Camp counselor Mario Bonds, the picture of cool in sunglasses and baggy jeans, settled into the back seat of the bus bearing his chattering charges on a field trip and took care of business.
On his cell phone, Bonds, 16, told a friend how to download a job application, and he made plans to attend an SAT preparation class and a student government meeting the next day at Suitland High School, where he is about to be a senior. He skimmed a novel -- "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe, a summer assignment for his Advanced Placement English course.
Beside him, his best friend, Antoine Banks, 19, laughed. "I never met a guy that's so busy," Banks said. "He's not even 18, and he's got two cell phones."
More than most people, Bonds relies on the raised dot that marks the number 5 on the phone's keypad to tell him he's dialing correctly. The book in his lap was in Braille, and his sunglasses covered eyes that have seen nothing since 1996, when he woke up blind after surgery that doctors had hoped would save his sight from a syndrome that was destroying both optic nerves. He is working this summer at a series of camps run by the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind.
For the past two weeks, he has been at a Lighthouse technology camp, where middle and high school students learn to operate high-tech devices for the blind and to assemble computers. They also take field trips to meet successful blind professionals. The aim is to prepare them to beat the education and employment statistics for blind and visually impaired adults: Fewer than half have a high school degree, and 70 percent are unemployed.
Lighthouse camp counselors usually are sighted volunteers, but Bonds made a pitch for a paid internship based on his computer expertise. He is a far cry from the angry, rebellious boy whom the Prince George's County school system once labeled a troublemaker.
Bonds, one of 10 children and one of a set of triplets, has been raised by his grandmother in a succession of Washington area apartments since his father was imprisoned and his mother died of a brain aneurysm when he was 5 months old. He was born with Morning Glory Syndrome, which gradually and inevitably destroys the optic nerve, and he resisted every effort to prepare him for life without sight. Presented with his first cane in the third grade, he threw it at his instructor.
"They kept wanting to turn me into a blind kid, and I wasn't going to have it," he said. "If you're a kid and you're going from doing normal kid's stuff -- seeing and all that stuff -- to not being able to do anything because you are losing one of your main senses, how are you supposed to react? Certainly not humbly."
The syndrome is named for the appearance of the optic nerve as it deteriorates. When he was 5, Bonds underwent a long-shot operation aimed at saving the sight in his right eye that instead left him blind in that eye. Three years later, the same thing happened with his left eye. On Dec. 15, 1996 -- Bonds remembers the date -- he came out of the anesthesia and hopefully tore the patch off his left eye.
"I can't see! I can't see!" he screamed until a nurse sedated him.
For months, Bonds walked into walls and fell over tables as he tried to pretend he could see. He appealed to God to restore his sight. "I thought that if I hoped and prayed hard enough, that it would come back," he said. "But it didn't."
It took a move to Fairfax County when he was in sixth grade, said Bonds and his grandmother, Johnnie Mae Bonds, to rescue the despairing boy. The school system's visual specialists convinced him that blindness wasn't an excuse to fail in life and that mediocrity wasn't acceptable. He learned to navigate with a cane, read Braille and use a specially equipped computer.
Since moving back to Prince George's in ninth grade, he has remained an honor roll student. He plays piano, guitar and drums, composes music and goes to the mall and movies with sighted friends.
"He don't have a disability," his grandmother, 65, said. "He's blind. He has a good brain."
"He's got a presence about him -- a confidence," said Rich Krafsig, a regional manager for Pulse Data HumanWare, which makes high-tech devices for the blind. He has known Bonds for a year. "He doesn't use his blindness as an excuse, and he doesn't see it as an obstacle. It doesn't even cross his mind -- and it shouldn't."
Antoine Johnson, children's program coordinator at the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, believes Bonds has managed to harness his rebelliousness to his advantage.
He likes to "show up the sighted," Johnson said. "A lot of sighted people write him off because he's blind. What he ends up doing is trying a lot harder and doing a lot better than a lot of sighted people."
Mishaps still happen. In April, while walking through a school hallway and absorbed in a conversation on his cell phone, he momentarily stopped using his cane and smacked into the edge of a door, breaking a tooth. His grandmother joked that there should be a law against blind people walking and talking on a cell phone.
Bonds copes, but he hasn't stopped mourning the loss of his sight. He remembers the green glory of trees in springtime and the sparkle of flowing water. He misses seeing the goofy-eyed characters of his favorite TV show, "The Simpsons." He yearns to ride a bicycle and see the faces of his family and friends.
But while he nurtures a faint hope that advances in science might someday restore his sight, he has reconciled himself to the fact that the main rite of passage for a teenager -- a driver's license -- is beyond his reach. His two 16-year-old sisters have theirs.
"It doesn't get me down -- it's just reality," he said as he walked along Constitution Avenue NW, where the Lighthouse campers were learning to use a Braille device equipped with Global Positioning System satellite technology to help them navigate. Such high-tech devices, including screen-magnification and screen-reading software for computers, have helped open up jobs and other opportunities for many blind people, though their cost often puts them out of reach of many. The Braille personal digital assistant that Bonds covets is $6,000.
Day in and day out, he relies heavily on two masterpieces of "low" technology: his ears. Folding his cane, he sat on the low steps facing the center of the National World War II Memorial on the Mall and listened to cascading water.
He guessed that he was facing a large body of water with waterfalls or fountains. Lots of them. He was sure of that.
He tilted his head and listened harder. The water, he decided, was "going around" -- a nearly perfect description of the oval of fountains dancing in the pool before him.