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Patsy Simonds Taylor ’65

patsy_persisLaverack Award Recipient 2003

I am thrilled to be at Applewild and to be the recipient of the Laverack Family Alumnae Award and feel honored to look out into this gathering to see the Laveracks, the Alumnae Board, my wonderful family, old friends, Applewild teachers and students.

My memories of this school are vivid and my time here provided me with a wonderful beginning to my educational career. My two brothers, two sisters and four cousins came to Applewild, which made the school central to all of the Simonds’ lives. Dad and his brother, King Simonds, helped create Applewild with a group of families and my father and Mr. Laverack gave me my diploma in June of 1965. Due to my mother’s meticulous organization, I was able to look at my yearbooks and report cards last week and they showed that I was not a particularly strong student in terms of grades but I excelled in effort grades!! Mr. Laverack made comments on my strengths and some suggestions that I might want to put more energy into math and science!!! In 4th grade, Mrs. Stergios introduced me to the world beyond Fitchburg in our study of Tierra del Fuego. We did reports, created dioramas of the villages and traveled there in our imaginations under her careful guidance. I have traveled to many places in my life and one-day still hope to get to Tierra del Fuego. I will never forget being summoned to Mr. Laverack’s office after lunch in 4th grade to be told that shooting peas at Brookie Chandler would not be tolerated!! Mrs. Doe had us all in 5th grade where we began Latin and learned such acronyms as CCNB (cheat, cheat never beat)! Mr. Stewart opened our minds to American History, Mr. Bacon to Shakespeare, Mr. Storrs to skiing and writing and Mr. Converse prepared us for life after Applewild. During those years, we all played sports in the Bathtub and up the hill, acted in the Magic Flute and Tom Sawyer, sang our hearts out in Glee Club and competed for the Greens and Whites, and the school gained a gym, fields and buildings during those early years. I had been with most of my 23 classmates since 1st grade so our 9th grade graduation was a real launching into the big world.

patsy_cakeI want to share with you how my life in teaching developed and some stories of my life working in the field of blindness. During high school, I tutored a young girl in reading once a week in Waterbury, Connecticut, which began my interest in teaching. Through college, I worked with the Headstart Program in Denver, Colorado and with young adults who were retarded. I was a sociology major and thought that I wanted to be an Urban Planner. I did a variety of jobs after college but my interest in education was still strong. I knew that I was interested in special education but I wasn’t sure what area. The mother of a friend in college who turned out to be my mother in law suggested working with the blind. So…I applied to graduate school at Boston College never having met a blind person in my life! And that was 27 years ago…the decision worked and I have devoted my career to the education of visually impaired and blind children. My father always told us to give whatever endeavor we were involved in our best and I have always tried to do just that.

My first year of teaching was in the Greater Boston area working with children who are blind and visually impaired in their homes with their parents. That year was a huge challenge in teaching kids, managing difficult situations with parents and working in a variety of home environments. I taught a child in Chelsea right near the docks. She was an albino, which made her very sensitive to light. When I would arrive, all of the overhead lights would be turned on and the whole family would sit around the table watching me work with Sabrina. It took several sessions and many conversations before we were able to work in softer lighting without all of the family’s eyes upon us. I learned so much in those first three years, which was certainly not in our textbooks in graduate school.

My last year in Massachusetts was spent working with seven towns just west of Boston. I had two students at Winchester High School who were totally blind. Their Braille books arrived in a mail truck…all 105 cartons of them. The Principal was aghast!! One science book came in 17 volumes of Braille. My Braille skills were never better than that year. When you think of the handouts given weekly in English, math, science, languages, and history, it gives you some idea of what had to be brailed on a daily basis!

Then came a move to Washington, DC where I worked for a county in Maryland. One day, my director asked me to do an evaluation on a student in a town about 20 miles outside of DC. I drove down a road, which turned to dirt and at the end came to a log cabin. There were several cars in various stages of disrepair around the house. The parent had called to complain that her daughter was bumping into things all of the time. When I entered the house, I realized that they did not have any electricity and this child with very poor vision just couldn’t see where she was going because there wasn’t enough light given off by the kerosene lamps!! I was shocked…20 minutes from the Nation’s Capital existed houses with no electricity in 1979!! I think that that visit may have been preparing me for what I would meet in the New York City schools.

When we moved to Brooklyn, New York, I spent four wonderful years at home with my son, Spencer, who is here today. He leaves tomorrow with his girlfriend, Serena, for a trip to Thailand and a fall semester of studying in Mongolia. I am so grateful that we were able to change their tickets so that they could be here today.

The NYC Board of Education is an enormous organization with the largest program for the Blind and Visually Impaired in the world with 1,200 students in the full range of programs in approximately 300 schools. My first four years were spent working in the far reaches of Brooklyn with teenagers ages 15-21. When I was given the assignment, I took the subway to work on the first day but couldn’t find the school as all signs in this particular neighborhood were in Russian. That first job was a great beginning and I learned about life in NY, the limited resources of my students, the accommodations needed for them to negotiate the world of work and life in a NY City school. During that time, I worked closely with a wonderful curator at the Queens Museum of Art and my students to start a “please touch” exhibit at the Museum. None of my students had ever been to a museum and the trips opened up new worlds for them. In fact that same year after a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of my students asked if I thought it would be a good place to bring a date…I then knew that the door had been opened for this student. I have found that my students have very limited exposure to anything beyond their neighborhoods and by their parents’ fears about letting them be independent.

I spent the next seven years as the coordinator of an Elementary School in Brooklyn where every day was different and my role as Crisis Intervention Teacher and coordinator kept me very busy. We had 40 students in the program with various degrees of visual impairment and learning disabilities. That experience showed me how difficult life could be for so many of them. Many of who came to school hungry especially on Mondays and we would send many home on Fridays with extra food for the weekend. It was also a perfect place to recycle some of Spence’s clothing to students who would wear the same t-shirts day after day. We rarely had parents visit the program despite letters and phone calls and the difference in those children whose parents were involved was noticeable as those were the students whose homework would be completed, permission slips would be returned and report cards picked up. I decided during those years that I wanted to become more involved with the running of a program so went back to Brooklyn College and got a degree in Supervision and Administration. It took two years taking courses after school….exhausting but worth it in the end.

patsy_familyI became a Supervisor of Educational Vision Services five years ago, first covering the Bronx and Manhattan and in the past three years Brooklyn and Staten Island. This job has given me the opportunity to work with 43 or more teachers on their teaching which I enjoy tremendously, get to know 350 students, some more than others, see a wide variety of programs and schools and to work with parents. I still have contact with students, which is great and have been able to offer some of them wonderful programs such as sailing and camping. Last year in collaboration with the South Street Seaport, which is located in the Wall Street area of Manhattan, we went sailing on the Pioneer, a 70-foot schooner and slept on the Wavertree, a huge clipper ship moored in the Seaport. I could not feel that ship rocking but one of the students who is blind could feel it. We all slept in one bunkroom, which was certainly cozy but waking up to sunrise on the East River with the sun reflecting in the glass of the Financial District buildings was a once in a lifetime experience. For the past three years, I have organized an overnight camping trip to Ecology Village at Floyd Bennett Field, NY’s first airport, for my Junior High School program. We just got back from the overnight trip ten days ago on two of the only sunny days in May!! Spence and Serena came on the trip as our resident EMT’S and can attest to the wonderful experience for the students. We went seining catching small shrimp, a dead fish and a crab, barbecued, and played night games, sat around a campfire listening to Spence tell ghost stories while eating smores, and enjoyed down time outside of school. It was fantastic and the student’s only opportunity to spend the night away from home, to cut and prepare their own dinners, to be out safely at night and to talk until 1:30AM with their friends. While the learning in the classrooms certainly is the major emphasis of the program, I also believe that it is my job to expose them to possibilities outside of the school or their neighborhoods.

Education is the most important gift that we can give our children and the children of this country. Making Applewild that choice shows a true commitment to the quality of that education and through my work with the blind and visually impaired I have tried and will continue to try to deliver that same quality in the public sector. I also feel strongly that part of my role is to show the students that there is a life beyond their disability and that there are different living circumstances. All of which begins with education.

I have had a rewarding and fulfilling 22 years in the field of blindness. This journey has taken me down many roads with students, parents and families and every day is a learning experience and is different than the previous day. The journey started with a gamble that worked. For all of us here today who attended Applewild or a similar school, we should be very grateful for that experience of being in small classes with teachers and administrators who take great pride in their teaching and school. I have tried to create that atmosphere in many of my programs in the huge New York City Board of Education. Thank you so much for inviting me here today and honoring me with the Laverack Family Alumni Award.

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