Mr. Victor Hakopian has been named the recipient of the 2003 Freida J. Riley Teacher Award, sponsored by the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation and the National Museum of Education. The Award honors an American educator who works with a physical disability, teaches in an especially challenging educational environment, or has performed a heroic act by making an exceptional, personal or physical sacrifice on behalf of students.
Mr. Hakopian was born with a rare eye disease. He underwent 25 operations from the age of two to six, and consequently his eyes were irreparably damaged. When he was six years old, he remembers being in the doctor’s office and realizing his eyes were not going to magically heal. He is legally blind.
When he was in first grade he was often embarrassed by his teacher when she asked him to read out loud and he couldn’t see the words. He was often punished with a whack on the wrist with a ruler. The teachers at this Armenian school were not trained to deal with children with special needs.
The following year Victor was enrolled in an elementary school that had a resource program for blind and visually impaired students. However, he wanted to be like everyone else and wanted to go to the neighborhood school. He felt isolated and became self-conscious about his disability. His family was very protective of him because he was “handicapped.” Victor has two older brothers who were both successful in academics and athletics, and they were his role models.
When he was ready to attend middle school, it was suggested that he continue to attend the resource school, but Victor now became his own advocate. He wanted to be like everyone else and attend his neighborhood school with his friends and brothers. The special education teacher told his father: “Mr. Hakopian, there is no way Victor can succeed in a junior high school that has no resource program to support him. All he would have is an iterant teacher consulting with him for thirty minutes a week.”
Victor convinced his father that he could handle anything that came his way. However, he didn’t realize how very hard it would be. He was the only visually impaired student in the school. As for all middle school students, social pressures are intense, and rather than being just one of the crowd from the neighborhood, he became even more conspicuous. He was required to roll his CCTV (a machine that magnifies small print onto a screen) from classroom to classroom. Victor just wanted to be normal, but he stuck out like a sore thumb.
High school was the turning point in his life. Victor wanted desperately to fit in. The answer came in a school bulletin “Wrestling tryouts after school.” Being a fan of the World Wrestling Federation, he decided he was going to be a member of the school’s wrestling team. He quickly discovered this wasn’t exactly the sort of team he had expected. On the day of tryouts he asked, “Where’s the ring? Where’s the ropes?” His coach just laughed. He asked his parents if he could join the team, and they said no because they didn’t want him to get hurt. Being the nice, obedient Armenian boy that he was, he defied them and joined anyway.
Wrestling turned out to be the one thing Victor could do just like everyone else—and sometimes even better! His coach told him he was a natural. In his last two years of high school he was ranked in the top ten wrestlers in the State of California. Victor did stick out, but as an athlete and honor student, not as a “handicapped” person.
Victor went to college and graduated in 1992 with a BA in psychology. He received a Masters’ degree in 1994 from San Francisco State in Special Education, and worked as a counselor while earning a dual credential in elementary and special education.
Victor did his student teaching in a very diverse second/third grade class as well as a resource program for students with learning disabilities. As a teacher, he sought to use his disability as a vehicle to promote understanding. He promoted disability awareness in his class, and brought in community leaders with disabilities and conducted writing and role-playing exercises to generate empathy. Victor was nominated Student Teacher of the Year in 1997.
Upon completing his education, Victor’s newest challenge was finding a teaching position. Depending on the State, roughly 70-90 percent of the blind and visually impaired population is unemployed. Principals were very skeptical that he could manage a classroom due to his disability.
The principal at Balboa High School, the toughest inner-city high school in San Francisco, hired Victor to teach a special day class for students with communication and learning disabilities. He taught U.S. history, literature, math, science, PE and vocational skills. Balboa had the same problems as other inner city schools including truancy, violence, low motivation and unstable family situations. Victor spent half of his time trying to referee and redirect the students to their studies. However, a handful of kids mastered the subjects he taught and eventually mainstreamed into regular classes.
Victor used his disability as a method of instilling a sense of respect in his students. Having worked in a high school, Victor realized that it was imperative to reach the students at a much earlier age to instill self-confidence and provide a positive atmosphere for learning.
Victor became an inclusion teacher at Jean Parker Elementary School in Chinatown. In his classroom he tries to reinforce the idea that everyone is equal regardless of the culture, race, gender, economic status or disability they may have. He makes it a point to foster an openness to new experiences, an empathy for people from all walks of life and an ability to think critically. He challenges the way his students view the world on issues such a race, gender, culture and other preconceived notions. Mr. Hakopian wants his students to have the confidence to take risks, and know his classroom is a safe haven where they can do so. He expects only excellence.
Being disabled at a young age, Victor had to overcome prejudice from peers and society as well as family cultural beliefs. However, he learned that his destiny was in his own hands and he continually working toward his goals. Victor feels he has accomplished everything he set out to achieve. His dream was to be fully integrated into society--to be acknowledged as a person first, and a person with a disability second.
Victor is married with two children. Victor said: “I leave my house every morning to work in a profession that uses my mind and positively impacts others’ lives. I feel that the theme of my life has been contribution. The more that I am able to contribute to society, the richer my life becomes.”