Shamill Ferdinand was born with only one eye, and the other one doesn’t really work worth a damn, either, so she’s been legally blind her whole life. By way of compensation, all of her friends say she’s got a smile that lights up a room like a giant disco ball. “But she’s a little shy,” one of them confided to a reporter who was about to interview Shamill. “So you might not see it for a while.”
“A while” in this case was about two minutes after Shamill sat down across the table from the reporter. Trying to figure out just how much sight she really had, he asked, can you see me?
“I can, sort of,” Shamill replied. “I can tell you’re a person, but really, you’re just a shape to me.”
“Wrong answer,” replied the reporter gravely. “You were supposed to say, ‘I can tell you’re a handsome person.’ ” And there it is, the famous smile, much broader and brighter even than anybody said, and a giggle that chimes like a bell.
“You’re joking with me,” she said, and giggled again. The smile somehow gleamed even brighter.
Thirty-nine years of blindness in a seeing-eye world — especially in a home that has never been exactly awash in money — does not seem like the most likely prescription for a cheerful disposition. But Shamill has never been one for brooding or recriminations against the universe.
Armed with patient teachers and extra-large-print textbooks, she worked her way through the public school system in South Miami-Dade, graduating from Miami Southridge Senior High in 1998.
She had fun at school with friends, and even more at home, cracking her sister up by making up silly lyrics to TV-show theme songs and terrorizing her mother by leaping off the side of the family bathtub while shouting, “It is the diapers!” (This is youthful Shamill-speak for “Ready, set, go!” Its exact origins are, perhaps mercifully, lost to time.)
She loved Michael Jackson and a TV show starring the singer Brandy called “Moesha,” which she could listen to if not really watch. “She had such a nice voice,” Shamill recalls. “I just loved her voice when she was in a movie of ‘Cinderella.’ She sounded so pretty.”
Asked if she missed out on anything in high school, Shamill nods. “I don’t know what a prom is like, I never went to that,” she says. “And I never had a day in my life at a job.”
That persists to this day. Shamill’s sort-of-working left eye long ago turned milky white, reducing her already dim vision to little more than a series of vague gray shapes and making reading too laborious no matter how big the print is. She isn’t able to do much but wander around the sparsely furnished Homestead house where she has lived with an aunt since her mother died in 2014.
“My aunt is out at her job, so I’m by myself, and that can be lonely sometimes,” Shamill says. “The hardest thing about being blind is that I can’t take myself somewhere when I want to go. I can’t go to the store by myself if I want.”
Her best time of the week is Friday, when Shamill gets dressed up. This is no small task for a blind person. “I worry about making my clothes match,” she confides. “I don’t want to look silly. Today I have brown boots, and that matches my skirt, so I’m doing pretty good today.”
There is just the tiniest hint of a question mark at the end of that statement. (It’s needless; her skirt and boots not only match but look quite stylish, even to a proven fashion clod like a reporter.) One of the few exceptions to Shamill’s sunny outlook is a quiet preoccupation with not looking silly. It goes back a long, long time, to a childhood moment when a young cousin heedlessly exclaimed to a parent, “That girl’s only got one eye!”
“I know she didn’t mean anything — she was little, only 4 or 5 years old — but that hurt my feelings, bad,” says Shamill, contemplatively rather than sadly. “There have been times when I felt down. There have been times when I felt small. There have been times when I felt like I wasn’t pretty. I want to be pretty.”
After she’s dressed, a van arrives at her house in Homestead to bring her to Little Havana for a daylong visit to the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind. There, she has arts and crafts classes, interludes for singing and dancing, and occasional field trips. Her favorite destination on those: the bowling alley. “I’m pretty good at that,” she says, smiling at her own boast. “I’ve gotten some strikes.”
But the rest of the week isn’t nearly as lively. Her home, which has to stay afloat on one small income, doesn’t brim with entertainment options. That’s what Shamill would like, some small things to keep her company. A little radio boombox that can play CDs would be nice. The real jackpot would be a laptop computer that talks.
“Then I could look up my favorite singers and find out about them,” Shamill says dreamily. “That would be fun. And maybe if it played DVDs, I could watch my DVDs on it, too.” And as she think about it, the room gets brighter because that smile is back, and yes, it’s pretty.
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com. (Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.