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Summer 99 Table of Contents
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Of Pride, Determination, and Self-Esteem

By Phil Hatlen, Superintendent, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired

On April 30 and May 1, the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) hosted the annual track meet of the South Central Association of Schools for the Blind (SCASB). Track and field athletes and other performers descended on TSBVI from the schools for the blind in New Mexico, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. In all, over 120 athletes, their coaches, and others came to Austin for this event.

I'll briefly tell you about important events that happened over the two days, then describe my reaction to the track meet. Coaches from all the teams met to plan future events. Superintendents from the schools met to discuss rules, funding, and other topics. On Friday night, representatives from all the schools participated in a music and talent program that delighted and entertained a large audience. When SCASB resumed competition between the schools about three years ago, it was decided to have opportunities for students to perform in nonathletic events for one another. This would allow more students to participate in these inter-school events.

There were many opportunities for the students to mingle and become acquainted with their peers from other states. Some renewed friendships that had blossomed during previous meets. Others made new friends. They ate their meals together, had leisure time together, and had a wonderful dance on Saturday night, sponsored by the local Delta Gamma fraternity. For blind and visually impaired students, the chances to broaden experiences and meet new people from other parts of the country can be rare. So, these two days meant far more to the participants than the track events.

However, most profound for me was the track and field competition. TSBVI has both wrestling and track teams that have a number of meets every year. In track, it is always with other schools for the blind. In wrestling, TSBVI sometimes competes with local schools. In my years at TSBVI, I have seldom had the opportunity to attend these events, for a variety of reasons. But, I decided that I would not miss the SCASB track meet. So, beginning on Friday afternoon and through most of the day on Saturday, I sat and watched some of the most amazing athletes I have ever seen.

No, they were not exceptionally fast, nor was their endurance amazing. They did not jump particularly high or far. And, yes, they came in all sizes and shapes. The scene did not necessarily resemble a NCAA Division - I meet. But the commitment and determination of the athletes made all of the above insignificant. Never have I seen athletes try harder! Never have I seen more "grit" and competitive spirit! Never have I seen more humble winners and more proud losers. Every athlete competed with pride. Sure, they cared about their standing against other athletes. But they were so proud just to be competing that the spirit of the athletes produced the most wonderful atmosphere.

I saw athletes foot-fault on the broad jump, then come back with even more determination. I saw runners fall, hurt themselves, get up limping, and finish the race. I saw them stumble across the finish line, never having given a thought to quitting. I saw runners lapped by the winner, but with clenched teeth and sheer determination, finish the race. I saw officials who would never consider ending a race until the last runner had crossed the finish line, no matter how long it took. But it was the fierce competitiveness and the personal determination that completely awed me. It was the true spirit of fair play, of cheering on one's opponent, of wanting all one's fellow athletes to succeed that permeated the events.

I doubt that what I've said captures the mood and aura of the event and does it real justice. If it does, I urge you to consider what moments like this mean to young people. My one additional overriding thought, as I watched these young men and women perform, was this: If these students had been attending an inclusive program in a local high school, probably none of them would have had this experience. Whether a regular high school would have allowed these young people to compete is problematic. There is simply too much emphasis given to winning in high school athletics today. No, the runners and jumpers and shot-putters I saw would not make the team in their local school. And think of what they would have missed!

But, you may ask, don't events like this, similar to the Special Olympics, give students a distorted view of their ability? Perhaps, but is that important? Do blind children always have to be compared to sighted children? Isn't it good and healthy to have blind and visually impaired children test their skills against other blind and visually impaired children? As Omar felt that ribbon break across his chest at the finish of the 1000 meter run, do you really think he cared whether the athletes behind him were blind or sighted?

Self-esteem is an elusive and fickle feeling. It comes and goes in all of us. Its presence makes us feel really good and warm all over. We get it when we realize that we are good at something. We are good at reading; we are good at math; we are good in orientation and mobility; we are good on the Braille `n Speak; we are good at running or jumping. Our feet feel lighter, we walk a little taller, and, best of all, a small voice inside us says, "Phil, you really did that well." That's self-esteem, and we all need it from time to time, or life is the pits. If you have never read what Sally Mangold has to say about self-esteem, and what it does to children, I urge you to do so.

Oh - one last comment on the track meet. A consultant in visual impairment from one of the Education Service Centers in Texas attended the entire event, as she gets ready to sponsor a similar event in her region for blind and visually impaired students who attend local schools. You know what? You'll see the same pride, determination, and self-esteem in the athletes at her event that I saw a few weeks ago. These kinds of experiences for students should not be confined to schools for the blind.

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Last Revision: September 4, 2003