As a child, Essence Garlington's family noticed she had an unusual tendency to run into things. After seeking medical attention, the doctor determined that Essence had nystagmus, a rapid, involuntary eye movement that prevents the eyes from focusing properly. Essence is a senior in high school at the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh. She doesn't consider herself blind. "I guess I'm in the middle," she said. "I can see pretty well, where if I was in public school I could identify with most of the things that they were seeing, but there's also the points where they're like, 'oh, look at this!' and I'm like 'what? I can't see that.'"
Essence began attending the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh halfway through her freshman year of high school. "When I first got here I didn't talk to anybody for months," she said. "I was mad for a long time…I [still] don't want to be here. My answer still hasn't changed. I mean, I'm use to it now, and I've made friends and all that, but I still kind of miss being with my old friends and being in public school."
Essence rubs her eye as she waits for breakfast. The school keeps a very structured weekly schedule for the students to follow from the time they wake up in the morning until lights out in the evening. "It can be frustrating," she said. "Sometimes I miss just being able to come home from school, eat a snack and just chill. It's different having to have structured time every time you're ready to do your own thing."
"It feels like an island," Essence said. "You feel like you're just here in this little place all the time. Then when you come home, you're outside the island where things are speedy and fast and where everybody is going and talking."
Like most of the students at GMS, Essence lives at the school from Sunday evening until Friday afternoon and then travels on a bus back to Charlotte to visit her family for the weekend. "Lately, when I go home, I'm just really tired from off the bus, so I just go home and chill for a little bit or sleep," Essence said. "And then Saturday, if they have something planned, we do that or whatever. Sunday, I'm getting ready to come back up here."
When Essence travels to Charlotte each weekend, she stays with her older sister, Shana Phillips, her husband, Rico, and their four-year-old son, Rico Jr. "My sisters are like my best friends," Essence said. "When we all get together, it's just like one big crazy party!"
Shana spreads Essence's eyelids open to take a closer look at her iris after reading about the eye in a textbook. "You have really pretty eyes, Essence," Shana said. Shana is currently taking online classes to become a nursing assistant.
Shana and her four-year-old son Rico Jr. vie for Essence's attention during her weekend visit. "It's like our own little chill space," Essence said. "When you want to relax and watch movies and hang with your family that's where you can just be."
The sisters share a special relationship filled with love and support for each other. "I'm so proud of the person she's become," Shana said. "My sister calls me her personal therapist," Essence said.
Essence bounces on a ball in the gym at GMS during a free period before classes start in the morning. "People here are a little different," she said. "They've been here a while, and they're a lot more sheltered then the people I'm use to hanging out [with]…sometimes I feel like I've missed out on the regular stuff because this school's a lot smaller and of course they're blind, so things are a little different."
Essence helps her classmate submit an assignment online during a class that consists of just the two of them. "I love the teachers here because they each have something different and most of them are pretty fun," Essence said. "I'm not one for smaller classes because I don't like raising my hand, and so when your class is really, really small your teacher just kind of calls on you."
Essence looks out the window as she climbs stairs at GMS. "I want to go to college, which is really hard to get ready for," she said as she thinks about the future. "Hopefully, one day, I'll open up my own little [therapy] office, so I won't have to work for somebody all the time. I'll be my own boss and have my own customers and in-and-out service…I want my own house…and that's all I know so far."