Doesn’t allow being blind stop her from achieving goals
By Deacon Steve MacDonald
Special to The Witness
DUBUQUE — Many of the world’s most amazing people never think of themselves in those terms. Natalie Meyer Schira, teacher at Wahlert Catholic High School in Dubuque, is one of those people.
Schira was born in 1989 in Des Moines. She says that her mother worked hard to see she had a Catholic education. Schira graduated from St. Augustin School and Dowling Catholic High School, both in Des Moines and St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana.
“It was a phenomenal education,” Schira states. “I have been very blessed.”
At St. Mary’s she majored in literature and minored in secondary education and in 2012 was hired as a literature teacher at Wahlert Catholic High School.
Her mother, Rosemary, is “a perpetual light and inspiration for me,” Schira says with enthusiasm. “She is incredibly good at being a mom and I couldn’t ask for a greater representation of Marion love.”
Schira’s father is an attorney, and she admits she was spoiled by him. Schira is her parent’s only child.
Schira describes her grandparents as “creative, loving and supportive.” She credits her grandparents for creating in her a love for the Chicago Cubs and for reading. Her parents are also prolific readers and Cubs fans.
Today, Schira is a high school teacher, and she is legally blind. She has Turner syndrome, which causes one of a baby girl’s two X chromosomes to be inverted or missing. The syndrome is diagnosed at birth. Her parents were given a long list of potential side effects, but nowhere on the list was glaucoma. It wasn’t protocol at the time to check the eyes of baby girls with Turner syndrome. Eight months went by, and Schira’s mother took her to a new doctor. The new doctor discovered eye problems, and the next day she was in the hospital in Iowa City and having the first of 12 surgeries; however, during those eight months without proper eye care a lot of damage had been done. Today, Schira is legally blind.
It is now protocol to check the eyes of baby girls with Turner syndrome. Schira is one of the case studies that made this become a routine check.
Schira has glaucoma. Glaucoma damages the optic nerve. The optic nerve is the nerve that connects the brain and the eye. In the eight months after her birth, damage was done to the optic nerve disrupting the communication line between the eye and the brain. In Schira’s case this caused an intense visual loss.
But Schira states, “It is just part of who I am. We all are a lot of things. There are many adjectives I could use to describe myself. Sight-impairment is just one of them. That’s fine, that’s just who I am. It never has been a major concern in how I live my daily life.”
When asked for other adjectives that describe her, Schira thinks of an interesting list. “Being faith-filled is number one,” she says. “I try to spread God’s love wherever I go.” Then she pauses and adds, “However I can be a bit obstinate at times.” She continues the list by adding: hard working, creative, strong communicator, musical and an avid reader. “The word my mom would use is tenacious,” she says with a smile. “My mom always said she was ‘building a champion’ when she was raising me.”
“I was really, really fortunate, because I was in the hands of people who did not make my sight-impairment a big deal,” Schira explains. “The philosophy at the time was to put a sight-impaired student in a braille school. But the Iowa Braille School in Vinton was far from my home. My mom would not accept the possibility of having her little child live so far from home and started calling other schools. Mom called St. Augustin and spoke to a phenomenal administrator, and I was enrolled. I will be eternally grateful to to St. Augustin School, its faculty and staff, and to my pioneer mom who broke that mold. Today, it is customary for sight-impaired students to attend school near their homes, and Mom was a trend setter who made that possible.”
Schira did learn braille at a different institution. In second and third grades she discovered some, but certainly not all, braille teachers have a preset attitude of what can be expected from a sight-impaired student. Schira found it frustrating. Some braille teachers appeared to take a “cookie cutter” approach to their instruction. It seemed they thought some things a sight-impaired student can learn and some things they cannot learn.
“In such circumstances my mom was my advocate,” she states. “And as I grew I became an advocate for myself. I wanted to learn everything!”
After graduating form St. Augustin School Schira went on to Dowling Catholic High School. “My high school teachers were incredible,” Schira says excitedly. “They always made sure they had a computer set up for me. I had a German language teacher who made cassettes of all of the lessons for me, because the volunteer readers for the German book didn’t always know the correct way to pronounce some of the German words. The literature teachers sat with me and worked through the worksheets. My choir teacher made recordings of the parts I needed to learn, and on and on. I was very blessed to be surrounded by extremely competent professionals.”
When it became time to choose a college, Schira never let her visual impairment preclude her from applying to the colleges of her choice. While in high school she went to a college fair. There she received information about St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. She did some research and found St. Mary’s really appealing. It is a well respected institution, and it is a Catholic college founded by the Sisters of the Holy Cross and is grounded in that tradition. St. Mary’s has a well respected literature program and a great education department.
“I also liked that it was small,” Schira says. “This was great for me from the physical navigation standpoint, but also because I was treated like a student, a human, not just a number. I applied to St. Mary’s and received the letter of acceptance on the night of my last high school choir concert. I decided on a high school teaching career. I can count on one hand the people who didn’t think I was crazy.”
“The people at St. Mary’s were supportive. I started talking to professionals in the education department at St. Mary’s and once they got to know me, it all started to mesh well. They became advocates for me, and I worked hard to meet their expectations,” Schira says.
“However, there was a clash with the administrators in Indiana where I did my student teaching,” Schira adds. “My cooperating teacher — the professional with whom you teach — was accepting and amazing. I learned so much from him. However, the administrators at that school never really fully embraced me, but I expected some struggles.”
She goes on to say, “I knew students were going to test me, but students test every student teacher. I knew that with me the tests were going to look different. This doesn’t mean there are any more or less challenges than any other teacher, they just have a different appearance. I knew challenges would be coming, and I needed to be ready.
The high school administrators in Indiana didn’t want me to be left alone while I was student teaching. This hurt me at first. The bad thing was I didn’t get a great deal of classroom management time, but the good thing was that it gave me more time with my cooperating teacher, and I learned so much. In the end the students who were the greatest concern of the administrators were my greatest defenders when I left that school. The students were with me, and that was very, very sweet to see.”
After Schira graduated from St. Mary’s she was looking for what the next step would be, but was really hoping it would be in Catholic education.
“I started looking around and applied to a few schools and had interviews. One principal told Ron Meyers (principal at Wahlet Catholic High School) about me. Ron Meyers was dean of students at Dowling when I was a student there, and he remembered me. He called me, and we had the interview. I had never been to Dubuque before. I found I really liked the city. I really liked Wahlert and the programs at the school. I liked the team. And I was chosen!”
She goes on to say,“I have found high school teaching to be a lot of fun. I love it every day. There never is a dull moment. At times I can be goofy or sarcastic, and the students love it. The magic of teaching is you get to be around students all the time, and they are excellent entertainment.”
Some of Schira’s goals for her teaching are: challenge the students, keep them busy, appeal to different learning styles, be candid and always be faith filled.
A central component throughout Schira’s life is her faith. As a child she remembers praying the Stations of the Cross where she got to act the part of Veronica. Veronica is still one of Schira’s favorite religious figures. She also recalls the magic of Christmas, singing happy birthday to Jesus before opening the presents, and playing with the figures from the Christmas manger scene.
Schira’s most profound example of faith is her mother. She remembers the sacrifices she made during Lent. Her mother often took her to adoration, and they always went to Mass together.
In high school, retreat experiences were valuable. She took challenging theology courses, the school atmosphere was conducive to faith development, and Mass was available at school.
In college Schira found St. Mary’s beautiful campus to be a constant inspiration. Each dorm has a chapel, so one is never far from that kind of opportunity, and there was a great campus ministry team.
“As I grew it became apparent this is what I wanted in my life. My relationship with God is the one relationship above all others,” Schira says.
This attitude has had an impact on her teaching.
“I try to have my students see and hear my faith,” she states. “I actively try to show it. We pray at the start of every class and have a Scripture reading. I give my students prayer cards, and we take five minutes to pray each class.”
Schira strongly believes if faith is the beginning focus, then the rest of class will be focused where it should be. Faith discussions frequently come up in literature class and in the student’s writings.
“I have deep gratitude for this personally,” Schira concludes. “I love teaching at a Catholic school and am professionally blessed to be here. I am enormously impressed with Wahlert and what it accomplishes. The professional congeniality at Wahlert is second to none. Wahlert has fully embraced me. I like where I am. I like what I’m doing. I care deeply about my students and want the best for them. I try to be a servant leader and give students the confidence to persevere.”
Schira (left) speaks with students in her classroom March 10. (Photo by Dan Russo/The Witness)