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Drive & Determination: Student’s Will To Overcome Visual Impairment Inspires Fletcher Community

Student’s Will To Overcome Visual Impairment Inspires Fletcher Community

By Cameron Hurst, '16
Public Relations Specialist

At the entrance of the “Pod” at M.J. Fletcher Elementary School sits a whiteboard that reads: 

“Welcome to the Pod! It’s going to be a GREAT DAY!” 

Indeed, this statement is always true in Shannon Osborne’s classroom, located in Pod D — because every day is a great day for second grader Paislee Smith. 

From left to right, Paislee Smith, Emily Curtis, Theresa Tonkin, and Shannon Osborne (back)

“In my time of knowing her, she’s never had a bad day. She’s always so kind and joyful,” Osborne said. “I have never heard her complain. I’ve seen her in a bad mood only once this year and it was because she wasn’t feeling well.” 

Paislee is visually impaired and is considered legally blind with an eye condition called coloboma — but even at eight years old, she’s not letting that deter her in anything she does. In Osborne’s 17 years at Fletcher, it’s among the most inspiring things she’s ever seen.  

“I have learned so much from her,” Osborne said. “Every person who interacts with her has learned so much from her. Her spirit. Her kindness. When you see what she’s able to accomplish, it makes you think, ‘If Paislee can do this — I can do this.’”

“I love being in Mrs. Osborne’s class,” Paislee said. “She’s so pretty and so kind. I love all of my friends, too!” 

On top of learning how to read and write like her friends in Mrs. Osborne’s class, Paislee also learns Braille thanks to the help of Jeanne Anderson, a teacher for the visually impaired made available to Paislee through Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES. 

“(Braille) has six dots and that means that I can learn how to read using my fingers,” Paislee said of the tactile system of reading and writing. 

Osborne has also helped Paislee identify role models: she brought in a guest speaker, a legally blind student from Bemus Point Central School who swims for her high school team, to help demonstrate that anything is possible for Paislee to pursue. 

“It’s been inspiring for her to experience that,” Osborne said. “After she visited, Paislee then signed up for swim lessons and has started swimming each week at the Y.” 

As for what Paislee loves the most about school, that answer is easy: art. 

“My favorite subject is art because it’s fun,” she said. “Mr. Mallanda is really cool and I love drawing.” 

Prior to this year, Paislee struggled with her spatial sense, Osborne said. 

“If she drew a circle, she might not be able to connect it,” she noted. “But she has grown so much that she even had a piece of artwork chosen for the District Art Show.”

“I go through a lot of notebooks creating art,” Paislee said. “I don’t know how many, but I just love drawing. I feel so happy inside when I draw. I want to be an art teacher when I grow up.” 

Any visual challenges Paislee might have are “overcome by her imagination and ability to quickly adapt to different learning and teaching styles,” said Fletcher art teacher Darryl Mallanda, noting that she has a “natural love for art.” 

“She shows a tremendous amount of patience and creativity in her artwork,” he said. “She’s truly a joy to have in class and an excellent example of what students can do with drive and determination.” 

“Her artwork fills my wall in the classroom,” said Theresa Tonkin, who is in her second year as Paislee’s one-to-one aide. “She is very artistic, a sweetheart, smart, and so independent. We’ve developed a really good relationship.” 

Paislee’s face lights up when talking about “Mrs. T.” 

“We’re the dream team!” she says. 

And according to those who know her, Paislee also is a great friend to her classmates. There’s one though, whom she has developed a close friendship with in particular. 

In Osborne’s classroom, not only does Emily Curtis’ desk sit next to Paislee’s — the two are nearly inseparable. While it could be easy to point to common interests as one reason why, Osborne knows it’s something deeper. 

“They’re both unique and different from their friends — they both know that they’re special and they enjoy that,” Osborne said. “They’ve really formed this beautiful bond because of it.” 

Emily has diabetes and wears a pod that will alert her when she needs insulin. As soon as it beeps, Paislee is the first person to make sure Emily is okay. 

“Vice versa, when Paislee needs her technology or device and she needs it moved, Emily moves it so that she can see it,” Osborne said. “She makes sure that she has the proper writing utensil and will kindly let me know if I move too fast for Paislee. On the playground, Emily will make sure Paislee is playing safely. When we go on field trips, they sit next to each other.”

It’s an innate kindness between the two friends that Osborne marvels at. 

“It’s something that as an adult — you look at this and you just realize ‘This can’t be taught,’” he said.

As for Paislee, Osborne is confident her future is bright. 

“I just am so proud of her continued determination,” she concluded. “Working with her has, truly, been one of the highlights of my career.”