Student to compete in National Braille competition
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Alexander Holstein, 8, doesn't hesitate when asked what he wants to be when he grows up.
"In college, I hope to get a doctorate in automotive engineering. I'm going to design my own vehicles -- like a flying go-kart. Wouldn't that be fun?" he said. "I've already started by making things with my Legos. I've always been fascinated with design.
"By the way, it's Xander, spelled with an X," he added.
Xander, a second grader at Ruffner Elementary School, was born legally blind because of a rare genetic eye disease called Leber's Congenial Amaurosis (LCA).
"When you are blind, things can be pretty different in the world," he said. "Here's an example: My parents recently bought me this video game, Wii Fit Plus. The background has so much glare that I have to wear these sunglasses -- my school glasses -- just to see it."
"You see, it turns out that there are rods in the back of our eyes that help you see in the bright light and the dark light. Both kinds of my rods are messed up. But guess what? The kind that help me see in the bright light are messed up even more."
Xander's high IQ qualifies him for Kanawha County Schools' gifted program, and this weekend he will head to Los Angeles to compete in the National Braille Challenge. He is the only student from West Virginia to ever be selected for the nationwide competition.
Sixty students from North America will compete in categories that require them to transcribe, type and read Braille. The categories test their reading comprehension, Braille spelling, chart and graph reading, proofreading, and Braille speed and accuracy, according to the Braille Institute website.
He said he wants to take home first place, mostly because the award includes an iPad. But he's even more excited about riding in a plane for the first time.
"The closer I get, the more anxious I am. I mean, my first ever plane ride. At least they have a wireless Internet connection," Xander said. "It's an honor just to go. But I definitely want to win. There are a lot of people sending me good luck."
One of those people is Ellen Shapiro, who has taught visually impaired students for 40 years, and has worked with Xander since he was in preschool.
"He's so enthusiastic. He's not fearful, like a lot of blind children often are," she said. "He's always been very smart. It's phenomenal. And he certainly likes to talk."
Xander wears glasses to school to help lessen the glare of fluorescent lights, and his parents keep a dim house, which allows him to see some things.
"He goes to the computer lab and does the same things the other children do. I have to read him the questions, but he can look at the keyboard and find A, B, C, or D. He can't see certain things because of the glare or the background, but there are ways to work around some of these things," said Pam Estep, Xander's full-time school aide.
"He works so hard. He can remember as the teacher talks much better than the other students because he has to focus. The teacher is writing on the board, so the other kids can see and process that, but while the teacher's talking, he's listening. He's usually the first to raise his hand because he already has the answer," Estep said. "It takes a lot of extra effort to get where he is"
Xander said he has an eidetic memory. "My mom says I, quote, 'self diagnosed' that, though," Xander added.
Samantha, Xander's mother, said he's been disassembling things like VCRs and DVDS since he was 3, and says he's memorized every episode of his favorite TV show, "The Big Bang Theory."
"He asks for chores and loves to take care of the animals," she said. "He's also very, very chatty.
"Can you believe this? I can barely see but I can make some pretty good instrumentals on my keyboard?" Xander chipped in.
Reach Mackenzie Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4814.