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Sunrise Appreciation 101: Meet Laura Terifay

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Sunrise Appreciation 101: Meet Laura Terifay

By Linda Dobson

Sunrise homeschooling

"How I treasure each sunrise the girls point out to me."

Six-year-old Laura has been sledding with her sisters in the newly fallen snow on the family’s rural acreage in Pennsylvania. Earlier she helped bake bread, listened to a phonics tape, and practiced counting to 20. Her day sounds like that of countless other young children who are homeschooling, but Laura has retinitis pigmentosa (RP). Laura is going blind.

The Challenge of Getting a Diagnosis

One day when Laura was 21 months old, mom Michelle was carrying her toddler across their home’s hardwood floor. Laura began screaming, “Stop, there’s holes in the floor!” Michelle thought she might be trying to gain attention; baby sister Emily had just been born and kept mom at the hospital for weeks with her own medical problems. When Laura’s horror continued, though, Michelle sought a doctor’s help.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” the doctor told her, and assured a worried mom the behavior would go away. Michelle then enrolled Laura in an Easter Seals program for a few hours each week. “She was late to speak at age 2; that’s why she was there,” says Michelle. “They didn’t know what was causing the strange behavior, either,” but they recommended a pediatrician who sent Laura for an eye exam. The initial visit yielded nothing, but the 6-month checkup revealed a change in Laura’s retinas. A Philadelphia Children’s Hospital specialist made the diagnosis of R), extremely rare in children that young. Laura was 3 years old by then.

The Horror of a Second Diagnosis

At the supermarket one day about a year later, Michelle was pushing a cart full of groceries through the aisles when 21-month-old Emily, sitting in the cart, began screaming about holes in the floor. “I was heartsick,” says Michelle quietly. Emily, too, received the RP diagnosis, as well as one confirming a severe speech disability.

Both little girls have now lost their night and peripheral vision, the two stages that precede loss of central vision and blindness.

Another Special Ed Family Turns to Homeschooling

Michelle, a teaching degree holder who had grown disgusted with government schools during her student teaching stint, heard about homeschooling before her children were born from lots of friends who were practicing it. “I knew from the first moment I held Laura that I could never send her off to public school,” she says. Later, Michelle also knew that her family couldn’t afford to pay out of pocket for the Braille, orientation, and mobility lessons Laura needed. She turned to the local school district for services. Based on the experience of a totally blind student, and without ever having met or evaluated Laura, they insisted that the little girl attend full-day kindergarten. If she didn’t, they wouldn’t provide services.

“I decided I would probably be down there more often than not arguing with them,” Michelle says. “We were arguing back and forth already, and I hadn’t even enrolled her.” Michelle was horrified when she discovered that the school district used Laura’s case as a precedent to deny services to the autistic son of a friend of Michelle’s, as well.

Homeschooling And Receiving Special Services

A fortunate change in school personnel the following year resulted in a phone call to Michelle from the school, which is now providing the requested services to the homeschooling family.

A homeschooling day for the Terifays usually includes a doctor’s or therapy appointment or two. The girls watch public television’s Bill Nye the Science Guy, work on a craft project, and play outside. “We usually make bread at least every other day,” says Michelle. “The kneading hellps Laura’s finger strength. We bake and incorporate lessons about fractions into that.”

“Right now we’re working on a PBS story contest,” Michelle continues. “Laura’s been writing a page of her story every day and drawing an illustration for it. We go over the Braille cell (to learn how to read letters), and then Laura ‘plays’ with her Braille writer. She’s learning how to make letters. We try to practice numbers every day, usually with the buttons she likes. She counts as high as she can, then she gets to add those buttons to her collection. We just put up a bird feeder, we’re planning our garden, and we do a lot of nature walks.” Laura asked for rocks and minerals for her last birthday present.

Chatting with Homeschooling Laura

Michelle warns me that Laura might not speak on the phone so, just in case, we make alternative plans to fax some questions Michelle can ask her. But Laura has unbundled from winter outerwear and warmed up before taking the phone. “Hello?” The sweetest little voice vibrates my heartstrings.

“I do like to draw,” she tells me. “I like to draw puppies best. I like to draw people. I draw pictures of my sisters and hang them on the refrigerator.” We talk about buttons and crafts, baking bread, and writing stories. Laura tells me there’s nothing that she doesn’t like about homeschooling, and concludes by saying that she “teached Becky how to make peanut butter and jelly.”

“I think what I’m doing by homeschooling is giving her something she wouldn’t get in public school – somebody who loves and cares for her,” says Michelle. “A teacher might care, but the way I do. I can tailor her education to exactly what she needs. In school, she’d be stuck in some special education classroom. That’s not what I want for her. Yes, we’re getting services from the district, but I don’t want her to have labels. I don’t want her to feel there’s something wrong with her.”

At home, Michelle says, “away from judgment and ridicule, she can progress at her own rate, which is really what she needs. I think of myself as a gardener and she’s this little precious teeny tiny rose. I’m just giving her the right amount of water and fertilizer so she can unfold into the flower of herself.

“Gosh, how I treasure each sunrise, sunset, and flower the girls point out to me.”

HomeschoolersSuccessStories homeschoolingAdapted from Linda Dobson’s Homeschoolers’ Success Stories: 15 Adults and 12 Young People Share the Impact That Homeschooling Has Made on Their Lives (Prima Publishing, 2000)

“This beautiful book resonates with a feeling for how things really happen. It will make you smile, stimulate your spirit, chase away your fears. Read it today! Then read it as often as you need to revive your courage. What a gift!” ~ John Taylor Gatto, former NY State Teacher of the Year and author of The Underground History of American Education

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