In a sea of middle school students dashing from class to class, one sixth grader takes her time. Cane in hand, she methodically maneuvers around obstacles, hearing every tiny squeal, pop and bang coming from the whirl of people around her.
Twelve-year-old Sarah Harmon, a student at Lafayette Middle School, is completely blind, but her ears have taken over the sensory job that her eyes cannot perform.
Her acute hearing helped her find a passion for music. The extraordinary gift of perfect pitch allowed her to excel quickly, despite having never seen a sheet of music.
Sarah has been taking piano lessons since she was five years old. She met her current piano instructor, Robert McGehee, when she was nine. McGehee described Sarah as simply amazing.
“I knew immediately that she had perfect pitch,” he said. “She can hear something and immediately know it before I even have time to look at the music.”
Sarah was the first blind student McGehee had ever worked with. He knew his teaching style would need to be different, but after meeting her for the first time McGehee realized she only needed his help with half of the work.
“She already knows the notes,” he said. “All we really do is work on hand posture, making sure she’s not doing something she’s not supposed to with her hands crossing over or anything.”
Her quick learning holds true with academics as well. She is enrolled in all of the same classes as her sixth-grade peers except one.
At sixth period she parts ways with her classmates to meet with her facilitator, Cindy Ross. Sarah has worked on braille exercises with Ross for seven years.
“She’s very curious. She wants to know exactly how the world works, which is wonderful,” Ross said. “She’s outgoing, very social. Kind of like a little grown-up.”
Their relationship is about more than just schoolwork. Sarah calls Ross her “school mom.”
“We went from kindergarten to elementary school to upper elementary, and now we’re in middle school. Now we deal with boys and crushes and friends,” Ross said. “She has developed into this beautiful flower, and I’ve gotten to watch that.”
Ross makes sure their time together is spent teaching Sarah an alternative way of completing every assignment given to her classmates.
“When everyone else was starting to learn to write their letters, Ms. Cindy was showing me how to write them in braille,” Sarah said.
Ross wants to keep Sarah fully immersed with other kids her age. She and Sarah use a braille writer to type papers, a magnet board to solve math equations and a raised map to study geography.
“I like to read braille because it’s kind of like a secret language that other people can’t understand,” Sarah said.
Ross also transfers the lyrics of Sarah’s choir music into braille for her.
“My goal is to make everything and anything that Sarah does appropriate for her and her disability,” Ross said. “It’s very important for me to have her understand what’s going on and be a part of it, even if she sometimes doesn’t like it, but she’s so cooperative and so willing to try anything. You really couldn’t ask for a better student.”
Every day at 2:06 p.m., Ross says her goodbyes after walking Sarah to the choir building. Sarah is a member of the advanced choir.
Sarah is the first student whom choir teacher Hannah Gadd taught that has the gift of perfect pitch.
“The fact that she has it really sets her apart [in the choir], especially since she’s in the sixth grade,” Gadd said.
Only one other sixth-grader was accepted into the advanced choir, otherwise made up entirely of seventh- and eighth-graders.
“I didn’t really know about [the advanced placement] at first, so I was like ‘whoa!’ The advanced goes to choir at the end of the day at seventh period, and the beginners go before us at sixth period,” Sarah said.
Her mother, Jerri Harmon, was not surprised that Sarah was invited to move up. She knew her daughter loved music even before she knew Sarah was blind.
“I knew something was up when I was feeding her her bottle,” Harmon said. “Her eyes would move side to side.”
Harmon’s mother worked at an eye clinic at the time and knew her granddaughter’s eyes should have been tracking movement at that point in her infancy.
Sarah was diagnosed with Leber’s congenital amaurosis at four months old. It took her family by surprise since it is a hereditary disease but both parents are fully sighted.
“I was in the pediatrician’s office with her, and I started busting out crying,” Harmon said. “You do everything that you think is right during the pregnancy by textbook and then find out that she had that kind of trouble.”
As Sarah grew, so did her passion for music. The Harmons rallied behind their daughter and never wavered in their support.
“[We do] anything to foster it because it’s not like she’s going to be out there playing soccer or basketball or anything like that,” Harmon said.
The family hit another medical wall with Sarah when she was diagnosed with scoliosis and needed surgery to place rods in her back.
“I would take her in for a well-child checkup and they would find something else going on with her. I was like, how much more can this kid take? It’s not fair to her,” Harmon said.
After the surgery, Sarah found comfort in music. She asked her parents for a keyboard that she could play in bed. During the recovery process, Sarah would pass the time playing the piano or listen to her favorite a capella group, the Pentatonix.
Harmon said her family’s faith kept them strong during hard times with Sarah’s health.
“Every hour of the day, I’m always worried,” she said. “But it’s in God’s hands, and we have to leave it there.”
Sarah’s perfect pitch is an example of God leading her to do what she wants to do, according to Harmon.
Sarah said she just wants to keep on living a good life. She has two dreams. One is to meet the Pentatonix in-person. The other is to one day become a music teacher for children.
“I feel very happy and excited because I know more good things will happen in my future,” Sarah said.
Lauren Layton is a senior journalism major at the University of Mississippi.