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‘These children are learning more than just academics’

January 22, 2018

By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Rutherford County Schools

Paige Saylors knew in second grade she was going to be a teacher.

That’s the lifelong impact Kathilu Mote made on the seven-year-old second grader.

Mote remembers Saylors as being a “special one.”

As an elementary student, Saylors was enthusiastic and had an uplifting personality. She smiled and was always eager to learn. There was an added excitement whenever she got something right or finally understood something new after a period of difficulty.

“I get it,” Saylors would squeal. “I get it.”

She made everybody around her smile.

But two-years later, life changed.

The Christiana native was in fourth grade when her older brother Dalton, then a sixth-grader, was diagnosed with Stargardt’s — a juvenile macular degeneration of the retina that causes central vision loss.

Dalton and Paige had both been suffering from constant headaches “and lights were killing us.”

It’s a rare disease and took a long time before Dalton was officially diagnosed, but when he was, doctors told their parents, Paige was also in the early development stage.

Today the two siblings are legally blind.

But that hasn’t kept the little girl who wanted to grow up and become an elementary school teacher from doing just that. Saylors always remained positive and upbeat, Mote said.

Saylors is a second-grade teacher at Christiana Elementary School, where Mote is now a fourth-grade teacher.

“I cried,” Mote said of the day she was told Saylors had been hired as a teacher at the school. “Just like I’m about to tear up right now.”

“As a principal, I think, the most fun thing you get to do is give somebody their first job,” said Angie Templeton, first-year principal of Christiana Elementary School. “It’s so satisfying.”

Templeton continued, “Whenever I hired Paige I didn’t think anything about it. … Her vision is a handicap, but what a lesson on perseverance and determination to overcome. I know these children are learning more than just academics. They are learning about life.

“It’s been incredible.” 

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 Saylors grew up in Christiana.

Her parents divorced when she and her older brother Dalton were young kids. Their mother, with whom they lived, remarried and had two more boys. Paige was in fourth grade when her step-father passed away, which left her mother as a single mother raising four kids.

“I love my momma. She’s been my hero,” said Paige, who credits her own strength and courage coming from seeing her mother not back down from any challenges they might have faced as a family.

Dalton was diagnosed with Stargardt the same year their step-father passed.

Paige’s was slower to develop and she didn’t receive an individualized education plan until she was in eighth grade. However, teachers and administrators had been making accommodations to help her, she said.

“I had the best teachers,” recalled Saylors, whose southern charm warms the hearts of teachers, staff, students and parents at Christiana.

They would not only enlarge her assignments, but also print them on colored paper so that she wouldn’t be as bothered by the bright glare of white paper. At Riverdale High School, teachers installed blue-tinted light covers above her desks to alleviate the intensity of the white florescent overhead lights.

Doctors have told Saylors her condition will likely plateau, but she cautions “no one really knows.”

Saylors said the most frustrating issue is that Starsgardt resulted in the loss of her central vision, but she’s maintained her peripheral vision. Her “eyes go off” to the side, especially when she’s tired, but issues with her peripheral vision are not as noticeably as Saylors might feel. Though Saylors added, “Kids notice it like no other.”

She’s often asked if her vision is blurry or whether she only sees shadows.

“I see the big picture,” Saylors explained, “and the further away from something I get the less detail I can see, so I know you have eyes and eyebrows, but I couldn’t tell you what color your eyes are. I can’t distinguish the white part from the pupil, but I know you have eyes and so there they are.”

She added, “It’s not like I woke up one day and I couldn’t see.”

Looking back, Saylors said the condition was noticeably worse as a senior in college compared to her senior year in high school.

Saylors attended Middle Tennessee State University and did her student-teaching at Thurman Francis Arts Academy, which is where she also did her residency.

Some people were initially skeptical when Saylors applied for full-time teaching positions, she said.

She was living with her father in Wilson County, but her mother convinced her to reach out to Templeton, especially after she was hired as Christiana Elementary’s principal. At the time, Templeton only had a third grade opening and thought Saylors was best suited for a first or second grade position.

Saylors was worried she would be overlooked at other schools because of her vision issues.

Templeton told her that if both of them prayed on it “something will happen.”

In late July, Templeton received an email from longtime second grade teacher Jennifer Boykins, who informed the first-year administrator that she had decided to retire.

It was a bitter sweet decision for Boykins, who was ecstatic to find out Saylors had been hired. In fact, she left all her teaching supplies for her.

Templeton said it was fate that she became a principal when she did and that it was in Christiana, a community that loves and supported Saylors. It was also fate that she and Saylors had previously met at Thurman Francis, she said.

“I think it was meant to be,” Templeton said. “I just believe it was God’s plan for both of us to be together and work together.”

Saylors had worried that some people were concerned with the added budget if she would require an aide to help in the classroom.

Others were concerned about her service dog Inca.

“There’s nothing about it I question,” Templeton said.

“It’s been great with Inca,” Saylors said. “It’s nice having somebody here.”

Templeton added, “It wasn’t a big deal.”

Templeton also said she regards Inca as a staff member and that she’ll be featured in the annual yearbook. In fact, only one parent called after learning Inca would be in the classroom with Saylors.

Their son was devastated he could not be in Saylors class because he’s allergic to dogs.

Templeton said otherwise students, parents, teachers and staff members alike, “All love Inca.”

Everyone has grown attached to Inca. Templeton was brought to tears one day during a staff meeting upon hearing Inca fall down on the floor. She had a seizure and was rushed to a nearby veterinarian.

Saylors had been working all hours of the day — arriving by 7 a.m. and not leaving until 7 or 8 p.m. and sometimes as late as 10 and 11 p.m. She spent the extra time arranging and rearranging her classroom in an effort to best meet her needs to be effective in the classroom.

In the process, the long hours — Inca was accustomed to returning home between 4:30 and 5 p.m. — and constant changes created an unnecessary stress.

“Inca wasn’t getting a lot of rest and the fact that (Saylors) was constantly changing the classroom,” Templeton offered, “Inca came in and learned the school and the classroom and how to help Paige, that it overstressed Inca.”

Saylors added, “She was going off her normal routine.”

Saylors, who Templeton noted works twice as hard because of her disability, has been much more aware of resting for her own sake and that of Inca.

“It warms my heart hearing (Templeton) say she sees me work twice as hard as everyone else,” said Saylors, who later added, “There’s people who say I should be at the blind school and not teaching at the sighted school. I think I can touch more people at a sighted school then I ever could at a blind school. That’s my only thing, don’t keep everybody in their own little bubble. I tell my kids, I don’t care, if you want to be the president and you work hard enough to be the president then you can be the president.”

“This is a wonderful story about perseverance in wanting to educate our children in the country,” said Kevin Whittington, assessment date research coach for Rutherford County Schools. “She’s a wonderful person.”

Mote added, “Paige is a testimony to, if you put your mind to it, it can happen — if you just want it bad enough. Whenever I think something’s hard I think of Paige.”

After lessons over the first three days of school, the students understood Inca is a working dog, so they know when she’s in her harness not to engage her or distract her from helping Saylors.

“They do so good and they love it,” said Saylors, who said one of her student’s behavior has greatly improved now that he’s responsible for filling Inca’s water as long as he behaves. “It’s a great tool for him.”

Saylors added, “If I did not see exactly what happened, but I know they did not do exactly what they were supposed to, I’m just like, ‘Tell me the truth. Either way, you’re going to be in trouble, so tell me the truth.’ Usually they will. I feel like it comes back to, I have respect for them and then they have a respect for me.”

Her second grade students are quick to point out when substitutes or others from outside their room mistakenly turn the overhead lights on. Instead of using those, the room is equipped with floor and table lamps with low-wattage, off-white bulbs and they keep the shades pulled down over the windows.

And when students from other classes ask if they’re teacher is blind, they typically reply, “No. Ms. Saylors isn’t all the way blind. She half sees.”

“It’s so cute how they rationalize it and explain it to other people,” said Saylors, who isn’t bitter about her disability and never once wished it wasn’t so. “This has made me who I am. I know hands down I would not be the same person today without it.”

It’s made her sympathetic to issues other people face.

Shortly after Saylors was hired, her father was at the school.

He wanted to meet to Templeton.

The elder Saylors hugged Templeton and while holding her tight, he said, “Thank you so much for taking a chance on my daughter. We didn’t know if anybody would ever take a chance on her being a teacher.”

“I said, ‘Why not?’” replied Templeton, who doesn’t see anything different with Paige and holds her to the same standards as every other teacher at Christiana. “How lucky are we that we got her?”

PHOTOS / KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Paige Saylors and her second grade class at Christiana Elementary School spend a free moment with her service dog Inca.