Since the day he was born his mother slowly accepted the fact that her son may never live a life of normalcy. What at first appeared to be a life-long handicap swiftly turned into a new viewpoint on life that had a string of silver linings attached.
Moultrie Middle School seventh grader Levi Gobin was pronounced blind just a few months after birth. At 3 months old, the family’s optometrist informed Levi’s mother, Shree, that his retina was not attached in the right place and his optic nerve was significantly underdeveloped. This life-changing news seemed dark at the time but unbeknownst to him or his mother it was the beginning to a bright future ahead.
“I was born without vision so I never knew what vision was,” Levi said. “I touch things so I was wondering how other people see it, do they just know it’s there? I don’t think this way anymore but when I was little I was like ‘do they touch their eyeballs to the paper to read?’”
For the first year of Levi’s life, Shree confessed she probably slept a total of 45 minutes a night.
“Night and day didn’t mean anything,” she said.
A combination of Melatonin supplements and sleep meditations were the recipe for trying to restore an ordinary day-to-day pattern. But as hard as she tried to normalize his life, both knew in their hearts that he was destined to live a very non-average life by any standards.
A year later, a premature development began to occur. Shree began to notice that Levi ears were musically inclined. He wasn’t attracted to just any sort of sounds. He had a fixation for classical sound bytes such as the likes of Beethoven and Mozart.
“It was a ray of hope. It’s hard as a mom of a blind child to come to terms with the blindness,” Shree continued. “Initially for me I started thinking of all the plans I made for him while I was pregnant that essentially weren’t going to be feasible options for him. Of course these were my plans not his.”
The progression in Levi’s hearing, which has evolved to a heightened degree of echolocation, was believed to be a stimulation of certain senses while other senses like his sight and smell diminished. For Shree, this was an early indicator that her son had a gift for music.
“Music particularly, seeing him have that knack for it, it really gave me hope that he’s going to live a perfectly typical life,” Shree added. “Not just typical but extraordinary because he never ceases to amaze me. He can do just about anything a sighted kid can do and he’s very talented in so many ways. Whatever he wants to do he’s going to be able to do it.”
Straight out of the womb, at 6 months old, Levi started pressing the keys on his Kid’s Piano. By the age of 4 he had his very own piano teacher. At 9 years old he was dabbling with his very first drum set. Now, the timpani drums are is his favorite instrument.
For Levi, music is not an escape from a difficult reality, it’s a therapeutic way for him to express his artistic abilities through a lens that’s not limited by sight.
He attempted playing sports with kids his age, such as wrestling, but quickly realized it wasn’t his scene. At a young age, Levi already comprehended that it wasn’t feasible for him to participate in ordinary events. He understood that he would have to recreate a new normal and adapt to life as he now knew it.
Grade school was an uphill battle for Levi. He attended specialty school for blind children until fourth grade when Shree decided he wasn’t getting fair and equal treatment as the other kids. Levi was one of the only fully blind students in the class, which unfortunately cast him as the joke of all the pranks and scapegoat of his classmates’ misbehavior.
“It’s called a blind school. They should care about you, sure did they care about me,” Levi scoffed with sarcasm.
This degrading treatment was more than just interactions with other students. It was the culmination of a flawed school system that Shree believes failed Levi and was ultimately detrimental to his condition.
“I had to file a complaint with the Department of Education and go through a whole process. I became ‘that mom.’ I was definitely not liked when I would pick him up and unfortunately they were beginning to take it out on him,” Shree shared.
Levi specifically recalls being told by teachers “you can’t even read at a third-grade reading level.” He contested that he could too and now he was determined more than ever to prove his doubters wrong. The following year he opted out of Indiana’s school system and took up homeschooling. Shree invested deeply into ways of learning for the blind including Braille textbooks and other alternative reading devices.
“Braille textbooks are like $1,000 per textbook. I would often stay up until 3 a.m. brailling out the next day’s work,” Shree recalled. “It was a hippy homeschool group where you let the child lead the way, but I just knew we needed to do something else.”
During this hiatus, Levi and his mother lived three months at a Zen Buddhist Montessori in India where he learned the art of mindfulness and ways to soothe his anxiety. But music is undoubtedly his single-most stress reliever.
“Sometimes if I’m feeling stressed and I listen to some good, calming music or music I enjoy, I can just get out of the moment and lose myself in it,” Levi shared.
However, this wasn’t satisfying enough, he still yearned for a version of a normal life. After constantly fighting with the Indiana school system and being told he was unfit for homeschooling, Levi and his mother packed up and moved south to Alabama. Levi worked up the nerve to attend public school, but here too he would became a vulnerable target of bullying.
“Man, was it a train wreck,” Levi admitted. “I’m not going to go into detail but trust me, it’s bad.”
It was time to get out of dodge, yet again. Levi and Shree packed up and moved to Mount Pleasant just before the start of his seventh grade year. So far to this point the two had been subjected to so much disappointment they were beginning to question whether Levi would ever fit in the school system in general. Just as it seemed all faith was lost, they stumbled upon Moultrie Middle School.
“At that point we really hadn’t considered again going to a public school and when we moved here and found Moultrie. It’s been life changing,” Shree said. “The teachers are not just nice, they’re phenomenal, over the top. I think everyone here deserves Teacher of the Year awards.”
Little did they know at the time this new school was going to be the saving grace they’ve been searching for to no avail. The answer to Levi’s pursuit of happiness rested within the walls of Mr. Mason Mumford’s music room.
“I think (being blind) does make him better because he focuses more on the task going on and doesn’t get as distracted by looking around or whatever else is going on in the room. He just sits and focuses on the music and listens to what he hears and it makes him a very detailed musician,” Mumford said.
Music was the key that liberated all of Levi’s inhibitions and evened the playing field among him and his classmates. With music he no longer felt like an outcast, for a change he felt like the dominant one in control of his actions. It felt good to lead his peers instead of being guided. Levi would go on, with the support of his family, friends and teaching staff, to transform from a timid boy to a socially-revered adolescent. School subjects that once felt like a rigorous chore now appear challenging and fun.
“He gregarious. He’s not shy. He’s not embarrassed or apologetic about his condition,” Shree added.
He didn’t need his sight to show others he was smart. He let his brain do the talking. Within his first year at Moultrie Middle School, Levi ended up on the Principal Honors List and won the Sunshine Award for his exemplary performance in the classroom. Also, musically, he made the Honor Band which mostly consists of eighth graders. Recently he was chosen in the top-100 among 1,000 students to perform in a concert this past weekend at Charleston Southern University.
Levi credits much of his ability to grow intellectually from instruments such as SIRI voice over and touch activation. With devices such as these he is able to perform the same tasks as a teenager with a smartphone. He says the coolest thing about being blind is getting acquainted to all of the technology that comes with it. Moultrie Middle School has supplied him with a vast amount of gizmos and gadgets that make the learning curve a tad less difficult. He’s become so accustomed to doing daily functions without the use of his vision that if given the opportunity he would still choose to be blind. Levi conveyed how being blind is more than just a permanent impairment; it’s a lifestyle.
“I don’t need to see. I can do everything I can without sight and I actually prefer it without sight,” Levi added. “It would be cool to have sight for like a day or two but I wouldn’t want to be stuck with sight. I like to not have sight, I like to rely on my other senses.”
When asked to describe what it’s like being blind, Levi smirked and said it’s like him asking what it’s like to see. Until you’ve physically experienced it there’s no common ground for comparison.
Although those around him may not truly be able to understand what it’s like day-in and day-out, he doesn’t seek sympathy, in fact he loathes it. Levi just wants to be treated the same as anyone else because at the end of the day, blind or 20-20 vision, everyone encounters obstacles that hinder or obscure life-long goals. It’s what a person does next to circumnavigate those un-pleasantries that defines who we are.