DENHAM SPRINGS — Third-graders at Lewis Vincent Elementary School gathered in a circle Thursday and moved their fingers gently over Braille number cards.
“I was afraid that my answer was going to be wrong,” said one student, who held back her answer.
“You have to not be afraid,” said Mary Haupt, 53, who, 31 years after graduating from LSU, is living her dream of teaching children.
Haupt began visiting Lewis Vincent after her longtime friend and teacher at the school, Lauren McGowan, asked her to help the children learn about what a blind person can accomplish.
“Last year, we had a story in our reader about a blind person, and I told the students I had a friend who was blind,” McGowan said. “And the students asked if they could meet her.”
The rest is history.
Haupt initially made monthly visits to read to the students but then began visiting them more — once a week — to teach them about blind people, she said. Those goals grew into helping students with their studies and aiding McGowan with portions of the curriculum such as math.
“I saw the value in her coming,” McGowan said. “Mary’s an inspiration to adults and to children just because she exudes confidence.
“The children are really drawn to her.”
Haupt, who received her teaching degree from LSU in 1982, had never used her degree except as a substitute teacher. Following graduation, Haupt wanted to teach at the School for the Blind on Government Street.
“They had almost as many teachers as they did students,” Haupt said. The possibilities of getting a job there were slim.
So with a degree in hand and nowhere to teach, Haupt suffered bouts of depression over the years, she said.
“I was really quite down,” Haupt said. “I was feeling like I didn’t have a purpose. This has given me such a boost.”
She said it’s still surprising to her that, after all of these years, she’s getting to do what she loves — teaching. While she doesn’t get paid in her new role, Haupt said the visits have helped both the students and herself.
“A lot of the reason I’m able to do this is because of the support I’ve received from Lauren, the principal and the other teachers,” Haupt said. “Without them, I really couldn’t do what I’m doing.”
The readings soon turned into Braille lessons and other lessons that coincide with the master plan McGowan teaches. Haupt said her main goal is for teachers and students to acquire a positive impression of an independent blind woman, she said.
“That’s always the goal,” Haupt said. “I want to teach about blindness and what (blind) people can do.”
Since arriving at the school, students and teachers have seen that Haupt can easily maneuver around campus using a cane.
Before meeting Haupt, Jacob Turner, 8, didn’t think blind people could accomplish much, especially all of the things Haupt does each day.
“I didn’t know they could teach us,” Jacob said.
“She’s followed her heart,” Tazaria Crawford said of Haupt.
“She just does it,” the 8-year-old said about Haupt’s ability to do just about anything she sets her mind to.
“I thought they couldn’t get around a school,” said Adelen Secundino, 8. “When I met Ms. Mary, I knew she was really smart, and she remembers everything.”
While Haupt was born blind, she said she is able to see light and can see some objects, although what little vision she has is getting increasingly worse, she said.
Before attending college, Haupt attended the Louisiana School for the Blind from kindergarten through 12th grade. She also attended two classes at Tara High School during her senior year to prepare her to attend school with sighted students, Haupt said.
“It wasn’t easy, but I did it,” Haupt said. “I always figured I was going to do it.”
Haupt credits her mother, Jane Haupt, for being her backbone and encouraging her to keep pressing on, she said.
Haupt said her mother also showed her the route to her classes each semester at LSU.
In addition to teaching the students Braille, Haupt administers spelling tests, reviews math skills and teaches the students songs that reinforce what they’ve learned. She also will soon be working with students who need additional, one-on-one help, she said.