Lessons on Braille, Friendship, and Loving What You Do
By Monique Mansour
Sometimes, the opportunity that scares a person the most is just the experience that will change their life for the better. Seven or so years ago, Darlene Salem Bahri was made aware of a full-time visually impaired paraeducator position at Doherty Elementary. A visually impaired student had just moved into the area and was in need of an assistant to aid him. Bahri and several others applied for the job, but Bahri, ultimately, was the one chosen.
The position, at first, terrified her. “How am I going to take on this position and work with a student who is going to need me when I don’t even know braille?” said Bahri. After giving herself a few days to think it through, she accepted the role. “West Bloomfield School District enrolled me in a six-week braille course and, by the end, I obtained my certification,” Bahri said.
According to visionaware.org, braille is a “…tactile reading system that was invented in France in the mid-1800s and is named for its inventor, Louis Braille.” It involves the use of cells, columns, and raised dots. The system allows for those with visual impairments to read and understand the world around them.
Upon meeting and working for a few days with her student, Griffin Miller, Bahri soon realized how much we, as a society, take for granted when it comes to student access to educational materials. “A visually impaired student cannot open a textbook and look at a map,” Bahri said. “I had to figure out a way to bring maps and geometric shapes to life for Griffin.” For one particular geography lesson, Bahri spent countless hours over the course of several days drawing a map of Canada and its provinces. Afterwards, she ran it through a special machine that would raise anything Bahri drew so that Griffin could feel the shapes and absorb the material in a tactile manner.
Each week, she would coordinate with Griffin’s teachers in order to receive his handouts in advance, but sometimes she would have to work under pressure and convert something into braille the same day, or even within minutes. Bahri translated all of Griffin’s subjects - such as math, science, English, history, as well as all of his tests and quizzes – into braille using various braille systems and programs. When a program didn’t translate a lesson into braille properly, she relied on her sense of ingenuity to make it happen. “I wanted everything to be done correctly for Griffin so that he could focus on learning and on being a student,” Bahri said.
There are many special memories that stand out to Bahri during her time with Griffin. “There is a braille for math, called the Nemeth Braille Code,” Bahri said. “It was developed by Professor Abraham Nemeth, who taught at the University of Detroit Mercy.” Nemeth, still living at the time, just so happened to be residing in a nursing home in nearby Lathrup Village. The Optimist Club of West Bloomfield planned to honor Nemeth and a member arranged for Griffin, who was at an advanced math level for his age, to meet him. “That was the most exciting moment for Griffin,” Bahri said. Bahri also made it her mission to support Griffin with extracurricular activities. She worked diligently with Griffin on choreography for a school musical. Rachel Miller, Griffin’s mother, was deeply moved by Bahri’s commitment to her son. “Darlene went above and beyond and allowed Griffin to be part of something he really wanted to do,” said Miller.
As Miller recalls, the bond between Bahri and Griffin was a perfect match from the start. “Darlene was really attuned to Griffin and picked up on what made him tick,” Miller said. “She knew when to intervene and when to step back and let him work independently. After two wonderful years at Doherty Elementary, and one at Orchard Lake Middle School, Griffin and his family moved to Pennsylvania. “It was so hard to leave,” said Miller. “We cried. Some people just leave a lasting impression on you and Darlene is certainly one them.”
Reflecting on the three years she had with Griffin, Bahri said, “Working with Griffin taught me to not be afraid of challenges in life. Visually impaired individuals have to go through so many difficulties. I’ve learned that even if change is tough in the moment, sometimes you’ll look back and realize that those tough moments brought you to the positive place you’re at now.” Bahri still works at Orchard Lake Middle School, now as an ESL (English as a Second Language) paraeducator. “I love what I do,” said Bahri. “I make an impact on the lives of children and it’s deeply fulfilling and immensely rewarding. Loving what you do makes all the difference in the world.”