Brooke Cottrell started the day of her graduation from the George Caleb Bingham Academy of the Arts with excitement, but she didn’t know just how much joy was in store for her.
Cottrell joined her 86 classmates from area high schools in the auditorium of Truman High School in Independence on Wednesday evening last week. All waited to hear their names called, and they walked their walks across the stage and flashed their smiles as cameras flashed back at them.
But on this night, Cottrell got a special surprise: She received the Robert Watkins Award in Dance.
And the award is especially notable because she’s legally blind and has been since birth.
At the academy, she sang, danced and played harp. She’s 18, and she’ll resume school in the fall as a senior at William Chrisman High School in Independence.
Cottrell started singing seriously in the sixth grade, dancing about two years ago and playing the harp this year. The academy has broadened her musical point of view.
“It’s gotten me exposed to new forms of music and different forms of dance, and I got to learn to play different instruments,” she said. “I got to see an opera, which is something I would like to pursue eventually.”
She’s considering attending the University of Missouri-Kansas City after she finishes high school, but hasn’t made a final choice.
Her friend, Ashley Raveill, has been serving as Cottrell’s helper for the past five years. Raveill, 18, graduated from Truman High School in May and is headed to Missouri State University in Springfield in the fall. She was in the academy’s music program and focused on vocals.
Raveill was in seventh grade when she started assisting Cottrell, who was a year behind her when they attended the same middle school. Raveill’s drama teacher had given her the assignment.
In high school, the two worked together only during the summer arts academy.
“I wanted to help her, and I knew how to do it,” Raveill said. “I knew how to adapt to what she needed. She taught me how to guide her in everything. We developed key words and body positions for what we wanted to do.
“I absolutely love this girl. She is a great inspiration, and she is the reason I want to do what I want to do with my life, which is teach vocals to the visually impaired.”
When Raveill goes to college, Cottrell will miss the young lady who has helped her for so long.
“I’m heartbroken,” she said. “I don’t want her to go, but I understand that she needs to go.”
After the graduation ceremony last week, the students gave performances that included theater, dance and singing. Cottrell danced with fellow students to Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” and held hands with Raveill for guidance throughout the dance.
She also played harp in an ensemble that performed “The Missouri Waltz” and “Ragtime Angel,” and she sang in several ensembles.
Her blossoming in the arts is the kind of thing Watkins had in mind when he founded the academy, which is part of the Independence School District, in 1997. He was the district’s superintendent in the late 1990s, said Molly Clemons, the academy’s director.
The academy’s curriculum comprises theater, music and art. Students from 20 area high schools attended the academy that just ended, Clemons said. They earned fine arts credits toward their high school diplomas.
The program’s main goal is to give students “an appreciation of all of these arts and how they blend,” Clemons said.
“We want the students from the high schools to mingle,” she said. “They compete at other times of the year. For the summer session, they’re one unit. A theater student now picks up a piece of poetry. A music student goes to a play where there isn’t any music. Some of their tastes have changed. They look at research a little bit differently.”
Cottrell’s response to people hasn’t changed when they tell her they’re amazed at what she’s able to do despite being legally blind.
“There are a lot of people who have disabilities but are afraid to show what they can do,” she said. “I don’t let my sight hold me down. I want to prove myself, to show that there are no limitations. And I want it to be an inspiration to those who are visually impaired — and to anyone.”
As she has been to Raveill.