AIKEN, S.C. — Nearly four years ago Emily Zimmerman lost her sight following surgery to remove a brain tumor.
Since then, she has endured endless challenges with a ready smile and at times booming laugh, graduating with honors from Silver Bluff High School in 2011.
Her focus on laughter as the best medicine was a conscious decision she made from the start. Yet there was always the doubt, her fears about the future and her ability to make her way in it. Those issues led her parents, John and Janet Zimmerman, to make some difficult decisions.
Emily would attend a summer program for the blind several years ago and after dropping her off, her mother cried all the way home.
There were more tears last year. Two weeks after Emily graduated, her parents put her on a plane with a vision-impaired student from Columbia. They were headed to The Colorado School for the Blind, just outside Denver.
Emily understood the purpose — for the next year she would learn mobility skills and independent living. Yet she was so scared during that flight, a feeling that didn’t diminish over the next few months. The teachers and staff pushed her, much more than she was used to. Many of her classmates had been blind since birth or at an early age. For Emily, the experience of being blind was relatively new. She had gotten accustomed to having sighted guides like her mother, her younger sister Sarah, the three teaching assistants who rotated accompanying her at Silver Bluff.
But such opportunities were rare at the School for the Blind. Her “travel” teacher told Emily she would never utilize her cane sufficiently if she kept relying on others.
Over the next few months, Emily told her folks repeatedly she wanted to come home, but that didn’t happen. She was still asking after coming home for Christmas. Yet her mother was already seeing a change, more so by Easter. By the time she completed the program last month, the transformation had moved forward in dramatic ways.
Four years ago, Emily lost her sight. Today she has found her voice.
One can hear it in her voice now — the confidence, the excitement, the maturity. Sure, she relies on sighted guides when necessary. Emily recently received a scholarship from the Mid-Day Lions Club, and Janet assisted her daughter on the unfamiliar stairs at Cumberland Village. Yet the cane — almost as tall as she is — has guided Emily well, even on busy Denver streets.
During her senior year of high school, Emily participated in the Teacher Cadet program, introducing students to the education field. During the second semester, she completed a practicum experience with a first-grade teacher at Chukker Creek Elementary School. She thoroughly enjoyed the experience, teaching some lessons herself with the assistance of a teacher’s aide.
The post-high school plan had emerged: After graduating from the Colorado School for the Blind, Emily would enroll at Winthrop University in Rock Hill as an early education major. The college offers accommodations for blind and visually-impaired students. Eventually, Emily could teach first grade or kindergarten, where she would have a teaching assistant in the classroom.
That’s still the goal with one exception. Emily is headed back to Denver in late July to attend Metro State College, which has a student population of 24,000. She will share an apartment with three sighted roommates whom she has yet to meet. Other students from the School for the Blind will join Emily at the campus.
“The college is a good fit for me,” Emily said. “I’ll begin with some basic classes, those you need for any major. But I haven’t changed my mind about being an education major. That’s what I want to do.”
Her parents were stunned by Emily’s decision to stay in Colorado. As recently as a month ago, Janet said, Emily indicated she was ready to come home and attend Winthrop.
“But I had gone out there to see how she acted with her support group,” Janet said. “I heard her reasons for wanting to stay and they made a lot of sense. She just has the confidence now to know she can go to college halfway across the country.”
Over the past year, Janet has watched Emily move away from dependence. She can do her own laundry, clean her room on campus, and has gone skiing and rock-climbing.
Emily’s graduation requirements from the School for the Blind sound remarkably daunting. She had to complete an “unassisted drop” — dropped off by school officials in an unknown area and having to use her skills to find her way back to campus.
Janet said Emily also had to complete a “monster route” that she developed in advance. The trip included visits to four places in several suburbs or cities and bringing an item back from each site to provide she was there. The expedition took most of a day and included bus and light-rail transportation.
Another requirement included a 10-page research paper and the creation of a Braille cookbook with at least 35 recipes in it. That last project set the stage for a graduation day experience that would send any sighted person into endless anxiety.
Emily had to plan a dinner for 60 people — determining the menu, shopping for the ingredients on her own, preparing and serving the food, featuring baked rigatoni and Death by Chocolate.
“It took more than two days to do all the traveling and cooking,” Emily said. “It was very stressful, but it all went well. It felt so good to be done with it.”
Emily instinctively had prepared for that project several years ago — long before her enrollment at the Colorado School for the Blind. She asked Silver Bluff culinary arts teacher Susan Few if she could take the class and learn how to cook. Few did some research and accommodated Emily with measuring cups that talked to her, Braille “dots” on the microwave and elbow-length potholders.
“Emily’s listening skills are incredible,” Few said at the time. “On the exam, she made the only 100 in the class. She’s witty and upbeat and inspirational. She teaches me.”