Carrie Carlisle’s zest for life is impressive. Instead of staying in her comfort zone, the 14-year-old likes to challenge herself. “I like to try different things. I wonder, ‘Why am I not doing that?’ ” she says.
Carrie believes in herself, she knows she can take on a risky sport or a demanding stage role. Her biggest challenge is convincing everyone else. “Carrie doesn’t see herself as challenged,” says her former teacher, Cathy Young. “She is a workhorse and she is very determined.”
Carrie was born with a condition called Aniridia. Her eyes have no irises and she must keep her glaucoma under control. Because of the condition, the eighth-grader is legally blind, with no sight in one eye and 20/800 vision in the other. The view through her sighted eye is akin to looking through a piece of wax paper. But this visual impairment doesn’t keep her on the sidelines.
Carrie performs on stage, rides horses, and plays violin and cello by ear. “She has amazed us many times with what she’s accomplished,” says her grandmother. Carrie’s grandparents, Dave and Helen Carlisle, are her legal guardians. Dave Carlisle is principal of Riverdale Elementary School, where Carrie was a student until transferring this fall to the Tennessee School for the Blind.
“When she was 11, Carrie told me that she wanted to take horseback riding lessons,” Dave recalls. “I said, ‘Horseback lessons? Carrie, really.’ Now Carrie enjoys weekend trail rides and performs in horse shows at Spatial Trails Camp. She rides at a full-blown gallop. On the trail, fellow riders warn her about tree branches but, otherwise, she rides independently.
“True stories inspire me,” says Carrie. “The surfer Bethany Hamilton really inspired me. The Dolphin’s Tale, a movie about a dolphin that lost its tail, is inspiring.”
Riverdale’s faculty and students will miss Carrie’s wit and musical talent this year. She sang and acted in four of the school’s annual musicals. In 2011, she sparkled as Mrs. Bucket in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, nailing the solo “Cheer Up, Charlie.”
To hit her mark on stage, Carrie uses other actors’ voices and brightly colored stage marks to find her place. A line of pink duct tape marks the edge of the stage for her, because “One time, there was no duct tape, and I almost walked off,” she says with a laugh.
Carrie learns scripts, lyrics, and violin music by ear. “She has an incredible musical memory,” notes former chorus teacher Nathan Powell. “When I played a long passage, she would rattle it off. When the group sang, she could evaluate if we got it right.”
To the astonishment of her grandparents one day, Carrie rattled off every line and song in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Though it took 45 minutes, she got it all.
As a little girl, Carrie discovered she loved to sing, and started taking voice lessons at age 6. Blessed with a strong soprano voice, she has grown into a popular soloist in church productions, concerts, and festivals. Last year, she won a spot in West Tennessee Honor Choir. “For the audition, I learned songs in South African, Greek, and Spanish. I’m like ‘Oh no, I cracked a note,’ but surprisingly, I made it.”
When I spoke to Carrie, she was settling in at the Tennessee School for the Blind in Nashville. She is making new friends and coping with homesickness. She talks to her grandparents twice each day and returns home on weekends.
“At my new school, you get treated like everyone else and learn how to be more independent. I live with 10 other girls in a cottage and am learning to use a microwave and washer and dryer. I’m settling in and don’t know what clubs I’ll get involved in. The school doesn’t have a theatre program, unfortunately.”
A strong student, Carrie uses assistive technology to read and do research. She scans books and enlarges type using closed circuit TV. She listens to textbooks using Book Port Plus. But adaptive technology does have some kinks. “The JAWS computer program reads everything to you, even advertisements,” she says. “I looked for the book, The Secret Garden. I found the restaurant, the play, everything but the book,” she says wryly.
Despite her challenges, Carrie embraces life. She seeks a full and complete experience and is willing to do what it takes to achieve that. As Carrie finds her calling, she inspires us all.