Constable: Planning is the recipe for blind student in Maine West culinary class
The sharp edge of the 8-inch chef knife in Anahi Sosa's right hand slices through raw chicken held in place on the cutting board by her left hand. The 18-year-old senior at Maine West High School adds the chicken pieces to the soup simmering on the burner in her culinary class, washes her hands, pulls out two plastic bins of spice containers and runs her fingers over dozens of Braille labels before plucking oregano from the mix.
"Labeling is very essential," says Sosa, whose congenital glaucoma has left her blind since birth. "The challenge is planning. It takes a lot of planning."
Knowing her way around the crowded kitchen in the classroom of the Des Plaines school, Sosa doesn't need her white cane. She uses her left hand to feel for the counter corners and classmates in her path. The two dozen students work in small teams to cook today's assignment of soup with fresh vegetables and chicken.
"She's good on her own," cooking partner Cassie Fragale says of Sosa. "If there's a chair not pushed in, I'll tell her, but she's pretty good on her own."
Sosa quickly credits her success in the class to Theresa Hardin, the longtime culinary arts instructor, and Elizabeth Abelson, teacher of the visually impaired, who has been paired with Sosa since the girl was in third grade.
"She's college-bound," says Abelson, who gives Braille copies of recipes to Sosa. The culinary class is the only class in which Sosa needs her assistance.
"If you have the want, you're going to be fine. She's always had this drive," Abelson says. The pair have a relationship beyond student and instructor.
"If you want to live on your own, you need to learn to cook food. I'm always thinking of you at 25," Abelson says before adding, "Let me know when you start chopping, OK?"
Matter-of-factly replying, "Yeah, yeah," Sosa washes her hands in the sink. She says she's thinking about continuing her education at Oakton or Harper community colleges and maybe North Central College in Naperville, but Sosa has no plans to become a chef. She signed up for the culinary class because kids need to know how to cook when they set off on their own.
"I took it for the same reason, to get the basic life skills everyone needs," Sosa says. Asked if she cooks at her home in Des Plaines or for her mom, Claudia Andrade, stepdad, Patrick Ekechi, father, Andy Sosa, or siblings Celeste, Mia and Junior, Sosa smiles. "No, I don't count ramen," Sosa says. "I do want to go home and be able to make lemon-pepper chicken."
She started learning how to read Braille at age 5. "I didn't start using it until later on because I'm stubborn," Sosa says with a giggle. Her milky-white left eye can detect light. Her right eye is fogged over and changes daily. Some days, Sosa can see color blobs of things in front of her, while other days she sees only vague shadows.
Walking the halls, she sometimes runs into people. "I'll bump into people, as everyone does because no one knows how to walk in high school," says Sosa, who can be more aware than teens staring at cellphones. She's not naive about the issues created by her faulty vision, but she says she can find ways to overcome them. Sosa plays violin in the school orchestra, is on the track team, writes for the school newspaper and is a member of several honor societies including the National Honor Society.
"My own family forgets I'm blind," Sosa says.
"We've really created a dynamic team," Hardin says of her work with Abelson and Sosa. "It's been such a learning experience to work with them both. When they come in, it brightens my day."
Smiling often, the gregarious Sosa kids a team of fellow culinary students about their soup, which is far too spicy for the one with the red face and watery eyes, who regrettably agreed to the additional red pepper suggested by his partner.
"You peer-pressured him," Sosa teases with a laugh.
"She's a very bright and brave student," Hardin says. "She's a quick learner and asks great questions."
The room requires attention and discipline.
"We've got knives, gas and electricity in one room with 24 kids," Hardin says, noting safety and sanitation are givens. Sosa has a few additional tools to help her.
"I love my talking scale and thermometer," Sosa says. Needing two cups of water, and unable to see the lines on the measuring cup she fills in the sink, Sosa knows two cup weighs 16 ounces. The scale takes a moment before a computerized voice says, "15.9 ounces."
"Close enough," an impressed Hardin says to Abelson. "You've got this. We're leaving."
Sosa, who supplements her four cooking classes a week with a 7:30 a.m. Friday kitchen session with Hardin, says her safety record is almost perfect. "There's a lovely incident with broccoli," Sosa says, noting that she lightly nicked herself, not while chopping, but while slipping the knife back into its protective sleeve.
"Everything does take her longer, so she doesn't get the downtime other kids get," Abelson says.
Sosa eats all of her soup and carries her dirty dishes to the sink. She doesn't realize she left a piece of paper and a small plastic cup.
"Sounds like you've got to clean your spot," Hardin says. Sosa makes her way back to the table with a wet cloth to finish cleaning.
"I've been blind from birth. You've just got to do it and figure it out," Sosa says. "As with everything, if you don't know what you're doing, it's a little scary. But I'm comfortable in this class. If I know what I'm doing, I'm very comfortable doing it."