Annapolis teen sees the big picture


When Clark Rachfal was young, he and his neighborhood pals would race their Big Wheels tricycles around the pool in his family's Annapolis back yard.

Inevitably, one or more of the boys would take a corner too fast and - plop - end up drenched.

"They'd all fall in," recalled his mother, Tanya Rachfal. "That's why we didn't know."

He was just like the other kids, except that his eyesight was starting to fail by the time he was 4. The family didn't know until he was old enough for his first eye examination at the pediatrician's office, where he couldn't discern the difference between the bunnies and the boys and girls drawn on the chart. They were told that Clark would eventually lose what sight he had.

They still don't know for sure what has caused Clark, now 17, to become legally blind. They know only that a degenerative disease has left him seeing shapes and colors and motion, and little else, and that he could wake up today seeing less.

They also know he has worked harder than most to graduate near the top of his class at Annapolis High School, which he will do next week, and that he will attend Towson University, to which he has earned an academic scholarship, in the fall.

"He's very self-motivated," said Kathy M. Graham, a teacher who has worked with Clark since he was in kindergarten. "He spends ages on his homework. He doesn't give up. He has not had a decreased workload [because of his disability]. He has done it all."

Lifelong friend Brad Smith, a Broadneck High School senior said Clark "doesn't really like to get a lot of attention for it."

Clark needed eight hours to take the SATs last year. He uses a CCTV machine, a device similar to a microfiche machine, that blows up words on a page to a size he can see. To take tests or do his homework, he magnifies the letters to an inch or more in height. It means he can read only a few words at a time, and he can see only a fraction of the graphs used in economics and calculus books.

"It definitely takes more time and effort to do stuff," he says with a shrug, "but I get it done." The letters aren't completely clear, but he can make them out.

To speed up studying, Clark's textbooks, even those for statistics class, are on tape, recorded by a company that has a variety of books on tape and will record to order what it doesn't have. A recent economics chapter was missing, and Clark enlisted his mother to read it to him.

"I'll read it, but don't ask me what I'm reading," she says.

'One of the top students'

No one goes easy on Clark, who wants to follow in the footsteps of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. Last summer, his mother assigned him summer reading: "Animal Farm," "1984," "The Great Gatsby." She will create another list this summer.

"Clark is certainly one of the top students I have," said James Harrison, who teaches Advanced Placement Economics at Annapolis. "What's most amazing to me is, economics is pretty visual. A lot of the concepts are graphed, like supply-demand analysis, for example. Clark has such a good grasp of that. I'm not sure how he does it."

Clark tries to play down his blindness, but that isn't always possible. He won't use a cane, saying that would be giving up. Instead, he has memorized the location of steps in the school corridors and knows that the blue hallways connect to the red, which connect to the green.

On a recent day, a substitute teacher, Mrs. Crosby, led Clark's advanced-placement statistics class. She kept asking him, in a way that would make any teen want to crawl under a desk, why he is "so special" that a reporter was following him through his school day.

She made him stand at the front of the classroom and tell everyone. He is legally blind, he explained to a group that has long known about his condition. His principal, Joyce Smith, figured he might make an interesting story, he said, a blush creeping over his face.

Making a checklist

When the Rachfals discovered their son had trouble seeing, the family visited ophthalmologists in Arnold, at Children's Hospital in Washington and at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore hoping to learn what was wrong with their son's eyes. They went to faith healers.

"We're not Catholic, but I took him to Catholic healing Masses all around the Washington beltway," his mother recalled. "I think it's all in God's hands."

Between those visits, Tanya Rachfal set out to complete a list of "must-sees" for her son. She knew that time could be running out. By age 18, the doctors told her, Clark would be able to see only shadows.

"We didn't know what to expect, or how fast to expect it," she said.

He was whisked to Disney World. He traveled to California and competed several times in track and field events in an Olympics for the blind. He traveled to Pittsburgh and to Mexico for church missionary work. Last year, he took a trip to the Grand Canyon.

Sometimes, Tanya felt sorry for herself. Then, in a doctor's waiting room, she would see a child who not only couldn't see, but also couldn't walk or talk. Then she would feel grateful.

"This kid's a blessing. He's my hero," said his father, Kenneth R. Rachfal, known as "Rock." Tanya and Rock met at Rochester Institute of Technology in the late 1970s. She was from Long Island; he was from Pittsburgh.

They moved to Annapolis 22 years ago. He works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington. She is the director of marketing at Advanced Radiology in Woodlawn. Their daughter, Rachel - whose vision is 20-15, said her mother - is 20, a student at Salisbury State University.

Each parent carries a gene, it is believed, that caused their son's blindness. Doctors don't know exactly what Clark has, but his father describes it as "cone-rod dystrophy," meaning that the cones and rods - the light receptors of the eye - in Clark's retinas bleed and scar and become damaged until they are no longer useful. Clark's bluish eyes always look as if they are floating and jiggling in their sockets. The eyes are trying to find the good spots, the spots that work, his father said.

A funny, smart-alecky youth, Clark knows pop culture, music, politics and current events. Dressed in the denim shorts and polo shirt that is something of a teen uniform, he blends into the crowded hallways of Annapolis High. In the chaos of the corridors, his advice is just to follow the mass in front of you, kind of like following a blocker in a football game.

Those in Clark's classes know he can't see what they can. A few might know that his eyesight is getting worse. Clark's father said the kids have always been kind, have never picked on his son.

"Sure they do," Clark interjects.

"I thought the kids at school respected you," his father said.

"Some of them do," Clark said, "and some of them are ignorant."

Clark can remember what his teachers say, even if he spends the class with his head down on the desk. He doesn't take notes. He can't. His mother recalled a teacher who would ask him to raise his head and pay attention.

"They thought he wasn't listening," she said. "They'd call on him and he could answer them verbatim."

'Too much vision'

When Clark goes to college, he will have all of the technology he has grown accustomed to, a gift from the state's Department of Rehabilitative Services. He will be thoroughly shown around the Towson campus so he can get used to his new environs.

He had hoped for a guide dog to help with the transition and to provide companionship, but he was rejected. The screening agency told him he isn't blind enough.

"It's the first time I've ever been told I had too much vision," Clark said, laughing.

Clark will never drive (his mother said she was heartbroken when his peers started getting their licenses), will never play football, will never see a pitcher throw a strike. He hasn't learned Braille, but he says he will if his world goes dark and he must.

Clark is a wrestler and at 152 pounds won a few matches last season for the varsity team. "He runs sprints in the hallways with the rest of the wrestling team when he can't see where he's going, at full speed," said assistant coach Cary Lukens.

He can mow the lawn (he'll do a line and then squat to feel the ground to determine where the grass is higher so that he knows where to mow next).

He can cook French toast and macaroni and cheese. He knows which of the clothes his mother picks out belong in the reject pile.

His blindness might be cured, but while Clark's parents push for an answer, he is less enthusiastic about the prospect.

"I think it'd be more to adjust to again," he said. "I guess [my parents] think it's not fair. They may feel responsible, even though they're not.

"You can't just sit there and dwell on it, because then you're missing a lot more things not being able to see."

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