A greater vision

The success of Bangkok School for the Blind is due to the hard work and dedication of one woman, Genevieve Caulfield

Drive down one of Bangkok's busiest streets and peer behind the walls of a quiet gated compound, and you will find one of the gems of the Thai educational system, Bangkok School for the Blind. This residential school teaches 200 visually-impaired children the skills they need to attend mainstream secondary schools, and to become productive members of the community.

In the sunny, well-tended courtyard you will find a statue of a seated woman, her fingertips resting gently on the pages of a Braille manuscript on her lap. The caption at the base reads: "In Grateful Memory of Miss Genevieve Caulfield, a Pioneer in the Education of the Visually Handicapped of Thailand."

Genevieve Caulfield, a blind American school teacher, founded the school in 1939. Her journey from the United States to the classrooms of Bangkok School for the Blind is a colourful tale of adventure, hardship, loss and, finally, triumph.

Genevieve was born in Virginia in 1888. She was blinded at two months old when, during a routine visit, the doctor accidentally knocked over a bottle of a caustic liquid into baby Genevieve's upturned eyes. She recovered from this horrific accident and eventually underwent an operation that allowed her a slight perception of light in her right eye, a gift she treasured. Her family tried to make life as normal as possible for young Genevieve, and encouraged her to accept and adapt to her situation. Her only special accommodation was that family members spent extra time reading aloud to her from books, newspapers and magazines, nurturing a lifelong love of reading. She was close to her brother Henry and her mother's younger sister, also named Genevieve, who she called "Aunt Ducky". Lively and outgoing, Aunt Ducky was Genevieve's window into the outside world, taking her on frequent outings and shopping trips.

During Genevieve's childhood in the US few disabled people received an education. Most lived a life of loneliness and isolation. Nevertheless, there were a few notable educational institutions, including the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. Genevieve's family pooled their modest resources to enroll her as a boarding student at Perkins. One of her earliest memories, upon entering Perkins, was encountering a huge globe with an embossed map of the world, triggering a curiosity about the world that stayed with her for life. She completed high school at Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia, where, in addition to learning Braille, she studied history, literature, mathematics and music.

As a teenager Genevieve hungered for independence. Tired of being accompanied everywhere she begged her mother to allow her to make the journey from her high school in Philadelphia to the family's home in upstate New York, a journey that included one streetcar and three trains. Despite her trepidation, her mother agreed. On the appointed day, Genevieve set off from Overbrook on the route she had memorised, carefully moving from train to train. Ticket sellers and fellow travellers were happy to help the polite young woman as she made her way through train platforms in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. With relief she finally sank into her seat on the last leg of her journey, and she sensed another passenger sitting in the seat next to her. Shockingly, the passenger leaned over and planted a big kiss on Genevieve's cheek. It was Aunt Ducky, who had silently followed Genevieve from Philadelphia to ensure she was safe. The two dissolved into giggles, but Genevieve felt quietly vindicated and felt she had earned the right to travel alone.

Genevieve took a particular interest in Japan, and set her heart on moving to Tokyo and becoming an English teacher. It was an ambitious goal, particularly for a young disabled person in 1905. Determined to live and travel independently, Genevieve decided to obtain a degree in education. She returned to Overbrook to focus on college preparation, and was admitted to Trinity College in Washington, DC. From there she transferred to Columbia University in New York, where she graduated from Columbia Teacher's College at age 27, the first blind student to study there.

She worked as a private English teacher in New York City. Many of her students were Japanese businessmen, bankers and government officials, and they provided support and encouragement for her eventual move to Tokyo in 1923. Genevieve lived with several host families and became a high school English teacher. She eventually moved into her own house. She took in a Japanese foster daughter, Haruko, then 14 years old.

Genevieve learned Japanese, and settled into a content life in Tokyo. She was a lively and outgoing person, and had many friends. She met a number of Thai professionals who had moved to Tokyo for education or training. When she asked them about education for the blind in Thailand, she was met with the response, "there are no blind people in Thailand".

Suspecting that handicapped persons were marginalised as many had been during her childhood in the United States, Genevieve formed a plan to build a school for the blind in Thailand, hoping to provide the same kind of education and training she had received at Perkins and Overbrook. Genevieve and Haruko made an exploratory trip to Bangkok in 1936. Genevieve was intrigued and delighted with the sensory overload of 1930s Bangkok _ the waft of the khlong, the scent of durian, the fragrance of the frangipani and the melodious sounds of the Thai language. She met with a number of government officials to request assistance and support for the school, but was gently rebuffed. Undeterred, she returned to the US to raise money and buy equipment for the school.

She embarked on a lecture tour. Her expertise on Japan was welcomed by audiences as the country warily watched war spread throughout Asia. She sent Haruko to train to be a teacher for the blind at Over-brook, and spent time with her family, including her beloved Aunt Ducky, who died that Christmas.

After raising the grand sum of $800, the two women sailed for Bangkok in 1938. The hold of the ship contained a wooden crate with their precious cargo: Braille slates and writing paper, elementary school books and two complete sets of embossed maps, all donated by Perkins School. In her luggage, Genevieve carried the metal plates of the Thai alphabet in Braille, which she had painstakingly translated herself.

Their ship took them to Singapore, and they proceeded by train to Bangkok. As soon as the train entered Thailand, the skies opened in a torrential rainstorm. Huddling in their second-class compartment, Genevieve and Haruko valiantly tried to shield their equipment from the water that poured in through the curtainless windows. Genevieve was overcome by homesickness, and uncharacteristic fear about the task she had undertaken. She was carrying hundreds of dollars of other people's money, determined to build a school that no one really wanted. For once, her usual sunny confidence wavered.

Genevieve struggled at first to get the school off the ground. The Thai government, understandably preoccupied with other priorities, did not offer any assistance. Moreover, they insisted that the school be governed by a local board of directors. So Genevieve set out to cajole friends and contacts to join her board. She gave interviews to the press, and participated in various fairs, demonstrating her skills in reading and writing Braille.

Members of the Thai royal family took an interest in the school and donations started trickling in. Genevieve rented a small house, enlisted volunteers to begin copying books into Braille, and began teaching her first student, MC Puangmasphaka Diskul, or Than Ying Lek, a daughter of Prince Damrong.

The princess was blind and partially deaf, but she was an eager pupil, and she quickly learned to weave and knit, and to read and write in Braille. Genevieve's success with the Princess encouraged other Thai to enroll their children in the school. Genevieve emphasised the value of a good education and self-sufficiency. She taught her students to read and write in Thai, and soon began to teach them to read and speak English as well. Morale among the children grew.

She added a small dormitory to house the students, and took responsibility for their health and welfare. She provided support and acceptance, as well as good nutrition and medical care, and watched the children thrive. Genevieve also hired Thai teachers and trained them in the complexities of teaching blind children.

Genevieve Caulfield

Genevieve and Haruko were active in the Catholic Church in Bangkok, and enjoyed a lively social life with their Thai and expatriate friends. Among their acquaintances was an English-speaking Japanese businessman, Nobutsugu Utagawa, who became a champion of the school, and a good friend. Haruko and Nobu promptly fell in love and married in Bangkok in 1940.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Thailand allied with Japan against the US. Most Americans and other Westerners fled Bangkok as Japanese troops moved into the city. Genevieve found herself in a precarious situation. She considered her options. The school she had worked so hard to establish was finally flourishing, and 20 blind students depended on her. Moreover, she was living with two Japanese citizens who were very dear to her _ Haruko and Nobu. Haruko was now pregnant and expecting twins. In the end, Genevieve decided to stay in Thailand with her school and her family.

Japanese authorities sent the few remaining Westerners to an internment camp, but allowed Genevieve to stay in Bangkok under house arrest. Under the careful watch of an indulgent guard, Genevieve continued to supervise her school.

Tragically, Haruko died shortly after giving birth to twins, a son and a daughter, in December 1941. Despite her grief, Genevieve brought the babies home with her, hired a nurse and took responsibility for their care and upbringing. Nobu was sent to work in Burma by the Japanese military.

As the war wore on, Bangkok increasingly became the target of allied bombings. Genevieve began to fear for the safety of her students, most of whom now lived full-time at the school. She set about finding a safe location outside of Bangkok. She rented a house in Hua Hin and moved the children. They remained there until the end of the war. Inflation ate away at the meagre school budget. Not trusting the banks, she kept the school's money in a trunk in her room.

Every time the air raid siren sounded, she gathered it and the twins and fled to a bomb shelter in the garden. She counted out the precious baht to purchase food and medicine, both increasingly scarce and expensive.

During these years, the school welcomed a new teacher. A member of the Thai royal family, Princess Visakhanujchawee Svasti, daughter of Prince Svasti Sobhana, joined the school as a teacher in 1943. Princess Svasti had had grown up in Malaya, where her family had moved after the overthrow of the monarchy, and studied at a girls' convent school, where she became known as "Princess Mary". Trapped in Penang at the beginning of the war, she suffered during the Japanese occupation of Malaya. After her return to Thailand, she slowly regained her health, and became a volunteer teacher of English at the school.

Princess Mary had an energising influence on the children. The blind students, only recently shunned by society, were deeply honoured that a member of the royal family would teach at their school. The school's prestige and visibility grew, and the government began funding the school's operating expenses. The princess loyally stayed with the children during the rest of the war, and moved with them to Hua Hin. She became a good friend and surrogate daughter to Genevieve. In time she also became close to Nobu, who had returned from Burma to continue his business career in Bangkok, and his twins. She and Nobu fell in love and wed after the war, and moved back to Tokyo.

Today, Bangkok School for the Blind thrives. The expansive campus, supported by the government under the auspices of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, contains classrooms and dormitories, a lunchroom and gym, and a small but well-equipped computer room. At lunch the children spill out of the classrooms, holding each other by the elbow and talking excitedly. Trained in orientation and mobility, they easily navigate the hallways and stairwells of the school. They gather at the computer terminals, where voice technology helps them surf the worldwide web. And many achieve independence _ one of Thailand's major telecommunications providers hires graduates of the school to work in its call centres.

Genevieve moved back to Tokyo after the war, but returned to live in Bangkok. She travelled all over the world to lecture and raise money for the school. She was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Prize for International Understanding in 1961 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson in 1963. She died in Bangkok in 1972.

About the author

Writer: Andrea Richhart