Steve Coleman inspires students to aspire to their full potential
About the Photo:
For many students, lunchtime fun involves pulling up a chair to eat
with Mr. Coleman. While the fourth and fifth grade students who grab
seats next to him are considered the luckiest, the other youngsters
are content to be within earshot of the banter and good humor.
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"Have you heard my carrot joke?"
A groan rises from the small group of 10- and 11-year-olds sitting with
Steve Coleman at the lunch table.
"You've told this so many times," moans one girl.
"It gets annoying," says another with an exaggerated sigh.
In dramatic, preadolescent fashion, Coleman feigns a spilt-second of
ignominious hurt and then plunges ahead with his story. It goes like
this: Standing in line for breakfast one day with a friend, Coleman
commented that carrots are good for eyesight, so his friend naturally
handed him a bowl full of them.
The youngsters roll their eyes and giggle at the inside joke they've
heard one too many times, delighting in the offbeat humor so popular at
this age. They respond to their friend's disarming drollness and
self-effacing charm not only because he speaks their language, but
because they know his story. Coleman has been blind since age 19, the
result of a rare degenerative disease.
Joking about blindness is not meant to be profound or disrespectful. For
Coleman and the youngsters at the Fairmount School in Bangor, Maine,
it's all about having fun and enjoying their time together. He remembers
what it's like being their age. "I ask what they have for lunch and if
anyone has carrots, I ask if they've heard my joke. What I'm fishing for
is all of them at once to say ‘YEAH,' they've heard it. Having a sense
of humor is an important part of my life. I tell them when you lose the
kid in you, you get old."
Coleman, 45, a state-certified teacher, is an aspirations adviser with
the National Center for Student Aspirations (NCSA) at the University of
Maine. For the past six years, he has led NCSA's elementary school-based
mentoring program at Fairmount. In his residency, federally funded under
Title IV, Coleman works one-on-one with selected fourth and fifth
graders, in and out of their classes. The goal is to have students set
high aspirations for themselves and be motivated to take action to
"When they go on from here to middle school, I want them to remember how
special they are and I want them to always strive to reach their full
potential, whatever that might be," Coleman says. "Feeling good about
school and about who they are will help as they get older and face all
the insecurities that come with teen life."
Coleman is one of nine members of the National Center for Student
Aspirations who help to foster high aspirations in students through
goal-setting, academic support and relationship building. He also is
like no other.
Being in Coleman's orbit feels like the whisper of a chill breeze out of
nowhere on a hot summer day. Invigorating. Genuine. Intense. From the
way he moves confidently through his day (unassisted by any aids) to his
ever-present enthusiasm for life, Coleman defies expectation. His humor
is dry, his laugh contagious. His outlook on life is positive without
being Pollyannaish. With such strength in character, which garners
respect from both children and adults, Coleman is able to change
For many students, lunchtime fun involves pulling up a chair
to eat with Mr. Coleman. While the fourth and fifth grade students
who grab seats next to him are considered the luckiest, the other
youngsters are content to be within earshot of the banter and good
"You won't see anybody better with the
kids," is the unsolicited comment you hear from his colleagues in the
halls of Fairmount School.
Fairmount Principal Paul Butler describes Coleman's work with the fourth
and fifth graders as the time "when he works his magic."
At Fairmount, the Aspirations Advisor Program most effectively reaches
those students who possess academic strengths and just need
encouragement, focus and organization to foster those strengths. They
are students who can benefit from having another positive adult in their
lives, Butler says, to help them better define their own leadership and
academic abilities, and help them to grow interpersonally.
"In Bangor schools, our bottom line is student achievement," says
Butler. "If students do well in school and have a positive connection,
they will meet the goals of what we want all students to be. There's
also a great benefit any time you can get a child thinking about his or
her future. While some kids are more ready than others, this program
helps them reflect on how they want to achieve success in their lives."
It's difficult to measure confidence, leadership and a positive
connection to school. Surveys look at such factors as grades and
absenteeism to quantify the success of programs like Aspirations
Advisor. At Fairmount, the informal measure is anecdotal and behavioral
— what teachers, parents and administrators see in the children.
Coleman has been at Fairmount long enough that his reputation precedes
him with new fourth graders who are selected for the aspirations
program. For some, their eyes light up because they're loving the
attention and support. Another student may have his guard up at the
"I have no magic dust to sprinkle on them, but in time, I hope the
process of working together, being happy to see them and willing to help
in any way will show that I care and want them to be happy in school and
in life," Coleman says.
Every school day before the opening bell, Coleman is moving through the
halls at breakneck speed. First stop: the cafeteria to say good morning
to a handful of students who mob him the minute he steps through the
door. A volley of voices greets "Mr. Coleman." He sits among them and
picks up the threads of six simultaneous conversations.
"Is that Shawn?" he says, responding to a greeting. "Hi Shawn. Hi
Heather," he says, recognizing a nearby voice.
"See you at lunch," Coleman says to Kori as she drifts out the door
"Isaac, great job in karate last night."
Coleman checks his "talking" wristwatch — something he does a hundred
times a day — and dashes to the stairs. He moves from one classroom to
the next, stopping by the desks of students to hear their latest news
and to inquire about homework. He does the same at day's end. Many of
the other students in the class eagerly vie for Coleman's attention,
burning to tell him one thing or another. They all have come to count on
him being there. And caring.
Once Coleman jump-starts the students' day, he then settles into
different classrooms, helping youngsters to stay on track with
particular assignments. His job is motivational more than remedial,
helping the students to understand the importance of hard work and
confidence in themselves. Knowing his high expectations, the students
combine a work ethic and their respect for Coleman. And along the way,
they better understand who they are.
"Mostly there are a lot of things I can talk to him about," says
11-year-old Kori. "He can be both a teacher and a friend. I've learned a
lot from him."
Coleman, a quarterback for Bangor High School, graduated in 1977. Soon
after, he noticed he was having increasing difficulty reading.
Ultimately, he was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease that causes
degeneration of the optic nerve, Leber's Optic Neuropathy. Within six
months, he lost all of his central vision. Today, he describes what he
sees as a "bright, sparkly blotch," with only blurs and shadows on the
"As someone who's blind and facing the challenges of life in general,
it's been important to not let negativity totally dominate my mind," he
says. "It's not a matter of always being positive. It's a matter of
acknowledging the challenges and then getting back on the positive
Coleman says college was one of the biggest challenges to achieving his
dreams of getting a job and having a life with his new wife, Ellen. It
took six years to graduate from UMaine. And there were naysayers.
Coleman was once told that no school superintendent in the state would
hire a blind physical education teacher because of the potential
liability. He was strongly advised to consider another major.
In December 1997, Coleman received his degree in kinesiology and
physical education, with a concentration in developmental disabilities.
Two months later, his first job was as a physical education instructor
at a local elementary school.
" I got the job because they thought of the things I could do, not what
I couldn't," he says.
Coleman was already doing public speaking when he was tapped by the
National Center for Student Aspirations in UMaine's College of Education
and Human Development. In public talks for NCSA that take him throughout
Maine and the nation, Coleman relates his life "in the hope that some
part of it can be positive for someone in some way, at some time." He
also stresses that everyone needs a little help every now and then to
get back on track.
In 1998, Coleman was asked if he would step into the aspirations program
under way at Fairmount. Ironically, it's the elementary school he
attended in the '60s.
Mid-day at Fairmount, Coleman borrows the music room across from the
cafeteria for his "lunch group." All students are welcome so long as
they adhere to his strict rule: have fun. In this case, fun is pulling
up a chair to eat lunch with Coleman. While those who grab seats next to
him are considered the luckiest, the other youngsters are content to be
within earshot of the banter, this day touching on favorite ice cream
flavors and the school concert.
"We tell him that he got hit on the head too many times with a football,
that's why he's bald," says one youngster.
"He's a bad singer, but don't tell him," whispers another child.
Three days a week, Coleman is involved in after-school programs. On
Thursdays, he offers study hall. Mondays and Tuesdays, he leads a karate
Coleman, a black belt who has been teaching the sport for 23 years, uses
a technique he calls "tactile positioning," standing beside the athlete
to ensure proper stance and movement. Last October, 50 students signed
up. Laura was one of them. "I heard from my older friends that they had
lots of fun in his karate class and that he's funny," said the
9-year-old, soon to be a white belt.
As in his mentoring, Coleman mixes learning and laughter. "They know my
boundaries," he says. "They also don't take advantage of my blindness."
Seeing the Fairmount students interact with Coleman, it's clear that
they have self-imposed limits, too. If needed, peer pressure keeps most
in check. The children know when they can joke with Coleman and when
it's time to "buckle down." They instinctively watch out for him,
spelling out the mispronounced word he questions in their reading,
telling him when a teacher has momentarily stepped out of the room. They
show no frustration, sympathy or intolerance, only a maturity not
usually seen so pervasively at this age.
"They don't think of me as Mr. Coleman who's blind," he says. "I'm Mr.
Coleman first, their friend and teacher whom they care about and who
cares about them. They give my life a great deal of joy."
by Margaret Nagle
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.