Ann Marie Sullivan, principal of La Monte Academie in Laguna Niguel, is chatting with a student in her office.
The conversation is animated, warm. Sullivan asks for a description of the formal gown the girl wore to a recent senior prom. "Will we be able to see the pictures?" she asks.
Neither acknowledges the fact that Sullivan won't ever be able to see the photographs. She has been blind since birth.
Sullivan, 47, has been principal of La Monte--a small, private school for gifted and learning-disabled children in kindergarten through 12th grade--for two years. She's also working toward a doctorate in clinical psychology through the Santa Barbara-based Fielding Institute, and she's the mother of a 2-year-old child she's raising on her own.
Sullivan doesn't seem to think that her blindness is any big deal. "In order to be a well-functioning person I need to acknowledge I'm blind, but I don't feel different from anybody else," she says. "I describe myself as a blind person without an excuse: I don't use being blind as a reason for not being a whole person."
In her interactions with the La Monte staff, Sullivan seems energetic and even-tempered, quick with a quip or a compliment. "Ann has made me feel good about myself, going to work after 40 years," said Genevieve Jamison (Jammie) Tiberi, an instructional aide who helps Sullivan organize students' records. "She's fun to work with," Tiberi said. "She's not only my boss, but she's become a close friend."
Four years ago Sister Paula Jane Tupa, the school's founder and director, heard about Sullivan, who has a master's degree in psychology but was eking out a living in Long Beach doing office work and phone sales. Tupa called her up.
"Over the phone I could tell right away this was someone I needed," Tupa said. "I didn't even know she was blind." A friend drove Sullivan to Laguna Niguel for the job interview, which lasted only a few minutes. Tupa said she had no hesitation about hiring a secretary who couldn't see: "She has so much else to offer--and she doesn't feel sorry for herself."
After two years, Tupa promoted Sullivan from secretary to principal. "This is the first year she's (completely) on her own, and there's no problem," Tupa said. "This frees me up to spend my energies on where the corporation needs to go. Because she's a trained psychologist, she can do for the kids what I can't. A lot of times there are lines around the corner of kids waiting just to talk to her.
"I think because she's blind, there are some inner workings there the rest of us are not gifted with," Tupa said. "It's incredible, it's almost weird, how she understands people.
"Children are often afraid of people who are not sighted. Once they get to know her, there's no problem. She knows you by your walk. Once a student tried to sneak in late, through the front, and she said 'John!' He stopped in his tracks, he was so astonished she could know he was there."
Sullivan is tall, very thin, with dark brown hair. She smiles a lot. She has dark blue eyes, which, she says, are just "a shell" covering her eye sockets. She's been blind since birth; her natural eyes were removed long ago to prevent glaucoma.
In May she acquired new hand-painted plastic eyes, made possible by donations from the Laguna Niguel and Mission Viejo Lions clubs. Sullivan was introduced to those groups by Marla Gitterman, a Laguna Niguel resident who has organized 15 volunteers to make tape recordings of Sullivan's psychology textbooks, which aren't available in Braille.
Sullivan lives with Mary Therese (Thesie) Kissel, a longtime, legally blind friend trained in carpentry and electrical and plumbing repair. Kissel, who is presently out of work, assists Sullivan with some day-to-day tasks. But Sullivan is determined not to be dependent on other people. "I live in a visual society, but I do not want to live in a blind world," she said. "Vision means more than just seeing."
Sullivan uses a cane when navigating new territory, but not at home or on the job. "When I don't need a symbol of being blind, I can put it away," she said. "If I had a (guide) dog, the symbol would always be with me." She gets to and from work by Dial-A-Ride bus, and her daughter, Heather, attends a preschool near La Monte.
At home, Sullivan spends as much time as she can with Heather, a curly-haired, playful bundle of energy. Heather is sighted.
Whenever her daughter came near her during a recent conversation, Sullivan lit up. Heather cuddled up to her mom, giving her children's books to read aloud, sometimes guiding Sullivan's fingers over the Braille inscriptions she has added to several books.
Many people have made false assumptions about her ability to take care of Heather, Sullivan said. "When I brought her home, the doctor made me sign a paper saying I would have a visiting nurse come and see her. The visiting nurse never showed up. It's a good thing I didn't need her!" Sullivan laughed.