For Elizabeth "Lizzy" Conlin, the turning point was sophomore year.
Would Conlin, blind since birth, graduate from her local public school as planned? Or would the academic gap with her sighted peers - never so wide as it was that year - continue to grow? If so, she'd have to leave Kempsville High School and enroll in a special school for the blind.
That wouldn't happen on her mother's watch. Irene Conlin went to the top, to teachers and school administrators who had rarely, if ever, needed to work with blind students. Together, she said, they obtained the technology, skills and specialized teachers Lizzy needed.
That was two years ago. On Wednesday, Lizzy graduated from Kempsville - not with a special diploma for students with disabilities, but with a Virginia standard diploma.
"It feels really good. It feels exciting," Lizzy said, a smile playing across her face. "Like starting a whole other cycle of living."
Lizzy, 19, has optic nerve hypoplasia. Simply put, her eyes don't work.
It was easier to make friends when she was little. When her peers became teenagers, they communicated more with body language, which Lizzy couldn't see. Her mother called it "false popularity" - all the students know Lizzy, but she's close with only a few.
Lizzy said they don't realize how much she can do on her own. Often, well-meaning people try to carry her things, open doors for her, throw her trash away. Sometimes they say they're sorry for her blindness.
"It's like, 'What are you sorry about?' " Conlin asked.
"God made us this way," Lizzy said.
Other challenges were academic. Great strides have been made in technology to assist the visually impaired, but the schools didn't always have it or know how to use it.
Once, Conlin learned that a teacher was holding on to a computer device for typing Braille, called a BrailleNote. She knew it had been ordered, and when she asked about it, the teacher said he was waiting to be trained how to use it.
Lizzy, meanwhile, had learned how to use the BrailleNote the summer before at a session for blind students. Using her "powers of persuasion," Conlin said she talked the teacher into letting Lizzy take the device home.
Such moments were frustrating, and there were a few of them as the schools learned what Lizzy needed, Conlin said. At first, like many parents of children with disabilities, she approached the school ready to fight. But later, she said she realized collaboration was more effective than combat. Teachers and administrators wanted to help Lizzy, she said. They just didn't always know how.
After the conversation her sophomore year, Conlin said, everyone stepped up. The school helped Lizzy get a special tutor and let her take technology, like the BrailleNote, home.
Conlin became so close to the administration and teachers, she tears up at the thought of not working with them next year.
"I can't count the number of people who have gotten us to this point," she said.
Lizzy has devices that read books and GPS directions aloud. The Kempsville Lions Club bought her software that reads anything on her computer to her. Conlin calls such technology "the great equalizer" - helping her daughter earn the same diploma as a sighted person and, hopefully, allowing her to live like one.
In many ways, Lizzy is a typical recent high school graduate. She has a lot of friends in the city's blind community, she's played flute in the school band, she loves her iPhone, and she has big plans for the future.
Soon, she'll head to the Colorado Center for the Blind for nine months to learn how to do everyday tasks and live on her own. Afterward, she plans to enroll in Tidewater Community College, then Old Dominion University. Someday, she wants to be a teacher for children ages 3 to 5.
For Conlin, it matters less what her daughter wants to do than the fact she has choices. Not every blind person gets the skills and education to forge their own path, she said.
"It's time for her to claim her life and move forward," Conlin said. "A lot of people can see physically, but they have no vision. Elizabeth has vision."
Elisabeth Hulette, 757-222-5097, firstname.lastname@example.org