HKSB in the Media
Little Graduates, With Some Big Tests Yet to Come
The New York Times
June 22, 2006
Thursday Late Edition—Final
by Emily Vasquez
Commencement ceremonies are usually marked by a rendition of “Pomp and Circumstance,” a speaker giving advice and parents beaming over their children’s accomplishments.
The ceremony at the Children’s Learning Center at the Helen Keller Services for the Blind in downtown Brooklyn yesterday had all those features, even though none of the 14 graduates exceed 5 years of age.
All of them face challenges that would overwhelm most children their age. They all have vision impairments, and many of them have hearing problems and other disabilities. A doctor had predicted that one of them, born very prematurely, would not live a year.
But now each has conquered preschool. And yesterday at the center, the students, wearing blue gowns with yellow collars, made their way down the aisle to accept their first diplomas.
The school’s music director played “Pomp and Circumstance” on the flute, and the speaker, Matthew P. Sapolin, executive director of the Mayor’s Office for People With Disabilities, told the graduates that they could achieve their goals.
“Anything is possible when support like what’s in this room is there,” he said.
Just as high schools bestow superlatives upon their seniors—most likely to succeed, best smile, best dressed—some of the center’s graduates seemed ripe for titles of their own.
Moise Joseph, 4, emerged as the man in charge. “He’s like the mayor of this school,” said Antoinette Richards, a clinical social worker.
Moise spent his first two years in and out of hospitals. When he came to Helen Keller Services two years ago, he could not speak and had difficulty walking, said his teacher, Irina Kocherova. He is the type who wants to know just “what are you doing and where are you going,” Ms. Kocherova said.
Now, Moise not only walks, but also struts. “It’s like a fashion show every morning,” Ms. Kocherova said.
Dior Wiggan, 4, was the showman, his voice ringing out even above that of the musical director, who led the group in a song called “I Will Be Your Friend.” Urging his twin brother, Justin, to sing louder, Dior punctuated the song with a shout of, “Get going!” then, “Everybody sing!” all the while smiling at the crowd.
Dior’s mother, Shawnette Wiggan, said that the twins act like children who have never had a disability. “They’ve shocked me so much,” she said.
The twins were born about three months premature; Dior has no right eye, and Justin is legally blind in his right eye and has very poor vision in his left eye. “I don’t even know what’s next; they just have to show me,” she said.
Now, Dior and Justin, along with the other graduates, must make the transition into elementary schools. The principal of the center, Greg Santamoor, said the graduation ceremony was meant to help the students move on from the school, which serves children from 6 months to 5 years old.
“Celebrating their accomplishments helps kids cope with the changes that will happen as they get older,” Mr. Santamoor said. “We do have to prepare these kids for every stage of the game.”
Most will continue with occupational, physical and speech therapy at their new schools, but they must learn to deal with a new environment, new teachers and new rules.
Lindy Jones, whose son, Mikael, 4, is blind, said: “I expect him to have a little withdrawal. With everything, he has a problem with it at first.” He is even uncomfortable trying out a new pair of shoes, she said.
But Ms. Jones said she expected Michael to get acclimated fast, just as her son has learned to walk with a cane and begun to read Braille.
Mr. Santamoor said that the parents at the graduation ceremony may have actually learned as much as their children did at the center.
For example, parents of children who had trouble walking were instructed on the finer points of using a cane, to allow them to help coach their children when they were at home. The parents have also been told what to look for at the new schools the children will attend to make sure they receive their fair share of attention.
Maria Carmen Navarro, whose son Juan, 4, graduated yesterday, said she had learned how to bridge the gap between the sighted world and that of her son, who lost vision in one eye to glaucoma.
“I feel stronger now,” she said. “I learned to understand him.”