Only once have I visited the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind.
That was years ago — years ago — when The Star dispatched a much younger hack to pen a story about the ASD high school football team. I remember nothing about it other than driving down Alabama 21 and meandering through a few city streets lined with attractive neighborhoods and Southern homes to find the campus. Beyond that, the memory is a fog.
I went back Tuesday for a junior-varsity basketball game. (Personal, not work.)
First reaction: Wow.
Second reaction: How ignorant I’ve been to the size, scope and impact the institute has for students, the county and the state. Totally my fault.
Consider me reprimanded.
Without question, AIDB is one of Alabama’s unparalleled success stories that four years ago celebrated its 150th anniversary. Ponder that: As a state, Alabama is less than 200 years old, its struggles with schools, public health and finances are well documented, and this school with origins tracing back prior to the Civil War is not only still going, it is setting the example for how government — state and federal — should support and provide for public education.
Economically — if not civically — AIDB is the heart and soul of Talladega. What else truly rivals it? NASCAR? The speedway? Agriculture? Hmm. Earlier this year, a Jacksonville State University study determined that the institute, the largest employer in Talladega and the second largest in the county, had a total annual economic impact in Talladega County of $184 million, with AIDB staff and students spending more than $61 million each year there.
Talladega Superspeedway, a sporting tradition since 1969, provides the city’s public image. Twice a year it benefits from national TV audiences and an influx of out-of-town visitors. ’Dega is a race, a place, a lifestyle. Suffice it to say the reason the word “Talladega” is known by so many Americans, NASCAR fans or not, is because of the speedway’s worldwide reach and popularity. No fault, just a fact.
Nevertheless, the work done at AIDB — and the impressive, professional visual its sprawling campus projects — should be Talladega’s unparalleled postcard.
If you haven’t already, it’s time to reaffirm AIDB as one of the state’s gems. It’s not a football game, stock-car race or tourist attraction. It’s not that simplistic. It’s a place where vision- and hearing-impaired Alabamians receive top-tier instruction, a place where lives blossom and humanity is evident. Tuesday night, while sitting in the stands at the AIDB gym, the fellow next to me said something prescient that, in effect, boiled down to this: There can’t be a more impressive state-level educational facility for the vision and hearing impaired than AIDB.
Here, the irony is startling. Painful it is to recall Alabama’s nearly 200 years of providing public education on the cheap. And yet, here in the rolling hills of northeast Alabama is a state institution that provides tuition-free education to bright, worthy students who deserve specialized instruction. It is a testament to the belief that Alabama can do education right — when it makes wise decisions and isn’t afraid to spend money for the betterment of all.
As Alabamians, all around us are the under-publicized gems of our world. The people who shine. The institutions that sparkle. The educators who improve students’ lives. The schools like AIDB that other states should emulate.
When we open our minds, we grasp what’s in our midst. And it’s good.
Phillip Tutor — firstname.lastname@example.org — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.