Out of Sight

For the 140 students lucky enough to attend the Texas School for the Blind, life is about team sports, class plays, American Idol parties, and prom night. In fact, it’s the one place where they can see themselves for who they really are: typical teenagers.

August 2008By Comments

Photograph by Sarah Wilson

Three days before the prom at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, I stopped by House 573, a small girls’ dormitory on the school’s campus, in Austin. Tammy Reed, House 573’s sturdy, perpetually good-natured dorm manager—beloved for, among other things, her Tuesday night American Idol viewing parties, which include running commentary and hot wings—was telling me why the prom was the most thrilling night of the year for her girls. “Blind students usually don’t get asked to the prom,” she said as we sat at the kitchen table, which had been taken over by curling irons, cans of hair spray, bobby pins, Q-tips, nail polish, and costume jewelry. “And if they go to the prom, they end up standing against the wall. Everyone comes to our prom, and there won’t be a kid there who doesn’t dance.”

The ninth-period bell had already rung, signaling that school was out for the day, and Tammy’s students, some with white canes in hand, were making their way back to House 573. “Okay, girls!” Tammy cried as they straggled in, steering them toward a large pile of hand-me-downs from past proms that she had taken out of storage. “There are plenty of dresses here to try on if you don’t have something for Saturday night. If you already know what you’re wearing, why don’t you put it on and show me?” The girls began pulling gowns from the heap, feeling the textures of the different materials, fingering hemlines, tracing the contours of each design. If they had any vision, however faint, they held the fabric directly in front of their eyes, trying to catch a glimpse of color.

“Ooh, this is pretty!”

“I wish I was skinny enough to wear this.”

“That is so ghetto.”

“This is what I’m going to wear when I see Daniel,” announced junior Marsha Duffy, emerging from her bedroom in an aquamarine cocktail dress.

“Who’s Daniel?” someone asked.

“My future boyfriend,” Marsha replied.

“I’m going to wear diamonds!” interrupted freshman Krista Akridge, her gaze fixed on the ceiling.

“Cubic zirconium,” an upperclassman corrected her.

“Lord have mercy,” said sophomore Ashley Jones as Tammy zipped her into a red satin gown. “Is this what it takes to be a girl?” She patted her stomach and frowned. “I don’t feel pretty,” she said.

Girls drifted out of their bedrooms dressed grandly, looking both lovely and awkward. Amanda Huston, a junior who is blind and deaf, was jubilant as she sat in the middle of the commotion, shrieking with delight whenever the noise level became high enough to register with her. She wore an ice-blue gown with a matching corsage of silk flowers, and her long red hair spilled onto her shoulders. The prom, Amanda told me, was her favorite night of the year. “The music is loud, and we dance all night!” she signed into her interpreter’s hand.

Kelley Zaiontz, a slight, serene junior who is visually impaired but also has a neurological disorder called cerebellar ataxia, which affects the brain’s ability to coordinate muscle movement, was wheeled by a residential instructor into the room. “Let me see your dress!” Ashley said, making her way over to Kelley so she could inspect her outfit. “Do the straps crisscross?” Ashley asked, running her fingers across the back of the garment, trying to make out its design. Kelley sat still, resplendent in pink taffeta, as Ashley’s hands moved inch by inch, appraising the fabric, the style, the fit. “Ooh, this is fancy,” Ashley observed. When she had finished her examination, she exhaled. “You look beautiful,” she said.

To a sighted person, the School for the Blind looks cheerless and institutional, a drab landscape of low-slung stucco buildings, few trees, and pavement. But beyond the main entrance and past the receptionist, Teresa Wiggins, whose guide dog, Isabella, is always sprawled at her feet, is a school that has been reimagined for kids who can’t see. Classrooms have no blackboards. Basic arithmetic is learned on abacuses, and algebra problems are teased out on talking calculators. Geography is studied by feeling tactile maps of the world. In sex education, the birds and the bees are explained with the help of models of the human body that kids can touch. In Orientation and Mobility, they practice maneuvering around campus, and then Austin, on their own; in Individual and Family Life, they prepare meals and polish their table manners, learning how to eat things like spaghetti without making a mess. There are computer labs whose PCs can read e-mails aloud and a library that holds more than three thousand books in braille (Merriam-Webster’s pocket dictionary spans eight volumes). Even the two-hundred-meter track behind the school is outfitted with a railing to assist the runners. At meets with other state schools for the blind, the track team is cheered on by its own mascot, pep squad, and cheerleaders.

The School for the Blind was created by the Legislature in 1856 and is still funded by the state. Yet most of the roughly eight thousand children in Texas who are visually impaired are not educated here but in their local school districts. Today it can accommodate only 150 full-time, residential students—and only after their parents, schools, and districts agree that enrollment is in their best interest, which is unusual. (Public schools are mandated by law to serve all children; only in extraordinary cases will students attend a specialized school, where they remain under the purview of their districts.) Many of the students who have the opportunity to attend the school are from districts that are unable to meet the needs of visually impaired kids or have multiple disabilities, such as deafblindness, that require specialized instruction. They range in age from 6 to 22, and more than half of them are in high school. Hundreds of kids visit the school each year for short-term study programs, and thousands more are supported in their own districts by its outreach program. “Even one week of intensive study here can change a kid’s whole perspective,” superintendent William Daugherty told me. “Ideally, every visually impaired kid would be here at some point in their education. The goal is to see more students for a shorter amount of time and then get them back to their districts so they can be successful there.”

For blind students who have spent years floundering in public schools that lacked the expertise, the manpower, or the funding to educate them, the School for the Blind is—in the words of the kids I met—“heaven,” “the first place I had friends,” and “home.” That is not, of course, what the federal government envisioned a generation ago, when it mandated that children with disabilities be removed from residential programs and brought into classrooms with their nondisabled peers. Integrating special-education students into the mainstream—or “inclusion”—went a long way toward helping the disabled. But blind students had trouble keeping pace in schools where everything was geared toward sighted children. Even more difficult was the extreme social isolation many experienced when they were thrust into that environment. Johnathon Nolan, a senior from Beaumont who was born three and a half months early with a condition called retinopathy of prematurity, was blunt when he told me what being the only blind student at his school had been like. “My life was a living hell,” he said. “I walked with a cane, so kids thought I was a freak. I had no friends. I had low self-esteem. I felt cut off from the rest of the world. Before I came here, I never knew there were people like me.”

Other students told me stories of being bullied, humiliated, teased, and tripped; of being tricked into eating things that were inedible; of having their glasses knocked off and their canes broken. “My grandparents had to buy me seven pairs of glasses one year,” said Lee Jones, a senior from the Central Texas town of Clifton whose eye condition, achromatopsia, is a severe form of color blindness. “When I came here, it was like I instantly got cooler.” Lanie Molinar, a sophomore, recalled the private misery she had felt when she attended school in Alvin, south of Houston. “Kids used to whisper when I walked down the hall with my cane,” she said. “I have really good hearing, so I could hear everything they were saying.” Born with optic nerve hypoplasia, she looked different from her classmates because her eyes would often move involuntarily. “I was the kid who didn’t have any friends,” she told me. “I sat by myself at lunchtime, and when I was younger, I played by myself in the playground.” At the School for the Blind, she had learned how to make her own clothes with a sewing machine and was earning A’s in algebra. Best of all, she told me giddily, she was going to the prom.

“High school is often a painful experience, but for many of these kids, it’s extraordinarily hard,” said Marnee Loftin, the school’s psychologist, when I visited her in the homey office where she has counseled students for 24 years. “Often their parents might still pick out their clothes, so they’re not dressed like their peers. They can’t drive. They haven’t seen the movies and TV shows that everyone is talking about. The social isolation and loneliness can be profound.” Yet at the School for the Blind, they can star in a school play, compete on a team, be a cheerleader, have a boyfriend. And they don’t have to miss out on that quintessentially American rite of passage, the prom (“It’s the only thing that anyone’s talking about,” one junior told me). The students I spoke to were grateful to have found a school designed just for them, a place where Easter egg hunts featured plastic eggs that beeped and field trips to minor league baseball games included tactile tours of the dugout. But what they appreciated most was that the school allowed them to feel like ordinary teenagers. For most of them, this was their chance to really experience high school.

“A criticism we get is that we’re not the real world,” explained Daugherty. “But sometimes to get kids ready to live in the sighted world, you have to take a step back and meet them where they are. A cynical person might say that none of these kids would ever get cast in a school play or be on a team, so why create an atmosphere of false hope? These experiences help to build their self-esteem and show them what they’re capable of.”

I was reminded of Daugherty’s comments one evening this spring, when I went to the rec center to watch Music Mania, the wildly popular karaoke-night-cum-talent-show that takes place every Tuesday. Many of the school’s multiply impaired students were there—kids with cerebral palsy or autism or severe developmental delays who sat rocking back and forth. A girl who involuntarily lurched from side to side in her wheelchair sang Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” as one of her instructors accompanied her on the electric guitar, and another girl, who was visually impaired, belted out a song that had been a hit on the country charts in the mid-nineties (“She’s got her daddy’s money / Her momma’s good looks . . . And look at who’s lookin’ at me ”).

“How’s everyone doing tonight?” one boy asked before launching into “Cafeteria Blues,” an ad-libbed lament about the school’s food. “They serve up gasoline and motor oil, soap and shampoo,” he sang. “I told her that I wanted a burger, and she gave me toenails!” The next act, a teenage boy with limited cognitive abilities, leaned into the mike and did a long, sonorous imitation of a clock striking midnight.

Sitting on one of the rec center’s scruffy couches was Amanda Huston, the deafblind student I had met at House 573, and her deafblind roommate, Patsy Izaguirre. The girls were engrossed in conversation, each one signing into the other’s hand, stopping only to laugh at their own silent, shared jokes. “Amanda and Patsy, you’re up!” the emcee called out as their interpreter gave them a nudge. They sat side by side onstage, each holding a mike, and sang their hearts out. It was less a melody than a long, piercing cry, but it was greeted enthusiastically by the crowd. Both girls beamed when they recognized—however faintly—the rumble of applause.

Not everyone at the School for the Blind can’t see. Even with a condition as seemingly absolute as blindness, there are gradations. Some students are totally blind and are unable to differentiate between night and day. Others have some sight but are severely limited in their acuity (how clearly they see) and visual fields (how large an area they perceive). The first students I met who could see me were Chasity Coberley, the school’s head cheerleader, and Liz Guthrie, its mascot. “Liz’s eye condition is like looking through a straw,” Chasity, a junior from the town of Red Oak, south of Dallas, told me one afternoon after class. “Mine is the opposite. I have peripheral vision, but I have trouble seeing things in front of me.” Chasity looked every bit the cheerleader, with her long blond hair pulled back into a ponytail and a blue varsity jacket folded in her lap. She sat facing me, but her gaze didn’t quite meet mine. As we talked, she told me about the moment three years ago, when she was fourteen, when she glanced out a window and realized that her remaining vision had become blurry. “My eye condition is progressive,” she said. “So basically I’ll lose all my sight one day, but I don’t know when.”

Chasity and Liz walked around campus without their canes, an ability that put them at the top of the high school pecking order. While Chasity was the cool blonde, Liz was the class cutup. A junior from Sheridan, a tiny town halfway between San Antonio and Houston, Liz had freckles and long brown hair and a giggly high-spiritedness. She was responsible for bringing back the school mascot, the Wildcat, after years in which the tradition had languished. And while many students were planning on going stag to the prom, Liz had a date. She had been bold enough to ask out a guy she had met at nearby McCallum High School. Bringing a sighted person from another school was unusual, to say the least; a veteran teacher told me that she could remember only one other student doing so in the past twenty years. Liz was clearly proud that her date was a McCallum student, and she took the opportunity to tell the other girls about him whenever she could. “I can pass as a sighted person,” she told me with evident pride.

Liz was adept at doing things that many of her classmates could not, like telling the difference between a one-dollar bill and a five or sending a text message or identifying a person from a few feet away. Because she had recognized me several times on campus, I initially failed to grasp the severity of her condition. One of her teachers gave me a pair of “simulators,” modified glasses that reproduced her field of vision, so that I could better understand how she saw the world. Looking through them, I felt as if I were trying to glimpse the ground in front of me through a distant keyhole. Liz has an acute form of tunnel vision called retinitis pigmentosa, which is degenerative. Yet like Chasity, she had figured out how to use what little sight she had to great effect. At a pep rally this spring, I watched as Chasity did cartwheels and round-offs before sailing into a backflip, while Liz, sweating inside an enormous, furry wildcat outfit, danced to OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” and exaggeratedly swung her tail in the air.

“I came here for the first time when I was eight, for camp, and I didn’t think I had a vision problem,” Liz told me. “I grew up with my family denying that I was blind. My foster mom is very supportive, but when I lived with my real mom, she thought I was making it up. So when I got here, I was like, ‘I’m not blind. They’re blind. Get me out of here!’” Liz had softened her opinion of the school since then—“I wouldn’t have made it without this place,” she said after she sketched out a few details of a harrowing childhood—but she was still happiest when she could convince herself that she was no different from anybody else. During fifth and sixth periods, when she went to McCallum High to take classes such as physics and English, Liz was always quick to hurry off the van that had “Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired” printed on its side. She refused to use a cane, even though she did not know her way around the campus, preferring to bump into things rather than appear to be disabled. “I’ve walked into a desk and run smack into a teacher, but I just played it off and made it into a joke,” she told me. “I still don’t like admitting that I have a vision problem, but I’m working on it.”

The students I met who were congenitally blind seemed to be content just the way they were. “I always ask my mom, ‘What’s it like to see?’ and she can’t explain it,” said a sixth-grader from Abilene named Mariah Long, whose optic nerve never fully developed. “I kinda try to imagine what seeing is, but I don’t know. People feel sorry for you when you’re visually impaired, but there are a lot of advantages. I mean, I can hear what everyone’s saying, even when they don’t think I can. And I can get under the covers at home and read, but my sister has to turn the light on!” Often it was the students who were in the process of losing their sight who appeared in Marnee Loftin’s office complaining of panic attacks or depression.

Nothing seemed to create more anxiety for Liz than her Orientation and Mobility, or O&M, lessons, which required her to use a cane while navigating her way around unfamiliar places. Only in O&M did her confidence falter. Once a week, she had to find her way back to campus from a different location in Austin, where she was dropped off by her instructor, an upbeat woman named Mary Faith Price. (“I teach kids about spatial relationships and how to get from A to B without getting killed,” she told me.) Liz was in need of O&M instruction because the limited vision she had could fade and because she had a more pressing problem: night blindness. If she was outdoors after dusk, or indoors in very dim lighting, she had almost no sight at all. (For her, daylight saving time was a life-changing event.) Liz’s night vision was so poor, in fact, that she knew she would have trouble seeing much of anything once the lights were turned down low at the prom. “I told my date that when night comes, I’ll be totally blind, but I’m not sure he believed me,” she said.

Liz agreed to let me tag along one morning when she had an O&M lesson—which, as usual, she was running late for. She hurried down the hall and burst into Mary Faith’s office five minutes after the bell had rung.

“Where’s your cane?” Mary Faith asked.

“I don’t know,” Liz said, shrugging.

Her instructor cocked an eyebrow. “You don’t know?”

“Oh my gosh, Mary Faith!” Liz said, sighing for dramatic effect. “Can’t I borrow one?”

Mary Faith had a collection of extra canes on hand for just such an occasion and gave Liz a cane with a friendly but firm reprimand. It was a conversation they had had before. “We’re going downtown today,” Mary Faith said. “I’m going to take you to Colorado and Third, and you’ll need to find your way to the bus stop on Congress.” Liz had been dropped off in residential neighborhoods, but never downtown.

“Mary Faith!” Liz looked petrified.

“Am I pushing you too hard?”

Liz shook her head. “I’m good,” she mumbled.

Mary Faith drove us downtown, allowing me to accompany Liz as long as I promised that I would not give her any guidance. “This is north,” she told Liz when we reached our destination, turning her by her shoulders toward the Capitol. “You’re going to have to get yourself home from here. The number five and the number three bus will both take you back to school, right?”

Liz nodded as if she were being sent to her death.

“Good luck!” Mary Faith said brightly. “I’ll see you back at school.” And then she was gone. (Though she didn’t actually leave; I noticed her observing us from her van down the street.)

Liz stood still and gripped her cane. Downtown traffic rushed by her as she tried to get her bearings. She turned east, sweeping her cane back and forth across the sidewalk. When she reached the corner, she seemed at a loss for what to do next. “There’s no pole!” she said under her breath, feeling for something that wasn’t there. She had counted on finding a light pole, the kind with a buzzer that sounds when it is safe to cross, but there wasn’t one. She squinted, trying to discern whether the light was red or green, but she couldn’t make out the signal from where she stood. Finally she did what Mary Faith had trained her to do: She stood at the curb for a long time, listening to the ebb and flow of traffic. She waited as the light turned from green to red and back to green again and again. When she was satisfied that the car engines she heard idling were stopped at a red light, she stepped into the crosswalk.

Liz made it across the street and took a left. She looked relieved when she heard the brakes of her bus screech to a stop ahead of us. We had covered just two blocks, but it felt as if we had traveled a very long way.

The only thing that nearly overshadowed the prom was the spring production of The Wizard of Oz. Staging a two-act musical with 29 cast members would be daunting at any high school, but at the School for the Blind, it was a herculean undertaking. Helming the two-and-a-half-hour production was the school’s indefatigable English teacher, Robert Pierson, or “Mr. P,” who ran students through their paces in rehearsals that often stretched past nine o’clock in the evening. A great deal of time was devoted to blocking scenes, or teaching actors where to situate themselves onstage. Mr. P could not always show them where to stand, so he sometimes guided them with his voice, counting out loud as he walked beside them (“It’s one, two, three steps to Auntie Em”) and rapping his knuckles against props (“This is the door to the Emerald City”). When an eleven-minute-long musical number in Munchkinland called for actors to sway from side to side in unison, he held the students by the shoulders and moved them to the beat until they understood what was expected of them. “This is a visual thing, folks!” he said by way of explanation. He had to remind students to face one another as they delivered their lines and to turn toward the audience when they sang. “We’re not trying to fool anyone into thinking that the actors can see,” he told me. “But this production is for a sighted audience.”

Three of the four lead roles—Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man—would be played by students who were totally blind. (Fortunately, Mr. P noted, the story called for them to link arms whenever they had to walk somewhere.) As rehearsals began, actors diligently learned their lines in braille and in large print, depending on their eye conditions. Multiply impaired kids who were not able to read still managed to memorize their lines by listening to audio recordings. Junior Amy Flores, a pretty brunette from Eagle Pass who could carry a melody effortlessly and could act to boot, had been cast as Dorothy. (Born premature, she had lost her vision when too much oxygen in her incubator had caused retinal damage.) She had taken a while to warm to the part, she told me, because she was “not the girly type.” She preferred to compete on the school’s wrestling team and bragged that she had once given an opponent a bloody nose. “In rehearsal, I have to practice sobbing like a girl and saying things like, ‘Oh, please don’t take Toto away from me!’” she said dispiritedly. “I wanted the part of the Wicked Witch.”

As opening night drew near, everything began to fall into place. Actors no longer ran into one another onstage, and they delivered their lines without faltering. Mary Faith, who had spent months scouring secondhand clothing stores, put the finishing touches on the nearly fifty costumes she had made with her sewing machine and the help of a few teachers who had volunteered their time. Kristy Sikes, who taught a cooking class, asked her students to help prepare treats for the reception, like “Tin Man’s Heart Sugar Cookies” and “Yellow Brick Road Cheese Crackers” and “Ruby Slipper Punch.” Each cup was painstakingly poured by the kids, each cookie carefully frosted, each “Scarecrow’s Haystack” arranged on party platters that they were unable to see themselves.

Backstage, before the curtain went up on the performance that I attended—the first matinee before opening night—there was palpable anxiety. Munchkins lined the walls, jiggling their legs up and down as they waited for their cue, and Dorothy stood alone, exhaling. Only Glinda the Good Witch seemed unfazed as she sat and read The Great Gatsby by herself, her nose buried so far into the large-print book that it looked as if she might disappear into it. A full house, made up mostly of parents and students, waited on the other side of the curtain.

“All right, folks, let’s do a quick roll call,” Mr. P called out. “Attention, please! Dorothy?”

“Here!”

“Auntie Em?”

“Here!”

“Uncle Henry?”

“Here!”

When he had finished, Mr. P addressed the cast. “Five minutes until curtain,” he said to the actors who had gathered around him. “Remember: Get your voice out there, commit to everything, and sing with all your heart. Go ahead and take places. Have a great show. Most of all, have fun!”

From the very beginning, when Amy delivered her first line—“Oh, jeepers, my heart is beating so loud I can hardly breathe!”—the play went off without a hitch. She made her entrance rushing down the theater aisle, sweeping her cane back and forth across the carpet until she had reached the stage, an exercise that she made look effortless. By the time she finished singing “Over the Rainbow,” the audience had erupted in cheers and whistles and applause. And yet it was Mariah Long, the Scarecrow, who nearly stole the show with her hammy ad-libbing. As she walked arm in arm with Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, she said in a stage whisper, “It’s like the blind leading the blind!” When she and Dorothy made their first stop along the Yellow Brick Road at an orchard and Mariah was asked if there were any apples to be found, she said, “I don’t know, I’m not seeing any!”

When the play came to an end and Dorothy was back home in Kansas—“Oh, Auntie Em, there’s no place like home!”—the audience responded with a standing ovation.

Four hours before the prom, the air inside Dorm K was already thick with hair spray. The University of Texas’s Delta Gamma sorority had volunteered to help the girls do their makeup, and they busied themselves powdering noses and dusting eyelids and brightening cheekbones. Only a few of the girls who sat in their prom dresses as their hair was curled and swept back into updos could actually see their own reflections, but all of them wanted to look beautiful—whatever beautiful meant. Most of them asked for little touches that they could feel, like cascading ringlets fashioned with curling irons or tiaras or rhinestone appliqués for their nails. A slim, blond sorority girl who had been bent over Amanda Huston leaned back to examine her work. “You look so pretty!” she told Amanda through her interpreter. “Do you want anything besides lipstick?”

“Everything!” Amanda signed back.

Liz sat gazing into a compact, trying to apply her own mascara. She was absorbed in the challenge, slowly turning the wand as she coated each lash, then trying to catch sight of her handiwork in the mirror. One of the UT students wiped a smudge of mascara away from Liz’s face as she looked on, then marveled at her skill. “My hair’s done too. I just finished putting on hair spray,” Liz announced.

“Can I feel it?” asked Ashley Jones.

“Yes, but be careful—it hasn’t dried yet!” Liz warned. “Chasity, can you see me?”

Chasity, whose hair was pulled back into a French twist, walked over to Liz and leaned in close until she was just a few inches away. She peered down and smiled at the highlighted ringlets just below her nose. “Nice,” she said before padding back to her chair, barefoot.

“I’m going to the prom with a guy from McCallum,” Liz told Ashley.

Ashley looked stunned. “Does he know you go to the blind school?” she finally asked, incredulous.

“Yeah, he’s cool with it,” Liz said, as if it were no big deal. “His stepdad is visually impaired.”

By the end of the afternoon, everyone was ready. Girls walked across campus in glittering formal gowns, boys in suits and a few rented tuxes. As they made their way toward the school buses that waited to take them to the prom, girls stood unsteadily in their high heels and assessed one another’s dresses with their hands.

The theme that night was “Enchanted Garden,” and the ballroom at the Crowne Plaza was decorated with potted plants and modest assortments of flowers—nearly all of which had been strategically placed beside the entrance so that students would smell them when they walked in. Most kids put away their canes, preferring to hang on to a friend’s shoulder as they toured the ballroom. Once they had oriented themselves, they sat down to eat dinner, unfolding their napkins in their laps and showing off their good manners. When the time came, Tammy Reed seized the microphone and cried: “Welcome to the 2008 TSBVI prom!” The lights dimmed, and kids began to scream with excitement as they rushed out onto the dance floor. “I lost my date!” Chasity said as she hurried past me.

When I spotted Liz and the boy from McCallum, they seemed perfectly at ease around each other. He was tall and dark-haired and unfailingly well mannered; he couldn’t stay out too late, he told me, because he had to go to church in the morning. Liz occasionally steadied herself by holding on to his arm. They stopped dancing long enough to watch Liz’s best friend, senior Ashley Perez, be crowned prom queen. Afterward the party resumed, and kids in leg braces and walkers all made their way out onto the dance floor. No one hung back, not even Amanda Huston, who could not walk unassisted; instead, she was hoisted over the shoulders of a teacher’s boyfriend and spun around as she giggled uproariously. Liz and her date swayed back and forth to Selena’s “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” laughing. “I walked into a walker and a chair tonight,” Liz told me later. “But I don’t think he noticed.”

Before the lights came up and it was time to go, students got in line to have their portraits taken. Under a white archway draped in silk wisteria vines, they stood and posed for the camera. Some were led to the arch by their residential instructors, who tilted their students’ chins so they would know which way to face. (“The camera is to your right,” a teacher reminded a girl who faced the opposite direction.) Other kids found their way on their own, then quickly tucked their canes out of sight. They smoothed their hair and straightened their collars and flashed their broadest smiles for their moment in the spotlight. Some looked overjoyed to be in front of the camera, others terribly vulnerable. They smiled as hard as they could and then went back to the dance floor.

Why was it so important to have your photograph taken, I wondered, if you couldn’t see the picture? “To prove that you were there—you know, ‘I was at the prom,’” Lee Jones told me. “Just like in a normal high school.”

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