If you asked Saree Behm and her family what separates the Craig High School senior from other high school students, they would likely say her upbeat personality, ability to persevere and occasional sassy nature.
Being legally blind likely wouldn’t make the list.
In fact, some of her peers and teachers were completely unaware of her visual impairment, partly because Behm never let it slow her down.
She graduated with the rest of Craig’s Class of 2020 this week.
“It means I conquered something. I stuck it out for 13 years. I got a really good education, and I’m going to college. I think I did pretty good,” she said of graduating high school. She was also a member of the track and field, gymnastics, and swim teams.
Behm’s vision is around 20/2,400, which means she sees from 20 feet away what a person with perfect vision can see at 2,400 feet. She was born with congenital cataracts, or clouds in the lenses of her eyes that can cause blindness.
“My vision is horrible,” she said with a wide smile Friday.
“I’m pretty sure if you were to put yourself in my shoes, you’d be like ‘Holy mackerel, that’s all you can see?’”
Roger and Teresa Behm adopted Saree from China in 2007 when she was 6½ years old and the parents were both 53. Congenital cataracts can be corrected, but because of the poor health care system and one-child rule in China, Saree’s condition went untreated.
Roger Behm is blind himself, and he and Teresa learned about the possibility of adopting a child from China from a family friend who is also blind. Their family of six, which includes four adult children who are now between 31 and 40 years old, became a family of seven.
“We didn’t see nothing wrong with her, but the write-up made her look all messed up. But she wasn’t,” Roger said.
Saree knew almost no English when the Behms dropped her off for her first day of first grade, and most people thought they were her grandparents because of their age.
Saree’s vision means she misses out on visual cues, struggles to recognize faces and can’t see smiles or waves from across a room. When she was younger, she wouldn’t recognize her mom when she would pick her up from school.
Still, Saree doesn’t use a walking cane because she navigates the world well without one. She said she hasn’t fallen down but that it sometimes can be difficult to maneuver around when floors are different shades of gray.
Schoolwork often took her much longer than her classmates, she and her family said. Technology has helped tremendously, Saree said, because she can zoom in on a computer or phone screen to see notes more clearly. Photocopies can be difficult to work with, but she said the school district was very accommodating.
Command keys on computers are a big help, too, and Saree said she likely knows more of these keys than the average student.
“Because of her visual impairment, homework takes a lot more time,” Teresa said.
“You have to blow everything up, and when you magnify it, everything doesn’t fit on the screen. So then you’re moving everything or jumping back and forth between a piece of paper and computer,” she said.
Visual teacher Melanie Baumunk was a big help during Saree’s four years of high school, both with her education and with teaching Saree how to advocate for herself, the Behms said.
Baumunk said she enjoyed watching Saree grow as a student and as a person, and she said they will stay in each other’s lives now that Saree has graduated.
“She is one of the hardest working kids because she likes school. Visually speaking, school was not a natural fit because she couldn’t just walk in and access education like other kids, but she kept at it and she excelled,” Baumunk said.
While her visual impairment can cause frustration, she hopes people around her recognize her for other reasons.
“I don’t want that to be the first thing that people know or think about me. I’m not going to hide and keep it a secret, but I’m not going to make sure everyone knows,” she said.
To Saree, her father exemplifies that. He’s not blind; he’s Dad—though Roger joked that Saree learned early on that her father might not be the best help in some situations.
“She learned at a young age not to ask her dad if he liked her outfit or if the Christmas present in her hands was hers,” Roger said with a laugh.
Saree hopes to help others in the future. She plans to attend UW-Whitewater starting this summer to study early childhood education. She hopes to someday work as a special education teacher for small children.
“She’s like a magnet for kids,” Teresa Behm said. “The kids just flock to her all the time. Her nieces and nephews, they just love Aunt Ree.”
She also gained real-world experience working with a 4K classroom in the Janesville School District, she said.
Like any other college freshman, Saree said she is a little nervous about tough professors, time management and making new friends.
But Roger said the family has full faith in her because she has proven she is just as capable as any other person.
“We just always told her, ‘You’ve got the future in front of you. Anything you want to do, you can do it. You couldn’t do it in China, but you can do it here,’ and we pushed her to challenge herself just like all of our other kids,” he said.
“She’s been such a blessing.”