A Sense of Touch

Wednesday, June 16, 1999, Grand Rapids, North Dakota - She knows that the most beautiful scenes are those which she creates in our minds, those which she builds with lovely melodies, made of delicate notes, struck by fingertips on a piano keyboard. Her hands know the keys well; the spaces between them, the placement of a chord and the stretch of an octave.

She spends her days as a music teacher, instilling that sense into students of the North Dakota School for the Blind, as she has done for 42 years. She was there in 1994, when the school changed its mission to outreach, from its traditional, residential program. She moved to Grand Forks with the school when it left its original location in Bathgate, in the distant, lonely, northeast corner of the state. She worked there after graduating from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, where she learned the classical piano and where her visual world disappeared completely. She studied there after high school, in South Dakota, and elementary school, when glaucoma began taking her eyesight, a sense we do take for granted. That was when she began to develop her sense of touch.

She knows that she can imagine most anything, and sometimes that is even better than seeing it. She can hear a river flowing and imagine the water pressing over the stones. She can feel a tree trunk and imagine an entire forest. She can listen as someone tells her of a beautiful mountain range, and see herself nearly on the peak.

When she isn't at a piano, or church organ, or riding to a student's home for music or Braille classes, or spending time at home with her husband, she sits at a computer, communicating with the sighted world. She types on the keyboard - the monitor turned away from her - and a digitized voice recites her strokes as she writes reports and correspondence. A Braille reader plucks up small pegs, and she runs her fingers over them to read the text.

She likes to cook, and to listen to books on tape, and to teach and play music. She likes to travel, as she does for teaching seminars and vacations. Her friends and her husband accompany her, and they describe the sights to her, and she joins them from her own world, powered by their voices and her imagination.

She writes in Braille frequently, using a thin, metal template to guide her. She writes recipes, grocery lists and phone messages, and she teaches blind students to improve their lives this way; young students and old, children who were blind from birth and adults who have recently been taken into this world.

And so she plays "Amazing Grace" for you, on a piano built by Steinway and Sons over a half-century ago, and she creates another world for you, a world of music, a world which sounds exactly the same to you as it does to her. She is Donna Iszler, and she has a beautiful sense of touch.

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