LAINGSBURG, MICH. - At first glance, it's hard to pick out Autumn Michels and Rachael Steffens amid the crowd of musicians on Laingsburg High School’s football field.
If you were sitting in the stands earlier this month, you wouldn’t have noticed them. The girls blended in seamlessly, a tiny piece of the moving formation of marchers on the grass.
The 114-member band — it represents a third of the rural high school’s student body and is the largest in school history — had just minutes to perform their Homecoming half-time show, moving right, then left to the beat of Paul Simon’s 1980s hit “Call me Al.”
At 4-foot, 4 inches tall, her long brown hair pinned up away from her face and clarinet in hand, Autumn had no trouble keeping up. Rachael Steffens was right behind her.
Autumn is blind. She lost her sight completely at age 4.
The 14-year-old freshman has memorized her surroundings at home. At school, Autumn navigates the hallways and classrooms, parking lot and band room with a cane.
But the football field’s uneven ground is a challenge.
So Rachael, a 17-year-old senior, is her guide. Standing just behind her, she makes sure Autumn never misses a step while she marches along with the rest of her section.
Rachael is a percussionist, but she's not on the field this season. When the band plays from the stands, she has her instrument in hand. When the band takes the field, she marches in step with Autumn, her hands gently resting on either side of Autumn’s shoulders. She steers her firmly, moving in front of her and to the side in step with the choreography.
Autumn wouldn’t be there without Rachael.
Rachael wouldn’t think of being there without Autumn.
This is just what you do for a friend, Rachael said.
But their story is about more than friendship.
It’s a lesson in strength.
‘We didn’t know what was going to happen’
Jason and Angie Michels let doctors remove their daughter’s optic nerves when she was four.
An inoperable brain tumor near her optic nerves, called an optic nerve glioma, was discovered when Autumn was 7 months old. It grew steadily as she did.
We can slow the progression by taking out some of the tumor, doctors told Autumn’s parents.
Her optic nerves were an unavoidable casualty of the three surgeries that followed.
Jason, 39, still remembers sitting with Autumn as she woke up in the recovery room after her first surgery.
“Autumn, I’m sorry we have to do this,” he told her. “You won’t be able to see.”
“It’s OK Daddy,” she said. “God will see for me.”
This is the story Jason tells people about his daughter, an effort to explain her endless optimism.
“This is simply who Autumn is,” he tells them.
“She’s always had this amazing view of her world,” Angie, 36, said. “Everything is positive. It brings people to her, drags them in.”
Autumn said her vision was never all that good anyway. Before her nerves were removed, the tumor had damaged them extensively. One of her only memories of sight is chasing a beam from her father’s flashlight on the roundabout in front of their house in Laingsburg. The light was bright enough in the evening glow for her to follow it on the pavement.
She still sees today, just not the way people with sight do, she said.
“People ask me, ‘What do you think I look like?’ I’m like ‘Happy.’ I just try to picture people by their emotions.”
She loves music and joined Laingsburg Middle School’s band in sixth grade, learning to play clarinet by ear. She’s still learning to read braille sheet music and admits she’s trying to get better at it, but has a knack for picking up notes as they’re played.
“And I really, really, really wanted to march,” Autumn said.
Laingsburg High School Band Director Thomas Cousineau knew that. He wanted to be ready when Autumn transitioned to ninth grade and his marching band.
“On one hand, I knew it was going to be a challenge and kind of scary, the whole proposition, but then, on the other hand, it was like ‘If I just go into it thinking there’s no limitations, and there’s nothing to hold her back, I know we’ll be successful.”
Autumn and her full-time school aide Emily Carter researched how other visually impaired students have succeeded in marching band. They structured a technique for Autumn’s guide to use after watching a video of Ohio marching band students who are visually impaired.
“We talked about how I could teach people to help me do that,” Autumn said. “To feel comfortable with me and have me feel comfortable with them so it’s a two-way street.”
Autumn learned how to march in a straight line with a guide in middle school, but finding a consistent helper for the handful of parades she took part in before high school wasn’t easy. Staff members and student volunteers took turns filling the role, sometimes at the last minute. Autumn would have to explain the ins and out of her technique moments before a march.
It was stressful, she said, and frustrating.
“It’s hard, because now I have to try and show them while we’re marching and, yes, you can always step over to the side, but that’s not what all your other peers are doing.”
Jason worried school staff wouldn’t be able to find a regular student guide for Autumn in high school, someone who wanted that responsibility.
Autumn didn’t want to make another student choose between helping her and marching in the band.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Jason said.
‘Rachael is her eyes’
Rachael and Autumn didn’t know each another before this summer’s band camp in Hersey, but the week-long gathering of Laingsburg marching band students changed that.
Cousineau asked Rachael if she’d fill in as Autumn’s guide during the practices there.
He had no way of knowing they’d hit it off – on and off the field.
“She likes to make a lot of jokes,” Rachael said, sitting with Autumn in Carter's office at the high school just before the start of a band practice last week.
“I do, yeah,” Autumn said.
“I think they’re really funny, and so we just make jokes together…You know, you just grow and learn to know somebody over talking, and so we would spend so much time during the day together, we learned a lot about each other,” Rachael said.
“Then in our free time we’d try to find each other and hang out,” Autumn said.
Learning how to guide Autumn wasn’t easy.
“You’re so close to everybody when you’re marching on the field,” Rachael said. “We learned a lot of difficult things.”
By the end of the week, though, they were at ease with one another, keeping up with everyone else during routines and ribbing each other back and forth.
“See you on the field, Autumn,” Rachael would say.
“Hear you on the field, Rachael,” Autumn would reply.
Rachael asked Cousineau at the end of camp if he would be able to find someone else to help Autumn.
“Yes. We’re going to find someone else,” he told her.
But, by the start of the school year, they hadn’t, and Rachael realized by then she didn’t want them to. She volunteered to be Autumn's guide for the marching season, opting to play percussion only when the band sits in the stands during football games. During marching routines, she’s by Autumn’s side.
“I like it this way,” Rachael said. “We already had such a set way, and it’d be hard to just put somebody else in. You can’t change something that’s going so good.”
The level of trust Autumn has with Rachael is special. She’s never established it with another student who’s helped her, she said.
That’s important, Angie Michels said.
“When she gets rid of that cane, she’s basically at the mercy of whoever is guiding her. Rachael is her eyes.”
Just days into the start of band camp, Autumn told Rachael about something her family had been struggling with for several years.
Doctors had given her a bleak prognosis, she said. Her tumor was expected to grow. By age 18, Autumn was expected to need a wheelchair and depend on others for basic needs, doctors said.
"I’m going to prove them wrong,” Autumn told her. “They need to stop putting expiration dates on me.”
Two months later, her future is much brighter.
During a recent visit with her oncologist, the Michelses got word that Autumn’s tumor hasn’t gotten any bigger and might not.
“(Her doctor) said, ‘I think you need to get things together, because you’re going to live a pretty long life,’” Angie Michels said.
Autumn was surprised and thrilled. She’s making plans to study psychology after high school. Her goal is to help kids with their own challenges.
Rachael said Autumn’s already proven she can do anything.
“She doesn’t let anything stop her.”
But she’s not the only one setting a good example.
Cousineau said Rachael is making a sacrifice every time she guides Autumn with the band, instead of playing percussion with them.
“For these kids, senior year is their last time around. It’s the last time they march or their last homecoming game,” he said.
Amy Brown, Rachael's mother, said she wasn’t surprised. It might be rare, she said, to find that kind of selflessness in high school, but it makes sense if you know Rachael and Autumn.
“That’s exactly what Autumn would do," Amy Brown said. "It’s exactly the kind of thing Rachael would do. I think it’s probably why they clicked so well."
Her senior year of marching band is already memorable, Rachael said.
“I’m still marching. I’m still on the field. I’m still with the band. I’m essentially doing the same thing I would be doing. I’m just doing that with Autumn."
Angie Michels said Rachael is doing more than making her own marching band memories. She's ensuring Autumn’s entire family can make their own.
“Rachael has kind of made our dreams come true.”
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© 2017, Lansing State Journal