It takes a few laps around the grounds of New Horizons High School for Nigel Turner to get his bearings.
He's most cautious on the turns, his bike trembling as he works to stay on the sidewalk and avoid obstacles. But even when he hits them, it doesn't bother him much.
"I'm doing landscaping for you now," the 18-year-old shouts to Principal Christy Rasmussen as he starts to run over some bushes near the administration building. Eventually, though, Turner is gracefully circling the lawn at a steady pace.
Not bad for somebody who can't see.
Never miss a local story.
It has taken more than knowledge of his surroundings for Turner to be at this point. He has been kicked out of a school and had strained relationships with his family as he has dealt with his blindness, a result of hereditary cataracts and glaucoma.
But family members and teachers said he has worked his way out, using his love of bicycles, machinery and mechanics to learn skills, make friends, connect with family and prepare a future for himself. He graduates today from New Horizons High School in Pasco.
"He's done an amazing job of growing up," Rasmussen said.
Born in Kennewick, Turner has lived in Pasco most of his life with his parents, and younger brother and sister. Likewise, he's lived with some level of vision impairment his entire life. Cataracts run in the family, and his mother and maternal grandmother are blind. His younger brother also has them but not as severely.
Sheila Turner, his mother, said her oldest son had two eye surgeries and contacts by the time he was a month old.
"It was really hard for us," she said. "We literally had to hold him down, dig (the contacts) out, clean them and put them back in."
But his vision continued to worsen.A final surgery in his late childhood, with a 50/50 chance of improving his vision, did nothing to improve his sight. In fact, he suffered glaucoma as a complication of the numerous eye surgeries he had. Turner lost all vision in his left eye and it was removed. He now has a prosthetic. He still has some level of vision in his right eye, but he loses a little bit each year. Eventually, he'll be entirely blind.
Because of this, Turner became withdrawn and angry. He struggled with his classwork and with making friends at school. At home, his relationship with his parents became strained, especially with his father, Ken Turner. His parents decided to send him to the Washington School for the Blind in Vancouver in the eighth grade.
"I was a blind child with a blind mother, but that didn't mean I knew how to be a blind parent," Sheila Turner said.
But the school was a difficult place for Turner. He said it was suited for people with multiple disabilities along with blindness, not just people who had no vision. He got into fights with students who he said ostracized him for only being blind. He was back in the Tri-Cities after just more than a week there.
"It wasn't the right school for me," he said.
Turner ended up at Discovery Middle School, an alternative school in the Pasco School District that shares a campus on Argent Road with New Horizons High School. He was the first blind student at a school that typically served former dropouts, teen parents and adolescents in rehabilitation programs. Rasmussen said she and no one else at the school knew exactly how they were going to work with him.
"He was so angry," she said of Turner.
There was stress at first. Turner lashed out and hated being restrained by his vision loss. He wouldn't use his cane to get around the school, saying he'd lost it or left it at home. Rasmussen said that one time she saw him riding a skateboard around the grounds just before the class bell was to ring, which would have flooded the area with students he could run into.
"But the bell rings, and he stops and kicks up his skateboard," she said. "I called him in and told him he couldn't use a skateboard."
Over time, though, Turner settled in at the school. His academics improved, with him making the honor roll for three of the past four years. He began to make friends who respected his wittiness and his willingness to try anything.
Turner's natural precociousness also began to shine. He always enjoyed taking things apart to see how they work and building his own devices, he said. When was 4, he rigged up a dome light and powered it with a drill battery. Now, he works with old electronic devices, such as eight-track tape players and wax cylinders, and fixes things for friends and teachers.
Turner also became fascinated with bicycles. He now uses his father's road bike and has learned how to work on it and others just through touch, a skill April Ottey, the jewelry and metals teacher at New Horizons, said led him to make beautiful and award-winning jewelry despite not being able to see his work.
"It's a very tactile thing," Ottey said. "He could feel whether the piece was going well for him."
Bicycles are such a big part of his life that Turner made them into his senior project, which was a graduation requirement. In addition to writing a 35-page paper about himself and his family, he detailed his plans for the future, including obtaining his bike mechanics certification. He is rebuilding his relationship with his father and said he wouldn't be where or who he is today without him.
And that brings it all back to Turner riding a bicycle around the school's grounds. Riding his bicycle around campus was part of his project's presentation but it also is something people thought he couldn't do, and he's doing it. He has plans for the future and he can't predict whether everything will go according to that plan. Regardless, he said he's ready to keep going forward.
"What brought me here is 180 degrees of what I am today," Turner said.
-- Ty Beaver: 582-1402; email@example.com