It’s become such a cliché adults assume it to be true: Youth is wasted on the young. As if those adolescent years are narcissist self-indulgences, like standing for hours in front of a mirror mesmerized by the winning smile and the perfect teeth.
Drew Kemp could have fallen into that trap, that one of self-absorption, not because he had that winning smile and perfect teeth but, rather, it was because he couldn’t see his winning smile, his perfect teeth. Kemp could have grabbed the sob towel and never let it go. Kemp could have become angry, disillusioned, bitter, gone to the dark side, cursing his visual impairment.
“But I never wanted to be thought of as ‘that blind kid,’ ” Kemp said.
Kemp refused to allow his vision — 6/140 in his left eye, 5/300 in his right eye — to define him. In October 2009, Kemp was diagnosed with Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, a rare form of decreased vision. Things like school blackboards became a blur, as did people, words on a page, colors of a sunset. Visual life for him was a fog, everything indistinct 10 or more feet distant. In that fog Kemp, 18, could have wrapped himself tightly, secure in believing his disability would keep him on the periphery of humanity, a non-participant at best, anonymous at the very least.
“I wonder how many of us, faced with what Drew has, could have done what he’s done,” said Mike Mastin, a government teacher and boys soccer coach at Maria Carrillo High School. “He’s remarkable.”
What happened is the stuff of legend.
Kemp ran track for all four of his years at Carrillo, a sprinter who ran an 11.6 100 meters and a 23.9 200 meters. Kemp played soccer his last three years at Carrillo. H
e never dipped below a 4.0 grade-point average in any of his eight semesters, graduating in June with a 4.3 overall GPA.
Asked if he ever got a “C” at Carrillo, Kemp’s face twisted in a knot, as if he was just asked to swallow a banana slug. He never got a “C,” only 6 “Bs.” Kemp will attend Cal this fall.
Oh, and one other thing: Kemp was named Maria Carrillo’s Student of the Year for 2013-14. Nominated by Mastin, put to a vote by Carrillo’s teachers, Kemp’s ascension was nearly a logical result of the journey he took, the friends he made, the people he inspired.
“I don’t know if I have ever seen a group of kids rally around a kid like his soccer teammates did for Drew,” Mastin said. “He handles what he has with such grace. He’s a natural leader. He’s embraced what he is.”
A leader to this extent: Last year Kemp was the debate moderator for the 25 kids in a government class. The attack on Syria, America’s immigration policy, the War on Drugs, these and other topics would be debated.
When the discussion wandered off point — when rules of parliamentary procedure were violated — Kemp restored order, civility and focus.
Exclusionary he could have been, inclusive he became. When Kemp hiked to Gunsight Point at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, Carrillo baseball players Austin Martinez and Keith Wallach guided Kemp to the top.
When Carrillo cross country coach Greg Fogg searched for the best athlete to exemplify his team’s Spirit Award, Kemp was the obvious choice.