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