SHE LIVES in a world that is forever dark, but to the children at old Grant Elementary School in North Tonawanda, she has come to symbolize the lamp of learning that lights their pathway on life's journey to understanding.
And at Monday's Christmas assembly, some 350 youngsters and their teachers will rise as one to applaud and salute Karen Stockwell, 30, a blind, single parent, for her courage in the face of adversity and for her devotion as a mother.
Mrs. Stockwell first came to the school's attention in October at its annual parents' open house. Led into Barb Braunscheidel's first-grade classroom by her 6-year-old daughter, Rebecca, Mrs. Stockwell sat at a desk, running her fingers over her daughter's work.
She could feel the crayon's tread on the construction paper. And she smiled knowingly as her sensitive fingers touched the leaf chart and felt the outline of the maple, the poplar, the oak and the chestnut.
It took her back, she said, to her own days at Grant. That was before she was 11 years old and lost her sight through a congenital illness that left her forever blind.
"I remember you when I attended class here at Grant," she told Lorraine White, now a retired teacher. "You were beautiful."
Ms. White, gracefully accepting the compliment, allowed that the years had taken their toll.
"You always will be beautiful in my eyes," Mrs. Stockwell said. "What I saw then, I see now."
On that day she was just like any other mother, anxiously evaluating her child's work, not with the eyes that no longer functioned but with the heart and sensitivity of her fingers.
"Karen Stockwell attended to every detail that all of the other parents were involved in," said Principal Joel J. Rosokoff, recalling the open house. "There was just one difference. Rebecca's mother was blind."
"Rebecca had become her mother's eyes," Mrs. Braunscheidel said. "After the open house, we came to learn that whenever Mrs. Stockwell and Rebecca went shopping, Rebecca would lead her mother and inform her of the denomination of the bills in her wallet, even though she was barely 6 years old."
What happened after the open house was typical of North Tonawanda's Grant School, Rosokoff, his aide Donna McQuillen and the faculty. In its past, the school's reputation for excellence and educational derring-do has attracted calls from people like TV's Peter Jennings and Geraldo Rivera, and not surprisingly, this week from television's documentary "2 0/2 0."
The school's search for educational excellence, especially in Mrs. Braunscheidel's class, switched swiftly from the routine to the extraordinary. Its members would learn about the blind and their problems, and, at the same time, they would celebrate their own gift of sight.
In the months since the open house, first-graders have walked blindfolded through the halls, accompanied by the sighted, in order to experience sightlessness.
When the Christmas cookies were baked last week, they were mounted on paper to represent the dots of braille -- the method used by blind people to read. The arrangement spelled out "Merry Christmas."
When the school learned that Mrs. Stockwell needed money to help her earn her master's degree in rehabilitation counseling, a career that will provide independence for other handicapped people, the Grant School people quickly tied in their own needs with Mrs. Stockwell's.
In an arrangement with Tyson Foods Inc., Grant's first-graders read books and, for each one that was read and reviewed, Tyson donated money to a scholarship fund.
At Monday morning's assembly, those voracious readers in the first grade, who have learned to appreciate the gift of sight, will present a check to Rebecca's mother for $550 toward her education and her future independence. Each of them has read at least four books!
"I know I can understand the children because I once could see and was like them," Mrs. Stockwell said. "Now I know that they will understand me and others like me who cannot see. It has been a great experience for all of us."
It also will be a great experience for Mrs. Stockwell's two daughters, Rebecca and Jennifer, 5, because their mother's courage and devotion will be celebrated by their peers. It will be the kind of occasion, we suspect, when there won't be a dry eye in the house.