Padecky: Maria Carrillo grad overcame disabilities to thrive

A rare form of vision loss didn't stop Drew Kemp from a very successful high school career. He's off the Cal in the fall.|

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.

“And when you would ask anyone on our soccer team of their greatest misgiving,” Mastin said, “it would be that Drew never scored a goal for them.”

Mastin was strong on this point: Kemp was never granted any special treatment on the field. “Hey, Drew, the ball is coming to your feet” would be the only consideration spoken to him. The rest of the time Kemp, a 5-foot-5, 120-pound forward, played the game on instinct. He had played the game since he was 6 and was fully sighted on the pitch for seven years.

When the inevitable bumps came, Kemp shrugged. Once he kicked the ball to a referee. Another time he kicked it to the other team. Oh well, he thought to himself. He knew he had an unwavering support system, beginning with his mother and extending through Bob Tait and beyond.

Tait, 64, was Kemp’s in-class mentor and aide for all four years at Carrillo. In the beginning, Tait was a constant presence, unsure of the result.

“I wasn’t sure how it was going to go,” Tait said.

After all, Kemp was a 14-year-old freshman, vulnerable and self-conscious as all freshmen are, made all the more so because Kemp had to bring a book within 6 inches of his nose, a sure mark of distinction to his classmates.

It made him uncomfortable, sure.

Kemp began to evolve. He memorized the layout of the Carrillo campus.

He learned the raised walkways, the dip in pavement, the steps, the curbs, the potholes, the entrances and exits to classrooms.

A sharp mind, Kemp learned computer keystrokes in a snap. He pushed himself.

“I’m a competitor,” Kemp said. “I think my impairment made me a better student. It didn’t allow me to be lazy.”

It didn’t and will never allow Kemp the luxury of being casual. Each step he takes, each decision he makes, is extended to a consequence. Competency is Kemp’s most valued goal. Stumbling, either of step or thought, is tolerable but not acceptable.

“I don’t want to be lowly, at the bottom,” he said. “I am not afraid to fail. It just pushed me harder if I do.”

Learning to be autonomous at Carrillo has produced the necessary confidence for Cal. Tait will not be going with Kemp to Berkeley. Kemp has gone to the campus a couple of times already, to memorize the campus as he once did at Carrillo.

He will inform each professor of certain accommodations. Nearly all books are available in an audio format and Kemp will need a room separate from the class to listen without disturbance.

He also will carry what he termed a portable magnifier that enlarges type from 12-point to a 50-point size.

A political science major, Kemp will go to Berkeley remembering his Carrillo roots.

“I don’t want to let people down,” he said.

Kemp feels a responsibility. He is an encouragement to those with disabilities.

That has made him older and more mature beyond his age. He knows people are watching, even if he can’t see them.

It is a load he not only is willing to carry but to embrace, even display, for Kemp is committed to not being Just Another Guy.

A future Mastin is convinced will be distinctive.

“Drew will make it happen in his life,” Mastin said. “I think one day I’ll vote for him for president.”

I snickered, told Mastin that was cute for him to say that.

“I’m not kidding!” Mastin said forcefully.

Kemp’s reaction? He smiled. He was not embarrassed. He didn’t shrink from the thought. Come to think of it, Kemp doesn’t shrink from many thoughts.

“I’d like to be a general manager of a professional sports team,” Kemp said, “or the general manager of the country.”

Kemp laughed. Why not? Why not think outside of the box? Drew Kemp has made quite a habit of it. He knows the truth: The only limitations humans have are the ones they place on themselves.

To contact Bob Padecky email him at

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