Jordan Richardson has been legally blind most of his life. But Blaine High School's leadership student sees the big picture.
At this point in his life, Jordan Richardson thinks he might want to become a chemist. In recent years, he's entertained the idea of becoming an astronaut, an ambassador to England and the President of the United States. Here, Jordan waits to begin an honors chemistry class experiment.
Jordan Richardson rubs his fingertips against the face of his watch, packs a specialized laptop into his shoulder bag, grabs his white cane, inches toward the edge of his seat and waits for the bell.
"I'm like a cheetah," he tells a visitor. "Hope you can keep up."
An electronic bell chimes and Jordan bursts into the cramped halls of Blaine High School, walking briskly through a sea of humanity that refuses to part like the Red Sea as he approaches -- even though everyone in the school knows Jordan is blind.
Undaunted by the crush of bodies rushing in every direction, he whisks up the stairs to his chemistry class, where the grand experiment is about to resume. Jordan, a 17-year-old junior, is among the few selected students nationally who hope to prove that blind students, with the aid of new computer technology, will be able to conduct chemistry experiments independently.
Or maybe the experiment is Jordan himself. The first blind student ever at Blaine High School, Jordan has Braille textbooks and is allowed to listen to computer programs through earphones while other students break into groups. Otherwise, this National Honor Society student, who dreams of going to college at Oxford, asks for few special privileges.
"Do you have my number? Want me to write it down for you?" Amanda Norskog, a senior, asks Jordan, who volunteers to help at a school-sponsored garage sale.
Jordan was told he had less than 5 percent vision -- legally blind -- when he was a preschooler. Both eyes continue to deteriorate and Jordan's mother says he is expected to lose all vision before he's done with college. Jordan can see blurred images, mostly peripherally, but is literally nose-to-white-board trying to read classroom instructions.
Amanda knows Jordan is blind, but anyone who gets to know him immediately realizes that Jordan sees the big picture. Jordan is an acknowledged student leader, a Student Council member, a trombone player in the school band who plays second fiddle to no one.
Maybe it is the rest of Blaine High School that is part of the grand experiment. Jordan, who is as comfortable talking about "SpongeBob SquarePants" cartoons as he is about the possibility of going to Oxford or Harvard, has been as much a teacher at Blaine High as he has been a student.
"He is one of 100 upper-class students who serves as a mentor for underclassmen -- and that means giving tours of this building," says Blaine Principal Norm Hande. "How does he do that?
"Jordan helped prepare our teachers by meeting with them before classes started and explaining his challenges and strategies," Hande says. "He set clear goals about how he's going to get here or there. But what he's actually done is set goals for us, guiding us to a place we've never been."
Adds his chemistry teacher, David Hays: "Jordan is operating at the edges of his own personal envelope, and you have to admire that.
"But he's taking us all along on this journey. There's no how-to manual for us [faculty]. We're making it up as we go along. What I admire most about Jordan is he allows me to fail. He's so forgiving."
Jordan's world has not always been so forgiving.
He may move like a cheetah, but the dozens of toys and cartoon characters that share his bedroom and the teddy bear he occasionally carries around school indicate that he's in no hurry to grow up.
Trauma at birth
Life didn't start that way, though. He was born so quickly that his mother's contractions did not squeeze the fluid out of his lungs. He was purple, needing oxygen for 30 minutes. No physician has said that the trauma of birth had anything to do with Jordan's degenerating eyesight, said his mother, Carrie Gilmer.
There were no hints during infancy. No scarring. No cataracts. If his father, Phillip Richardson, or mother placed a finger in front of Jordan's face, his eyes seemed to follow.
But as a toddler, observers wondered if Jordan had a form of attention deficit disorder. He was verbal and knew what he wanted -- his first words were "French fry." But he'd often crawl inside the kitchen cupboard. When he was 3, he'd drive his tricycle toward the curb. He never really ran; onlookers wondered if Jordan was struggling with his coordination.
He'd see and point to big things, like the moon. But other objects eluded him, unless they were within inches. He tried glasses at 5, but his behavior didn't change.
Finally, a doctor told Jordan's parents what nobody else could see -- that he had no vision of anything below his nose, that he suffered from an eye movement disorder known as nystagmus, that he was legally blind. His mother says he has cone-rod dystrophy, a degeneration of nerve cells within the retina.
But Jordan also has an incredible will and the support of his father, a band director at Mounds View High School, and mother, who is president of Minnesota Parents of Blind Children.
"Because the whole world was going to have low expectations of him, it was my mission to be sure that he was empowered," Gilmer says. "In the classroom, the lessons are mostly visual."
A relentless advocate for blind children, Gilmer spent years trying to sway school officials on how to best educate her son. Things blossomed at Blaine High School -- perhaps because Hande, the principal, had a blind roommate in college. That roommate -- the late WCCO radio traffic reporter Dean Spratt -- once installed an antenna on the roof of a house, "showing me what's possible," Hande says.
Six years ago, Gilmer met Cary Supalo, a Penn State student who lost his vision to disease at 7. Supalo, who recently earned a doctorate, is working with experts who are developing tools such as audible screen readers and weighing machines that would enable visually impaired students to work in chemistry laboratories by themselves. Supalo's father is from Richfield, adding to his interest in Jordan and the Twin Cities.
"I get lots of blind students who say, 'I wish I could have done chemistry,'" Supalo says. "We want to demonstrate to the world that blind people can do cool stuff, too."
Jordan is eager, but he's excited about all his prospects. His mom says she'd love it if he went to Harvard or the University of California, Berkeley. Jordan's looking at Oxford, the University of Texas, Missouri and Minnesota -- because he has relatives near the latter three.
"I don't know if I'm different, but I know I'm special," he says in the school cafeteria while munching on chicken poppers. "I'm special because I make people smile. It's obvious."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419