To learn more about Academy of Music for the Blind, visit www.ourAMB.org
NATHAN’S MAGICAL WORLD
By Khim Teoh
“Is this a wooden bridge, Ms.Khim?”, Nathan says as he taps his long white cane and happily stomps his feet on a green wooden bridge on our path. “Yes, Nathan, It is a bright green bridge. Let’s sing London Bridge is Falling Down together,” I replied as we marched across the bridge together. It was my first hiking trip at the Woodbridge Lake with five-year old Nathan, a delightful student at the Blind Children Learning Center in Santa Ana. I volunteer here once a week where I assist the teachers with their All School Music session by playing the ukulele as the kids sing and do hand actions to their nursery rhymes. Nathan is amongst the forty children at this pre-school with vision impairment. He was born with Peter’s Anomaly, a rare congenital eye disease that involves thinning and clouding of the cornea, which causes blurred vision. His right eye is completely blind due to an eye infection at two years old and his left eye vision is incredibly poor. He has learned to distinguish color if his eyes are about an inch away from the object. In laymen’s term, Nathan is blind. Nathan however sees the world through smells, touch and sounds. In the last month that I have spent in closer quarters mentoring this special boy, I too have begun to experience the magical world through his eyes.
Just as we finished singing London Bridge, Nathan said “Oops…No more bridge. This is a very short bridge. The last time we sang London Bridge three times before we got to the end. This one only takes one London Bridge song. Can I try to touch the water below me with my cane?” Nathan carefully squats down and sticks his cane between the gaps of the railing and tries to feel the water below him. He lightly taps it and when he heard a small splash, he got very excited. He tapped the water harder and squealed when it sprinkled on our heads. “I’m making rain with the lake water!” he exclaimed loudly. I was amazed that he was having so much fun and in awe of how he visually mapped his surrounding by the sound of the tiny waterfall that flowed into the lake. To a sighted five-year old child, this is just a regular bridge. There is not that much excitement in crossing a bridge; they are distracted by other visual stimulations around them. But for Nathan, a bridge like this is to be thoroughly enjoyed in all dimensions. He puts his fingers on the railing and follows it all the way. He starts taking steps to the left until he reaches the opposite railing. “Ms. Khim, this bridge is six-steps wide. Am I in the middle now?” Nathan says as he steps back three steps to his right. “You are exactly in the middle, good job Nathan” I was pleased that he remembered what I taught him at my house on how to estimate the middle of a room by touching both walls on opposite sides of the room.
“Hi biker, can you ring your bell?”, Nathan says as a bicyclist rides towards us. The cyclist smiled at Nathan as he rang his bell. Nathan could hear his wheels even before he got close to us. He has been taught to listen out for different vehicles when he is walking on the streets by his motor skills therapist at school. As we continued walking along the path, Nathan mimics the sounds of the ducks, geese and sea gulls around us. Each of them sounds different and Nathan asks me what they are saying to each other. I told him that I didn’t speak the animal language but he can use his imagination and guess what they could be talking about. “I think they are calling out to their mommies to bring them food”, Nathan remarked.
As we walk closer to the lake, Nathan stomps towards a group of ducks that were being fed by another young boy. They quacked loudly and flapped frantically as they waddled into the lake. Nathan chuckled, “I chase all the duckies into the lake, they are scared of me” the look of thrill as though playing tag with the ducks. As he moves cautiously towards the edge of the lake and feels with his cane where the water starts, he got down on all fours and slowly puts his hands into the lake. “The lake water is colder than the swimming pool. You cannot swim here. It’s too cold” Nathan commented as he swished the water with his hands.
As I sat by the lake holding Nathan so that he doesn’t fall into the water, I closed my eyes and enjoyed the surrounding with my ears. I could hear rustling of leaves as the wind blew, the soft breeze caressing my face. I felt the soft grass where we were sitting and the cold lake water on our toes as we dipped our feet in it. I was enjoying the world as Nathan would and I must say it is quite tantalizing. The sounds of the animals, trees swaying and kids playing harmonized like nature’s orchestra. I felt contented and blessed to share Nathan’s world. He is an exceptional boy that navigates himself in a world designed for the sighted with tenacity and determination. His incredible focus and sensitivity to sounds and textures helps me realize that there is so much more to the wonder of the world that we tend to take for granted. For instance, the sound and feel of our footsteps when we are walking on dry gravel paths versus a muddy one. Every tree and plant has unique surfaces and sizes. In the last month, I have adopted a newer appreciation for our surrounding and learn imaginative ways to describe everything to little Nathan. The sighted are constantly bombarded with so much visual stimulus that it can get difficult to be in the moment and savor the wonderful gifts of nature.
“The sky is blue, right Ms.Khim?” Nathan asked suddenly. “Yes, Nathan. Clouds are white. What else is up high in the sky?” I wondered if he knew without seeing. “There are airplanes, helicopters, rainbows and birds up there”, Nathan answered as he pointed towards the sky. It got me thinking of how when we read, our imagination takes us to the places and lets us experience what’s on the page without us being there. I concluded that Nathan would see the same way we see images conjured in our heads by reading. “Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high”, Nathan started singing in perfect pitch. It is so heart-warming to observe this adorable Chinese boy with a bright smile radiating happiness. It is typical for the sighted to feel deep sympathy for a little boy with visual impairment and even underestimate his abilities to do many things. If they only knew Nathan the way I know him, I would daresay, the sky is his limit. His memory is so sharp and it has enabled him to learn languages at a phenomenal rate. He enunciates to perfection English, Mandarin, Hakka and Indonesian language. He can find middle C on a piano by ear and figures out how to play a certain melody of a song by tinkering with his fingers till he finds it. He can tell which strings on my ukulele that is not in tune.
I felt very strongly about Nathan's natural musical talents and after some research found him the only music school in America dedicated to the blind. Academy of Music for the Blind accepted Nathan when he was only five years old and provided him some scholarship so that his family could afford to send him there. The blessings continued when they recruited me to teach ukulele and recorder. My life would never be the same as I embarked on this exciting musical journey with Nathan empowering blind children to shine in this world with their talents.
As his teacher, I feel privileged to impart as much knowledge as I can to this special boy. A teachers’ greatest reward is a student that learns and Nathan does that exceptionally well. As we walk around the lake and discover more hidden surprises along the way, I can’t help but feel tremendously grateful for the most powerful lesson Nathan has taught me. Thank you Nathan for inspiring all of us with your beautiful spirit. At five-years old with very limited vision, you see much better than most adults. You maximize your strengths and not dwell on your weakness. You accept the cards that were dealt to you in life and rise above your adversities with amazing courage.