lengths to make her days as normal as possible.

During a science lesson, teacher Carol Anderson asks students to predict the outcome of an experiment before she performs it.

Hill jumps from her desk and turns around, seating herself in front of her Braille-writing machine.

“The hot water will rise to the top,” she types out in the combinations of raised dots that make up the Braille alphabet.

Later, Angove, who has worked with Hill for four years, will transcribe the assignment and give it to Anderson.

“It’s almost as close to a normal situation as possible,” Anderson said.

Each book Hill needs - 12 this year - must be ordered from a company that translates the text into Braille. Books have already been ordered for next year, Anderson said.

Hill’s science book - a 350-page text - was Brailled into 14 spiral notebook volumes. A Brailled text can cost several hundred dollars.

Hill also has a special computer that speaks back each word she types and a printer that churns out Braille. She and her equipment occupy four desks.

But the district’s investment in Hill has paid off. She’s a mature, intelligent girl who eagerly participates in school activities. She plays violin, takes voice lessons and even volunteers at the school library.

And the fourth-grader has inadvertently given something back to the school. Other students have taken an interest in her and in writing Braille.

“It’s like a code that you have to figure out,” said Jennie Wiecks, 10. “It’s like learning Spanish.”

Mandy Gerky, 9, collects discarded Brailled lessons. Heather LaSalle, 9, has learned to write her name in the raised dots.

But Wiecks says she’s found her future career.

Wiecks, who has been friends with Hill for more than two years, wants to be a vision teacher and open a school for the blind someday.

“That’s a child with a passion,” Angove said of Wiecks.

Three years ago, when Wiecks was in first grade, she found some Brailled sheets in the garbage. They’d been transcribed, and Wiecks began to teach herself the language of the blind by holding her hand over the written words and quizzing herself on what the raised rows of dots meant.

She quickly learned the alphabet and lists of contractions - common groupings of letters such as “ing.” In the word “different,” for example, ‘ff,’ ‘er’ and ‘en’ are contractions typed in a single motion on the Brailler.

When Christmas rolled around, the only thing on Wiecks’ list was a Brailler, which she received.

Now she helps Angove transcribe Hill’s Brailled pages. One of Wiecks’ first projects was to Braille and transcribe a long story Hill had written about her summer vacation.

“I did the final copy of her 40-page story and it was not fun,” Wiecks said. “That was her summer, and she had a long summer.”

Someday, the two girls say, they’ll open a school for the blind together. Wiecks, who admits she’s impatient, said she’ll leave teaching words on the Brailler up to Hill.

“Chanelle and me are going to have an orchestra class, bunks beds, water beds and single beds” for all the students who stay overnight, Wiecks said.

Of the two, Wiecks is more quiet and shy. She plays down her obvious intelligence, saying she wants to get out of her “gifted child” classes because there’s too much homework.

The vivacious Hill speaks with the precise eloquence of an English major. “I live right at Newman Lake - right on the lake,” she said, enunciating carefully. “I’m sure you know what I mean.”

She smiles and laughs quickly and easily. “Chanelle is the most agreeable person I’ve ever met,” Angove said of her student. Like the Arctic Ocean in her story, Hill has learned the importance of being happy with herself.

Hill also is fiercely independent. During a lesson, Anderson instructed the class to find a partner and answer questions in the textbook.

Hill instantly began reading it on her own, her hand sliding across the Brailled lesson. When another girl asked if she wanted a partner, Hill responded: “I guess, but I won’t need any help.”

But Wiecks remembers times in past years when Hill did need help and was frustrated by her blindness. Once, in first grade, Wiecks said, Hill couldn’t find some candy she’d dropped and was upset because she thought someone would steal it.

“She wants to be able to do the things that people who can see can do,” Wiecks said. “She wants to figure it out for herself.”

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