Blind but brilliant - Spanish teacher excels at Clan Carthy despite visual impairment
Corey Robinson, Staff Reporter
At 30 years old, Coswell Barnett is as respected and revered by his students as much as any of his teaching colleagues at the Clan Carthy High School in St Andrew, and it is not just because he is blind.
Somehow, Barnett, a Spanish teacher who makes his way from staffroom to classroom with the help of a cane, has found a way to connect with his students, to gain and maintain their interest even while not being able to see their faces.
And he does this while assisting them to distinctions in Spanish at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) level, pushing them to 11 medals at annual Spanish festivals, and while helping to prepare the school's quiz team.
As for the students, they show Barnett the respect he deserves because he deals with them like 'a real man'; he can identify each of them by name - with just one sentence they utter - his classes usually include the timeless high-school practice of desk drumming and singing, albeit in a foreign language, and maybe it's his story of perseverance against the odds.
"It's really about letting the students know that there is another way out in life apart from the negativity," Barnett told The Sunday Gleaner.
"Most of the students who I teach, and have taught, are from the inner-city communities. But I speak to them like 'a real man', a man from humble beginnings, and they are able to relate to me," said Barnett.
"Especially the females, I say to them, 'look, you don't want to leave school not achieving at least a formal education at this level and become pregnant'.
"Because that is the reality of the lives of many young girls today. And for the males, I tell them, 'you don't want to end up becoming a don', because that is the order of the day in their neck of the woods," said Barnett.
"The point I am making is that they don't only respect me because I am a teacher of Spanish and because of what has happened in that field; they respect me as a human being who cares for them," said Barnett.
He noted that his heavy involvement in Afro-Jamaican culture, and having won several medals in dub poetry at events put on by the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission, have also bolstered his popularity among students and peers.
Last Tuesday, Barnett's mother, Hazel Small - on one of her usual visits to her son at the school - watched as he quieted a rowdy class in seconds.
Small reminisced on his tumultuous childhood, when his future did not look so bright as it does today.
Barnett was born visually impaired but his problems started to manifest at age three. In 1989, doctors conducted a surgery on both eyes, but in the end they could only restore sight to his left eye. That was a small gain for Small.
Vision in one eye meant that Barnett was able to start grade one at Christiana Leased Primary in Manchester. He would have a shot at a formal education.
However, because of the strain on the one eye his vision started to fail. He was once again completely blind, and for at least another year he was again out of the school system. It broke his mother's heart.
"It really affected me. It was very hard dealing with his condition when he was younger. Really hard," said Small, shaking her head from side to side as she remembered earlier days.
"But through it all I really tried to be strong, and I would keep it on the inside. Seeing your child, your baby, walking into something, hitting up into something and so on; and all the doctor visits, it was depressing," she said.
"But to be honest, I never allowed it to hold me down. I always tried to stay positive and to be there for him. Now I am very proud of my son. From what I heard, Mr Barnett is the most successful Spanish teacher here and that makes me very proud," said the proud mother as she watched her son in action.
It was in 1995, through the help of well-wishers, that Barnett was enrolled at the Salvation Army School for the Blind. There he boarded for three years, and this signalled a new beginning.
He aced phonics, religious education, spelling and reading, and his achievement earned him a place at Calabar High School, one of the top secondary schools in Jamaica.
At Calabar, Barnett continued his push for excellence. He outshone his peers as a member of the school's choir, and at various music, Spanish and speech festivals.
He graduated with six passes at grade two at the CSEC level: English language, English literature, Spanish, history, principles of business, and office procedure. He also passed religious education, with a grade one.
Barnett always wanted to be a teacher, and the CSEC passes earned him a place at Shortwood Teachers' College, which offered a Spanish programme, as opposed to The Mico University College, his preferred choice.
He is forever grateful for a string of teachers and colleagues at Calabar and Shortwood who were pivotal in his successes - some stayed up late hours and read entire literature books to him to ensure that he was prepared for classes.
After three years at Shortwood, Barnett graduated with a diploma. And after being interviewed unsuccessfully at two other institutions, Clan Carthy High invited him to join its staff. That has been a win-win situation for the school.
"Mr Barnett is one of the most enthusiastic teachers here. He is very passionate about his subject and he is well loved by the students," said a smiling Carla Silvera, work experience and events coordinator at Clan Carthy High.
"He has a very good rapport with students and staff alike and we see him as a regular teacher. Not as a blind person."
Barnett has been instrumental in advocating for Clan Carthy High students to sit Spanish at the CSEC level. Since 2007, the school has heeded that suggestion and at least one of Barnett's students was awarded a distinction in Spanish at the level. Several other students have received passes in recent years.
Barnett thinks there is a lot more he and other visually impaired Jamaicans can contribute to education and Jamaica at large, but discrimination continues to be a problem.
"I know a list of visually impaired persons who are highly qualified but they can't get a job. We cannot allow that to continue, it is one of the greatest challenges that I have seen with our education system. And although the Government passed the Disabilities Act recently, it means nothing unless we address the discrimination that blind people face, and, to be honest, I'm not convinced that will happen any time soon," he said.
Photos by Rudolph Brown/Photographer