The old saying ‘What comes around, goes around’ is usually put in negative terms, but for Chelsea High School senior Precious Perez and her former 4th grade teacher, Barbara Tracey, it’s a saying that epitomizes the caring that is extended from one person to another – and how over time as circumstances change, it can be returned.
In their story, both have been there for one another, whether it was a bright 4th grade girl who was born blind and was looking to be treated like everyone else, or whether it was a former teacher suffering through the slow degeneration of PLS – a degenerative disease similar to ALS.
When Perez entered the fourth grade, she had already been in the Chelsea Schools since kindergarten, and the small accommodations made for her as a blind person were pretty well known by most teachers.
Teacher Barbara Tracey, then at the Kelly School, wasn’t sure what to expect from the experience with Perez. It was the first time she had taught a blind student and she wasn’t sure how she should prepare.
In the end, Tracey – who can no longer speak and communicates through e-mail – said teaching Perez helped hone her craft, and it also helped the other kids in the class.
“Precious was a student in my 4th grade class, and she made me a better teacher,” said Tracey. “For example, I had to say ‘northwest’ instead of saying ‘over here’ and tapping the map. It was an excellent experience for her classmates too. She was the smartest student in my class.”
Tracey said it was a new experience for her in helping the other students to understand. She had often worried that the students wouldn’t understand Perez or wouldn’t treat her well, but it just wasn’t the case. There was, in the end, no need to protect her or give her special accommodations, but rather to just encourage her, Tracey said.
“I wasn’t surprised she was so smart because I tracked her when she was in the lower grades,” said Tracey. “I was surprised by the positive effect she had on her classmates. For example, Precious went to a special performance for visually impaired students at the Big Apple Circus. I did everything I could so the rest of the class wouldn’t know she was going. I thought they’d complain that they couldn’t go. I didn’t want Precious to hear that. The next morning she came in with a big, red clown bow tie on. There were a lot of questions. Finally, I had the kids sit on the rug and Precious in my chair. She told them about her experiences at the circus. I looked at their smiling and focused faces and I was surprised. There wasn’t a negative moment.”
Fast forward several years later, and it was time for Perez to be the one to help out Tracey – who suddenly found herself with limited capabilities when it came to walking and talking.
“Several years ago I started to have health problems,” she said. “I was falling a lot. Finally, two years ago, I got a diagnosis. I have PLS, primary lateral sclerosis. It’s just like ALS. I am a resident of the Leonard Florence Center for Living on Admirals Hill here in Chelsea. Precious came to visit me here every month last year when I was going through that. She and I text each other. We’re friends on Facebook. I’ve posted articles about her on Facebook. My friends think she’s amazing and she is my inspiration. I feel blessed to have her in my life. I was her teacher, now she’s mine.”
Perez said she has been inspired by her former teacher and, though she’s been a bit distracted by senior year college and graduation activities, she still thinks a lot about Tracey every day.
“I’m so happy I can have the opportunity to give back to her,” she said. “I think it’s really critical to know that anything can happen to anyone at any time. It’s really important to stay in touch with people who care about you and you can count on no matter what state they’re in.”
Perez, 18, is a busy senior at Chelsea High and recently was featured as an ‘A+ Student’ in the Boston media, has been a member of the CHS Goal Ball team and sang the National Anthem at the Chelsea City Council and School Committee Inauguration ceremony on Jan. 4. She has auditioned at nine colleges so far and is still waiting to hear from many of them. At the moment, though, she is pretty impressed with the music program at Gordon College.
Singing, in fact, is something Perez said she hopes to continue after high school and college.
Currently, while also participating the the CHS Chorale, she fine tunes her singing with Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, which she has done for the last four years.
“Singing is something I love,” she said. “I can use singing to express the things I can’t find words to express.”
As a student coming through the Chelsea schools, Perez said she and her mother, Jennifer Alvarez, have always been able to team up with teachers. In the end, it has never been as much of a big deal as people assumed.
“Sometimes we’ve had to do things a little different to make things work,” she said. “It’s always been a team effort. We’ve all learned by the end of it…We’ve always worked it out and they’ve always worked with us.”
Supt. Mary Bourque said Perez has been an inspiration to the teachers in the district year after year.
“She refuses to be defined by anyone’s perception of her, but she fiends the world,” said Bourque. “She always keeps us grounded and inspired. She yet another resilient example of Chelsea students and Chelsea families that makes it so rewarding as an educator.”
Meanwhile, Perez said she always likes to remind people that she is not as exceptional as they may believe.
“I feel like there’s this tendency where a lot of people feel I am more exceptional than I really am,” she said. “I think it’s important for people to know I’m not any different than they are except I can’t see and they can. I do all of these things…People with disabilities are capable and we are people. I think that’s important.”
That’s a lesson, perhaps, that Perez was able to teach Tracey as time passed and the former student became the teacher’s teacher.
“Precious now is very inspiring,” said Tracey. “I have a framed photo of us in my room. Every time I look at her smiling face, I smile. I love being able to text her and follow her on Facebook…I have two videos of Precious on my iPhone which I show everyone. I’m very fortunate to have her in life.”