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Summer 2002 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

For Injured Academic Ace, Short-term Memory Serves

By Amanda Zamora, Staff Writer Reprinted with permission from Austin American-Statesman, May 6, 2002

Audra Thomas blended seamlessly with fellow high school students teeming through the main corridor of Welch Hall at the University of Texas on Saturday.

Amid the teens pacing the halls and consulting coaches, the 16-year-old appeared confident, although slightly timid, as she emerged from a classroom after taking a test on current events at the state University Interscholastic League academic meet.

Despite blindness and brain damage, Thomas was one of more than 3,000 teenagers from across the state competing Saturday in events that included one-act plays and academic contests.  She was the only student from Celina High School, a small school north of Dallas.

Thomas said she was really unsure of a couple of answers on her hour long exam, which consisted of 40 multiple-choice questions and an essay.

What she didn’t volunteer is that she is a current events guru - and last year’s state champion.  She didn’t make a fuss, either, over the fact that she is blind and has significant memory problems.

Toward the end of her fifth-grade year, Thomas was swinging on the playground at her school.  When her swing broke, she hit the back of her head so hard that she suffered brain damage and gradually forgot everything.  She couldn’t remember her favorite food or childhood toy.  She had problems keeping her balance when she tried to walk. And while the fall didn’t damage her eyes, it injured the part of her brain that processes images.  To take the UIL test, she had to have the questions read to her.

Thomas was diagnosed with cortical visual impairment, and today she can only keep about a month’s worth of information in her head.  Surgery on her ears fixed a balance problem, but her vision remains distorted and her childhood memories locked away.

“Sometimes when people are talking about their favorite TV show or cereal from when they were kids, I don’t really know that stuff,” Thomas said.  “I go on what my family tells me.”

But Thomas’ short-term memory has risen to help compensate for the loss of her long-term recall, allowing her success in the current events competition.  She taps the television and Internet for news.  Her favorite broadcast is PBS’s News-Hour with Jim Lehrer, and she cruises The New York Times and The Washington Post online with her laptop, which is formatted to read text aloud.

“I pay attention to news, and I love school and learning and the whole thing,” Thomas said.

“I guess some people just don’t think it’s important to them, and they don’t have a connection to the news,” Thomas said.  “When they think of news, they think of crime or horrible things happening, things that don’t affect them. But really, they do.”

Bobby Hawthorne, the UIL’s director of academic programs, put together the test for Thomas’ event.

“This is a very rigorous contest,” Hawthorne said. “Students have to do a tremendous amount of reading of newspapers, magazines and Web sites.

“For her to be able to keep up with that amount of information when people who are fully (able to see) can’t do it, it’s amazing.”

“A lot of kids find reasons why they can’t do something, Hawthorne said. “When you meet someone like Audra, she shows you that anything’s possible, even under the most difficult conditions.”

Thomas said she feels embarrassed sometimes by the praise and attention she gets from people such as Hawthorne. But her biggest frustration is people underestimating her abilities.

To her UIL coordinator, a computer literacy teacher at Celina, Thomas is phenomenal.

“I’m amazed,” Sherry Huddleston said. “She teaches me constantly - for her to have that three-week memory and still keep all of those current issues in her head.”

The night before competing Saturday, she read U.S. News and World Report’s week-in-reviews to refresh her memory.

This time, however, Thomas didn’t win the event. She placed fifth. It was hard not to be a little disappointed, but she’ll compete again next spring, and she is determined to bring more of her classmates to the competition next year.

“She’s got goals,” her mom said.

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