U.S. History teacher Steven Laird holds his laptop four inches from his left eye, the glowing Apple case shielding him from the class’ view. His booming voice reads the notes aloud, and abruptly stops. Setting his orange-cased laptop next to the binders, folders and stacks of papers that clutter his desk, he walks to the light switches. A flip of the switch turns the room pitch dark — and exposes the students with iPhones in their hands, light from the screen illuminating their guilty faces.
He wouldn’t have been able to see the phones or the faces without this ploy. He flashes a toothy smile, his half-lidded eyes barely visible behind the wisps of curly red-brown hair. The culprits knew they had been caught.
Laird was born with a genetic disorder called Ocular Albinism, meaning he is both near and far sighted.
“Basically, I could only see the big E on the eye chart.”
He knew that kids picked on him in the classroom because he had to wear sunglasses indoors due to his light sensitivity and he always had class aids hovering around. He knew his manager at Little Caesars didn’t see him fit to work the cash register, because couldn’t read the menu from where he stood.
But now, years later, he does just fine handing out tickets at basketball games and grading papers. Junior Ryan Anderson swears Laird has eyes in the back of his head. He often forgets Laird can differentiate his students by the sounds of their footsteps. Lack of vision heightened his other senses, which makes him a better teacher, Laird said.
Standing in line at McDonald’s, the menu’s fine print blurred together. The Big Mac looked no different than a happy meal, so he snapped a wide shot of the menu and zoomed in. The words became clearer as he held the phone closer to his left eye. Laird doesn’t like to ask for help, he’d rather rely on himself.
Being legally blind, he has never been able to drive. His wife drops him off in the morning at East, before her shift at the Optical Eye Department at Costco begins. After school, his ride home varies — sometimes it’s Mr. Wagner. They argue about politics, discuss NEA board motions and share perspectives on social studies “nerd things,” as Mr. Wagner said. Sometimes he’ll need a ride to board game night with the three chemistry teachers, if Laird isn’t hosting.
He can’t walk past Mr. Wagner’s second hour without hearing an all-too-clear “MR. LAAAIIRD,” from senior Keith Barry. Once, Laird told then-junior Robert Tilden, that Tilden added a nice creative side to the class. Laird didn’t know it, but Tilden didn’t hear that from many teachers. Being appreciated felt pretty cool, Tilden said. He knew that Laird had a respect for his students, even the ones like him, who weren’t audible learners — whose brains weren’t wired to learn a specific way. The ones who learned next to nothing from a note taking method.
“I may not be the best student he’s ever had,” Tilden said. “But he’s the best teacher I’ve ever had.”
To him, there are barely enough minutes in an hour to develop the kinds of relationships with each student he wants. The kind that make learning easy, not a chore.
“I’m a big advocate for students with exceptionalities,” Laird said. “Just because you look different, or have to do things a little different, doesn’t mean you should be treated any differently.”
He gave up the culinary career he had pursued since placing 13th nationally in a cooking competition, with lots of pushback from his friends. When he worked at the Marriott, he was making customers happy, but not helping them — not the way he helped his students.
Now, he knows he is helping students the way he had always wanted to. Laird sits in his classroom for lunch, meticulously planning innovative ways to involve students in his own teaching style — projects, straight notes, videos, reports.
He has enough time outside of school to travel to boxing matches in Vegas and Atlantic City. The other regular boxing blog writers greet him when he arrives to a fight. The boxers know him too. Maybe he saves his lunch hour to work so there’s time for Karaoke night with his friends. There are only so many hours in a day.
To Laird, the teachers that mold and guide students to prepare them for the adult world are the best kind — the kind he tries to be. East is full of them, he said. What matters to him, is the future of the kids sitting in his classroom, who will one day be running the country.
Since he could remember, Laird wanted to help people the way his orchestra teacher helped him in high school. Sometimes Laird couldn’t see the notes on the sheet music, and his teacher would print the notes larger just for him. That was when he knew he wanted to spend his life helping those around him.
“At the end of the day, there are more important things than the content in my classroom, it’s preparing them for society and adulthood,” he said. “They are the future. Not me.”