Retiring teacher laments changing times at ISVI

JACKSONVILLE - On the first hot day of May, Dan Thompson picks up an errant branch in the yard at his modest brick home with a white picket fence leading to its front door.

He points to a concrete angel sitting to the left of the house - one he had to glue to its base to keep it from being stolen again - and continues to the tiered backyard. There's a birdhouse to the right and brick steps straight ahead to assist with the steep drop down to the lowest level of the yard.

Dan's pride and joy is only about eight feet by five feet, but this third attempt at a garden will yield potatoes this year - and little posies he's eagerly awaiting to bloom.

He won't get to see that the flowers are deep yellow, though. And he won't see how red his tomatoes will be this year. Dan Thompson has been blind since he was 5 years old. He has just one visual memory before a botched cataract surgery caused him to lose his vision.

But that hasn't stopped him from knowing every inch of Jacksonville, where he lives with his wife, Judie. He walks to work, knows that the outskirts of town have exploded with commercial development after Walmart spurred the growth, and he can tell you exactly where to watch your step on any sidewalk.

But even deeper than his city's aesthetics, Dan can see how his home has changed. Not that small brick colonial house with the glued statue and garden, but his alma mater and employer, the Illinois School for Visually Impaired.

Dan began attending the school when he was 7. Then he became a teacher there. Many would say Dan has dedicated his life to supporting, archiving and caring deeply for the school and its students - despite the great changes that have occurred since he enrolled there.

But this past Saturday, Dan tried to say goodbye to the place he calls home.

'They were great wizards'

Dan says his family didn't know what to do with him after he lost his sight. Sitting in the corner playing with toys was how he describes his childhood before he came to Jacksonville.

In 1959, the year Dan enrolled, the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired was a robust part of the state's department of health services. Students with visual disabilities were sent to the residential school to learn to live without full vision - a skill that most public school districts at the time were not equipped to teach.

"They were great wizards," Dan said about his teachers. "They taught us about life and gave us hugs when we needed them. It's much different than today."

When Dan was a boy, the student body was a bit bigger. Boys and girls were not allowed to mingle freely like they are today. Bicycles were allowed on campus back then (they aren't anymore).

As a technology teacher at ISVI, Dan teaches students how to use a computer. The subject sounds a bit remedial, but the skills Dan's students are learning may be some of the most important they could acquire to pave the way for a successful life.

"These tools are giving them a chance to compete against others who can see, in the same fields," Dan said before his seventh-hour class in early May.

After a bell rings, students filter in, tapping canes and saying hello to "Thompson" as soon as they meet the doorframe.

A student named Julia sits down in the corner and immediately gets to work. Kyle, commanding and goofy, spins around in his chair. This class is Dan's rowdiest; students sit on desks and wander around the classroom while Dan fiddles with some stereo equipment - the students are recording today.

Julia's up first, singing "Take a Bow" by Beyonce. After the students congratulate her on her pretty voice, the class is over. That's it.

"It's just something fun for them to do, if they get their work done," Dan said. These incentives have replaced the one-on-one, teacher-student physical interaction he knew as encouragement when he was a student at ISVI.

That's the biggest change Dan said he has seen on the campus. There are fewer rules for the students, and fewer hugs or pats on the back - all residual effects of a growing number of lawsuits permeating the country's court system.

And in comparing the decades Dan has been on ISVI's grounds, he won't say one way is better than the other - but he will say he wishes he could be more like the teachers he had as a student.

"The closeness is not the same as it was here. Here is where you really need it, too," Dan said. "(The students) need you to hug them and to say 'I love you.'"

'A huge step for me'

In his memory, Dan refers to his teachers, cafeteria employees and dorm supervisors as family members.

He gets emotional each time he thinks about them, and rarely speaks of his own family. It's clear ISVI is his home, by any definition.

"Back (when I lost my sight), if I had stayed in public school, I'd be playing with my trucks and blocks in the corner because (teachers) didn't know what to do with a blind kid," Dan said. "But my parents enrolled me here, this school full of saints. I learned I can love and be loved by an adult."

That trust of adults is what Dan - and most blind children - struggle with, he said. ISVI provides a safe haven, so to speak.

"The idea of trusting adults was a huge step for me," he said.

But after he did, he can still remember each of their first and last names and why they deserve to be considered a "saint."

In a sort of tribute to those who taught him, Dan has been working to procure federal and state grants to subsidize his technology program - appealing to businesses that have old computers that he puts back together himself. Stacks of equipment sit in his home's basement.

The idea came from a time before Dan came back to ISVI, after graduating from Southern Illinois University and struggling to find work for a short time.

The project goal - equipping students who are unable to see properly with technology that will provide them an "equal footing" with other students - became Dan's mission.

After he began teaching at ISVI in the early 1990s, Dan created a makeshift museum for the school. There are bricks he saved from the demolition of old dormitories. There are models showing how the campus looked years ago. There are old desks and cases of statues, photographs and books.

"I just can't stand to let things go," he said. "It's so much a part of my soul."

Walk outside, and the campus' quad is the only place in town Dan knows without a cane. He will point to the beginning and edges of sidewalks, find plots where buildings used to be - and can sneak you into the school's auditorium's backstage.

"When I walk through the buildings, I feel the presence of the old days," Dan said.

'He can focus his efforts now'

When Dan told his wife, Judie - whom he met at ISVI when they were students - he was thinking about retiring, she didn't take him too seriously.

"But it sounds like he can focus his efforts now," Judie said. Dan splits his time between volunteering at the local homeless shelter, working at the school and tending his newly expanded garden.

The couple, who met in seventh grade at ISVI, spent the same number of years there. Judie continues to work at the school as a residential care worker in a dormitory.

But Judie's feelings toward ISVI are different from Dan's - which leads to her mild disbelief that Dan is truly leaving the school.

"It wasn't the same for me," she said. "I still have an attachment, but I don't think of it as home. I think of it as school."

But on Saturday, Dan turned in his key, leaving the only place he has ever felt to be his own. While rumors of the school's closing surface each election year, Dan said he remains confident that the school's equally devoted staff will keep it running - providing students with vision problems an "equal footing."

"It's a good transitional time to use my ability and share with others," he said. "To make their lives a little bit fuller.

"Our teachers told us, 'When you leave here, you're going to hear a lot of "Nos,'' but I achieved it anyway," Dan said. "Ten years after I leave, I'm sure they will not remember my name."