Finding the silver lining: Visually-impaired sophomore faces challenges with fresh perspective

 

It’s difficult to find a bigger country music fan than sophomore John Hermes

Name any country song and John can tell you not only who sings it, but the album name, the year it was released, track number on the album and key the song is in.

But there is one thing John can’t do: he can’t describe from his own visual memory what any of those artists look like. 

John is visually impaired.

When he was born, his doctors pronounced him fit to go home. 

But his mother, Christine Hermes, and his grandmother noticed that he wasn’t opening his eyes.

“It was actually my mother who pulled his eyelids back and realized they weren’t completely formed,” she said. “At first, I thought it was more of a cosmetic issue. And then, when we had his eyes tested, it was ‘blind in both eyes.’”

Christine didn’t know much about blindness.

“I didn’t know what the journey would be,” she said. “When we told the children, his oldest sister Stasia, who would have been six at the time, said, ‘Wow, my life’s gonna be different.’ That really summed it up. There’s been a lot to learn and we’re still learning.” 

John attended Stilwell Elementary, but instead of continuing on to Blue Valley Middle School, John’s parents felt the gap was becoming too big between John and the other students. 

They decided the Kansas State School for the Blind (KSSB) was the best next step for John.

“He really needed to be in an environment where a lot of the teachers were blind, all of the students were blind, and he was included, because it was a blind world, if that makes sense,” Christine said.

They were right. John felt that KSSB was a good fit for him and he still keeps in contact with his two best friends from KSSB.

“It was a great four or five years,” he said. “I learned a lot about being visually impaired. I made a lot of friends and I was in a lot of the school plays. 

One year we did the play Annie. Our theater teacher thought that I was doing such a good job that she changed the name of the play to Andy and gave me the lead role. It was still the same story.”

His parents noticed John’s true happiness at KSSB.

“We went down there and John gave us a tour of the campus,” Christine said. “We walked into the library and John said, ‘This is my favorite room because I can read everything in here.’ It was a huge realization for me that all of the years he had been at Stilwell, they only had one or two Braille books on the shelves for him to check out.”

The family decided to transfer John back to Blue Valley after seeing that he wasn’t academically challenged enough at KSSB. 

Now that he’s back, John’s daily routine is similar, if not identical to most students’. He is almost completely independent in the morning while getting ready for school. After school, he does his homework. 

Homework, he said, was the biggest change from KSSB to Blue Valley.

“I think I like Blue Valley better,” he said. “It’s not so long of a drive and I’m starting to make friends that live a little closer to home. The only thing that took some getting used to is that during my KSSB years, most nights I would come home with absolutely no homework.”

John’s family life isn’t as different as some may think. 

“It isn’t that different from living with someone who isn’t visually impaired,” John‘s brother, Abe Hermes said.

Christine said that vacations can become difficult to plan, but that John finds other ways to enjoy experiences his family thinks he may dislike.

“We went whale watching in Laguna — sometimes I feel badly that he can’t participate, but I’ve come to realize that’s my disappointment, not his,” Christine said. “He never seems disappointed: he loves the wind in his face and he picks up on the smells much better. And I’ve come to realize that even though I might think that an experience wouldn’t interest him, I’m approaching it from a visual perspective instead of approaching it from a total sensory perspective.”

John knows that there are some benefits to being visually impaired.

“When we went to Disney World, while most people only got to ride four rides a day because there were so many lines,” he said, “My being visually impaired is kind of an asset, because we get to cut the lines.”  

John’s personality is very easygoing and tolerant, and he has an exceptionally kind heart, Christine said.

“He’s really adaptable and accommodating,” she said. “I think his vision impairment has forced him to be that way, and he is, but in a very sincere way. He just goes with the flow. 

Along the same lines, there have been times when someone has left a toy on the floor that he’s stumbled over, or something on the stairs that he’s tripped over, or a cabinet door left open that he has whacked his head on really hard. But he never gets upset about it. He almost, not expects it, but is very tolerant of it.”

Christine feels it’s important for other students to reach out to John.

“He hears people, but he’s kind of in his own world. He can’t make out all of those voices until someone breaks into that bubble and says, ‘Hey, I’m so-and-so.’ He can’t see anyone going down the hall; he doesn’t have that connection until you talk to him. 

All of us tend to get in our own world and don’t recognize how important it is to reach out to those who are limited in their ability to reach out to us and what a positive impact they can make.”

John and Christine said they are not bitter that John was born blind.

“There’s no question it’s a challenge,” Christine said. “It’s so much easier to do everything for him than to teach him how to do it. I think the greatest thing I’m learning is that doing it for him doesn’t help him. I guess it’s like ‘you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.’ 

There’s so much to be said for giving a person that independence. So bitter wouldn’t be the right word. There’s a reason for everything. It has been great for my growth and my family’s growth. He’s really okay with who he is. It’s the rest of us that have to grow.”

by Annie Burress