He’s 8, blind and a finalist in a national reading contest

June 9, 2016 | charlotteobserver.com | By Pam Kelley

Just like the kids in the “Magic Tree House” books he’s always reading, Amare Leggette will soon embark on a big adventure, the biggest of his life. He sits on a sofa in his family’s Charlotte apartment, bouncing and swinging his legs as he describes his plans. “I’m going to ride a flying bus,” he says.

Actually, it’ll be an airplane that takes Amare to Los Angeles. But why not a flying bus? After all, in the “Magic Tree House” books, siblings Jack and Annie time travel via their treehouse, visiting ancient Greece, an Amazon rainforest, a medieval castle. When Amare gets to California, he plans to ride a boat out to sea, where he hopes to meet a treasure ship. (He’s probably remembering the plot from “Pirates Past Noon,” which is “Magic Tree House” Book 4.)

Amare is 8. He has curly black hair, and he loves stories – listening to them, reading them. Last summer, he read for 153 hours, the most of any incoming second-grader at Charlotte’s Eastover Elementary, an accomplishment that earned him the prize of one hour – 12:15 to 1:15 p.m., as he recalls it – presiding as principal.

Now, his reading has earned him a bigger honor – this trip to LA, where he’ll compete on June 18 in the Braille Institute’s annual Braille Challenge. Amare, who is blind, is one of 50 finalists from the U.S. and Canada. He made the finals by scoring in the top 10 out of 310 students in his age group on a test measuring reading comprehension, spelling and proofreading – all in braille.

No question, Amare is excited, not so much about the competition itself, which will require him to take three 30-minute tests. But about amusement rides at Universal Studios and a visit to an air and space exhibit. The anticipation – or maybe the fact he’s being interviewed – prompts him to dance in a circle. “Air is for airplanes, space is for rockets,” he explains. “I love to listen to rockets take off.”

It’s a warm evening, and though the prospect of an interview had initially excited Amare, after a few minutes, he finds conversation less compelling than his apartment pool. He wants to go for a swim.

Luckily, his mom, Teresa Peterson, a math teacher at Piedmont IB Middle School, is skilled at re-directing youthful energy. She promises a swim later and convinces her only child to demonstrate his braille skills. Soon, he’s typing spelling words – unicycle, garage, vacation – on his Perkins brailler, then reading aloud, his fingers gliding over the raised dots in a braille version of “Magic Tree House” Book 1, “Dinosaurs Before Dark.” “Hey, Jack!” Annie called. Jack looked up. Annie was at the top of the hill. Feeding magnolia flowers to the giant Anatosaurus!

No one, including Amare’s parents, Teresa Peterson and Kareem Leggette, knew he was blind when he was born. But then his newborn body temperature dropped, plunging him into a coma. Testing found the problem – an under-developed pituitary gland. And it revealed something else: an optic nerve only a quarter normal size. Doctors could treat pituitary deficiencies with drugs. They could do nothing for that optic nerve. “He has no light perception of any form,” Peterson says.

Amare was nearly 3 before he talked, but when he started, it was full sentences. Peterson taught him multiplication when he was 3. At 5, he memorized the names of all 50 states. He also began attending Eastover, the only Charlotte-Mecklenburg elementary that teaches braille. Since kindergarten, Holly Jeffries has been his teacher. “She’s amazing,” Peterson says. “She does more than I’d ever expect.”

Amare is lucky to have a teacher trained to instruct visually impaired students, according to Sergio Oliva, the Los Angeles-based Braille Institute’s national programs director. A teacher shortage means services vary widely by school system. “We have crazy, bizarre stories where sometimes a blind kid goes months without learning any real lesson,” he says.

The institute launched the Braille Challenge 16 years ago to focus on the importance of braille. Most blind and visually impaired adults – 74 percent – are unemployed. But most who are employed are proficient in braille. It’s as essential, advocates say, as print literacy is for sighted people.

When Peterson suggested that Amare enter the contest, Jeffries made it happen. Now she’s preparing him, giving him a sense of control by writing “social stories,” step-by-step explanations of what he’ll be doing from the time he boards the plane to LA. Jeffries is also attending the competition, as is Eastover Principal Susan Nichols.

Amare can read 150 words a minute, Jeffries says. He is a character. “I love him,” she says. “I’m very proud of him.”

In Amare’s apartment, his mom finally gives him the OK to change into swim trunks. He makes a beeline for his room, hands outstretched to feel his way. “Do not come out here until you have your swimsuit on,” Peterson calls.

Only recently, Peterson says, has her son begun to realize what it means to be blind, to understand there’s a visual world he can’t access. He doesn’t watch television and rarely hangs out with kids his age. Maybe that’s why stories in books are so real to him. “It’s like if he reads it, he truly believes it,” Peterson says.

Amare reappears in swim trunks.

If he places first in his age group, he wins a sophisticated display device that allows users to download and read braille books, the raised dots right on the screen. Given Amare’s reading appetite, it would be a great prize.

“If you go there and win, what happens?” Peterson asks.

But as Amare waits in his trunks, hoping for a swim, his mind seems focused on the ocean, on floating out to sea, maybe even finding a treasure ship.

“You get to buy me a boat,” he says.