Blind Teacher Gives Students Insight Into Life

Sept. 4, 2006 — -- Some say it's magical. Others say that it is life-changing.

For the students in Cayte Mendez's classroom at Public School 69 in the Bronx, N.Y., it's just kindergarten.

There is something very different going on there, though.

Mendez has been legally blind since childhood from a congenital condition, and she was raised by blind parents.

She can barely see -- she can make out just a faint sliver of light out of one eye.

"I see shapes, sizes," Mendez said. "Generally I can't see facial expressions, so voice tone helps."

Donna Salerno, a school administrator, says Mendez's attitude sets her apart as well.

"She never complains. She really doesn't ever ask for help," Salerno said. "She doesn't need it, and that's what amazes me."

Relies on Other Senses

Mendez has a Seeing Eye dog, Yogi, who usually prefers to nap in the classroom, and a teacher's aide she doesn't seem to really need much.

Mendez has memorized the classroom and knows her way around.

Those around her say she relies on her hearing and other senses to keep an eye on her students, who can't believe what they see.

"She pretty much knows [them] by their body movements, some of the sounds they make," said her classroom aide, Jessica Joseph.

Mendez also gets to know each student's unique personalities by the way he or she walks.

"I have kids who hop and instead of walking -- once in a while they get real excited and hop," she said. "And I know who those kids are."

Mendez's communication with her students seems to transcend seeing and talking, her colleagues say.

"As the child steps to her, I don't know what it is, but she knows exactly who it is and almost what they want," Salerno said.

Mendez admits she sometimes makes little mistakes.

"I heard a kid and he was doing something, and I reprimanded the kid and it turned out it was the kid sitting next to them," she said. "Every once in a while it happens."

Giving Kids Confidence and Kindness

Mendez has special equipment that helps her read certain books. She scans the books allowing her to read along as she hears the audio book on a headset.

Ninety-two percent of the kids in her classroom are reading above grade level.

"They all love her. They adore her," Joseph said. "She loves them as if they're her own children."

The journey to Public School 69 in the Bronx, however, was sometimes painful for Mendez.

She was rejected by a dozen other school principals. She says it was devastating and hurtful.

"It was just the complete skepticism and downright discrimination -- let's call a spade a spade," Mendez said.

"I had one vice principal ask me, 'Why don't you work for the school for the blind? It'll be easier for you,'" she said. "I mean, give me a break. I hope she watches this. I certainly hope she does."

Her students' parents say that even in just a few months they've seen changes in their children.

"Now he speaks more about what goes in class," said one parent, Jessica Martinez. "He also cares about others' feelings. He also is not aggressive and mean like they used to say he was."

Mendez hopes her kids' experience in her classroom gives them confidence to dream big.

"I'm hoping that they will look back at this and say, 'Hey, I had a kindergarten teacher who I bet people didn't think couldn't teach kindergarten and she taught me to read,'" she said. "It's going to be just so exciting to see what kind of people they grow into."

Others say being in Mendez's classroom gives kids another, deeper perspective on life.

"Watching Cayte and watching the children every day is a moving experience," Salerno said. "I can see a difference in the children. They're kinder, and that's great for the kids. It's great for the world."