ROSEMEAD — It was 20 minutes before recess and Jim Dugdale stood in front of his mathematics class at Fern Elementary School, sensing that his students were growing restless.
Dugdale pointed to a cluster of boys whispering near the back of the room. He told them to straighten up and pay attention. He knew they were up to something. He could not see it, but after 17 years of teaching, Dugdale, who has been legally blind for nearly 25 years, could feel it.
"I really feel that my rapport with the kids is as strong an element as there is," said Dugdale, 51. "I feel that I've helped some kids. It's the best feeling there is. I feed off that stuff. I can't get enough of it."
The feeling appears to be mutual.
"I respect him," said Jose Garcia, 11, a sixth grader in Dugdale's math and reading classes. "I like the way he acts. He's sensitive and calm. He knows what he's talking about, too."
Dugdale suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that attacks the retinal nerves in the eye and gradually blinds its victims. Dugdale, who has been teaching at Fern since 1968, is legally blind and can distinguish only vague images and flashes of light. He said he cannot even read his own writing on the chalkboard. Eventually, he said, he will become totally blind.
"To be honest, I've never given it (his blindness) much thought," he said. "I just dealt with it. I felt there was nothing I could do about it.
Dugdale gets to and from class with the aide of his guide dog,
Harbor, a black Labrador. The dog is on permanent loan to Dugdale from Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael and is worth an estimated $10,000 in time and training.
"(The dog) picks up the speed and releases all the anticipation I have about walking," Dugdale said. "With a cane (which Dugdale used to use to guide his path), you're always wondering what's beyond the next step. But with a dog, you don't care."
At 18, Dugdale said, he was diagnosed as having the disease, which is incurable and affects more than 400,000 Americans, according to Retinitis Pigmentosa International in Woodland Hills. After high school, he said, he worked in his father's gardening and landscaping business until his deteriorating eyesight made it impossible for him to do that work. At 28, Dugdale said, he began a new life by returning to the classroom.
Dugdale said he enrolled at Long Beach City College and then transferred to Whittier College to complete his psychology degree. In 1967, at the age of 34, Dugdale said, he completed his teaching credential at California State University, Los Angeles. A few months later, he was hired at Fern, where he had been a student teacher.
"When I first started (teaching)," Dugdale said, "I could not believe how scared I was to get up in front of the kids. But gradually, like anything else, it became easier as I started to do it a lot."
Musical Talent Used
In his teaching, Dugdale also uses his musical background, which includes playing folk guitar, the flute and the bassoon.
"Music drives me," said Dugdale, who teaches students how to sing and play keyboard instruments and the recorders in an afternoon music class. Dugdale said music helps the children nurture their personalities.
"It gives them confidence and makes them feel good about themselves. What I'm after is a better self-concept," Dugdale said. "If they can get up there and do things none of the other kids in the school can do, it gives them a sense of accomplishment."
Fern Principal Joyce Metevia has seen the results of Dugdale's time and effort. "I've seen him work with children that have had problems, and he has helped them become very responsible children," Metevia said. "He can do just about anything a sighted teacher can do."
Dugdale's class aide Judy Fabian said she was not sure at first how a person with partial sight would act in a given situation. "Now," she said, "I think it's great to see what he can do. I'm surprised by what he can accomplish."
Dugdale said he owes much of his teaching success to the people who help him, including Fabian, who arrives before classes begin in the morning to help him plan lessons for the day. Fabian, his aide for two years, also does his paper work.
Dugdale, who said he wants to teach about 10 more years, added, "I have never come to school and wished I were someplace else. I don't know what else I would do if I wasn't a teacher."