A teacher and a role model

By APRIL DIODATO

OBSERVER Lifestyles Editor

On Lisa Roszyk’s last day teaching at the Samuel G. Love Elementary School in Jamestown, both childish exuberance and wistfulness permeated the classroom. Wendy Lindstrom’s fourth-graders would be sad to see their teacher, and her canine companion “Marshmallow,” depart at the end of the period. Roszyk, a sophomore childhood inclusive education major, appeared contemplative as she spent time engrossed in conversations with her students. Her early field experience, which started in February, was concluding just before the final days of SUNY Fredonia’s spring semester. Two of the children brought gifts for Marshmallow, a small purebred labrador retriever, to help wish Roszyk and her service dog well.

“She’s amazing and I look up to her; I want to tell her she’s my role model,” Maria Schroder, a bubbly, blonde student, said quietly to her classmate.

“You better go tell her now!” her friend urged. “She’ll be gone after today.”

The little girl hurried over to Roszyk, shyly relayed her message, and the two embraced; Roszyk was clearly touched.

“Lisa told the students in Mrs. Lindstrom’s class that they inspire her,” said Debra Karpinske-Keyser, assistant director of field experiences at SUNY Fredonia’s college of education. “What Lisa doesn’t realize is that she is also an inspiration.”

Roszyk has been visually impaired since birth but she doesn’t let anything stand in the way of her goals. Fiercely independent and an extensive traveler, Roszyk’s determination is unstoppable. She said she vehemently refused to adopt an attitude of “learned helplessness” – she’s known others enduring similar struggles that didn’t try, as she did, to make their own way.

Lindstrom’s class learned a great deal from Roszyk’s disability, as well as from Marshmallow, a very welcome addition to the classroom. The children were always excited when Roszyk and her furry friend would join them, with one boy describing it as “a great experience.”

“I think it’s good to have Marshmallow because people get to see how a guide dog would act while it’s on its job, and also when it’s not doing work,” a student remarked.

Other students reflecting on their time with Roszyk and Marshmallow shared what they had learned. Guide dogs aren’t allowed to bark and people are not allowed to pet them while they’re at work – it could distract the dog and create a dangerous situation for Roszyk, especially if she was at the curb waiting to cross a busy street. Many said that they went home and shared this information with their families. They gave Roszyk rave reviews, recalling the way she taught the class about cheetahs in a lighthearted, comical manner. She made learning fun.

“We could not have been put in a better classroom,” Roszyk said. “The students are so motivated and we were able to learn so much and have a great semester, and a great cooperating teacher.”

As she addressed the class one last time, she told the fourth-graders, “I am going to miss all of you … I want to become a teacher and you reinforced it that much more. We learned what we needed to do to better ourselves as teachers.”

OVERCOMING THE ODDS

Roszyk and her fellow members of Dr. Laura Geraci’s class met for a parting, celebratory lunch at Bob Evans in Jamestown, a tradition for Geraci and her students after finishing their field experience. A long table was filled with the all-female group animatedly chatting about the semester’s end.

Roszyk didn’t ask for help reading her menu, politely declining offers to dictate it for her. She studied it very closely and carefully, and gleaned more information from her classmates by listening to them discussing what they wanted to order. She quickly made her selection, impressing her professor with her resourcefulness.

“I have a Ph.D. in special ed and I learned more from her than in any of my education, seriously,” Geraci said. “I teach to level the playing field and then I got to practice it with Lisa … She’s her own advocate.”

She recalled a moment in class early on when she tried to hand Roszyk a stack of papers – a nonverbal gesture – and didn’t know why she wasn’t taking them. Roszyk told her she could see something but could not understand what Geraci wanted her to do with them without a spoken cue. Geraci admitted that she should have known, but used the momentary mix-up to help her find out ways to better assist Roszyk.

“Even without being in the classrooms, you can just tell that SUNY Fredonia’s a good school to go to – you’re not going to be criticized or belittled for any disability you have,” Roszyk said. “That’s why I chose it.”

This Syracuse High School graduate decided that she wanted to become a teacher when she was 6 years old. She spent her early years in North Carolina in a school district that didn’t have funding they wanted to spend on equipment to help her to see. One passionate teacher at the school who worked with the visually impaired fought for Roszyk, and she realized that was the kind of person she wanted to be. She hopes to work with students who have visual impairments as well.

Roszyk was born with aniridia, a rare condition, which is partial or complete absence of the iris (in Roszyk’s case, complete). She has cataracts and is afflicted by nystagmus, involuntary eye moments that result in unstable vision and trouble focusing. She can see color and light; objects are a blur, but the light surrounding them is visible. The more light, the harder it is for her to see; with less light and more shadows, it’s easier. Her vision is gradually becoming worse due to the cataracts.

Grade school – tough enough for any adolescent to endure – was further complicated by her disability.

“Students are students, they don’t always understand that their peers can be different,” Roszyk said as she tucked into her lunch. “Knowing that I’ll never be allowed to drive, that one was hard. When I was 16, every other person in school was saying, ‘My birthday’s going to mean my driver’s license.’ That’s probably when I had the hardest time.”

Even though she knew she would never be the same as her peers, Roszyk said it inspired her to become more self-sufficient earlier than others. Roszyk is fearless and loves to try new things. Her first excursions that took place before turning 18 were never with her parents, venturing off with the science club instead, or going along with her sister-in-law for her brother’s graduation from boot camp in Texas.

She recalls trying to show her resolve to her parents while growing up any way she could.

“I would throw a blanket over my head and head straight for a wall, and turn at the last second, just to prove to my parents that I could do this.”

LIFE WITH ‘MARSHMALLOW’

Roszyk has had Marshmallow (a nickname, since only Roszyk can call the dog by its real first name) for nearly two years – her first service dog. She went online and found Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit organization founded in 1954. She had to attend a training program for four weeks at its school, all covered by the program. Now, instead of a driver’s license, she has a guide dog license.

“My whole life has changed,” Roszyk shared, “Everything, from my bone structure changing – I used to walk with my feet in unconsciously, trying to catch myself if I tripped. Now, I’ve straightened up. I walk with my chin up higher. I’m not afraid of stairs. I used to trip down the stairs all the time because even with a cane, you don’t always feel them, but (the dog) stops me.”

Owning a guide dog means rising at 7 a.m. and sticking to a strict schedule, but Roszyk doesn’t mind taking care of the companion that takes care of her. Life before Marshmallow had many challenges.

“It was difficult,” she explained. “I’ve always been an independent person so I’d get frustrated when I’d get too much help or not enough help. I’d trip over things because I just couldn’t see it.”

Her service dog also will allow her to travel more, and with greater self-assurance. She has already visited the Virgin Islands, Germany, Greece, among other locales. She’s hoping to study abroad in Belize, where she would be able to teach for two weeks.

“I’ve never been afraid to travel,” she proudly declared.

Going around the table, each of the ladies took turns sharing their summer plans. Roszyk will be staying in Fredonia, learning Braille and taking classes during the summer sessions.

She had been living on campus but she’s getting her own, first apartment in Fredonia this summer, which she’s looking forward to. In the future, her goal is to do her graduate studies at Hunter College in New York City, which has a TVI (Teaching for the Visually Impaired) program, hoping she can earn a GPA high enough to get into the competitive advanced program. After that, she will either pursue her doctorate or start teaching. She also would love to globe-trot in her spare time, with Egypt at the top of her list of destinations.

“I want to modify the way education is,” Roszyk explained. “I want more students to understand that being independent and being able to reach your dreams is not impossible just because you can’t see. I feel like not enough students are being told this or shown how to make this possible.”

Geraci nudged Roszyk, adjacent to her at the table, with a broad smile.

“We’re very proud of you.”

AN HONOR

On Wednesday, May 15, Roszyk was presented the SUNY Fredonia College of Education Professionalism Award. The award recognizes a student demonstrating highly professional values and attitudes in their interactions with members of the faculty, school personnel and pupils.

“I nominated Lisa for the Professionalism Award because I am very impressed with the initiative and motivation she displays,” Karpinske-Keyser said after the ceremony. “The time and energy that Lisa puts into her education is commendable.”

Jessica Gugino, Roszyk’s past course instructor, echoes Karpinske-Keyser’s sentiments. Gugino was dedicated to easing her transition from Syracuse to SUNY Fredonia.

“I met Lisa in the fall semester of her freshman year in EDU 105,” Gugino said. “The first time I met her was when she walked into my classroom with Marshmallow, her service dog. I never considered if she could succeed in my classroom, I only considered how I could help her do so. I knew she would face more obstacles than her peers, and I didn’t want her to get discouraged.”

Gugino has had Roszyk in two classes and has gotten to know her “her not only as a student, but as an amazing young woman.” She immediately saw that Roszyk would thrive, not in spite of her visual impairment, but because she has capacity and the drive to achieve, no matter what. This is the first impression Roszyk gives: motivated and assertive, as well as convivial and soft-spoken.

“I think the real beauty of Lisa’s story is that with all of the careers her talents would allow her to pursue, she has unselfishly chosen to become a teacher,” Gugino noted. “Every time one of her students faces a challenge, Lisa will be the proof that those challenges can be overcome. Many, many children will have a true role model to look up to.”

Send comments on this story to adiodato@observertoday.com