Matthew Gavin, who has a vision impairment, teaches his fourth-grade classmates at St. Peter the Apostle School in Savannah, how he uses his magnifying computer Aug. 23. Photographs by Helena Russell.

Students share an eye-opening experience

Originally Appeared in : 9919-9/12/19

SAVANNAH--Among his friends and family, he’s just Matthew, a creative and resilient 9-year-old who plays center on his school’s flag football team, loves dinosaurs and imagines that a super power worth having would be the ability to shape shift into any dinosaur—even a hybrid one. 


“It depends on what situation I’m in,” the fourth grader said of the superhero journal he’s writing in class at St. Peter the Apostle School, where for one assignment he created a map of a dinosaur sanctuary and later in art class spelled his name by drawing dinosaurs out of each of the letters. “If I’m fighting a really mean kid, I’ll probably turn into a T-Rex or something, and roar at him.” 


Among his teachers and classmates at the Savannah primary school he’s attended since pre-K, he’s treated as just like any other student, though he sometimes needs a little extra help to navigate the classroom, play games or do his school work, especially when his eyes are tired.


“My goal is to take him (from) where he is now and move on, as best we can—just like the other 22 kids in my class,” said Kerry Tvrdy, Matthew’s fourth-grade teacher.


But until Aug. 23, Matthew Gavin’s peers could only imagine the way the world looks through his eyes, that is, until they were instructed to perform everyday tasks around their school like doing class work, walking or eating—while wearing blindfolds or while guiding someone else wearing a blindfold.


With their eyes covered, the students had the opportunity to better understand how Gavin’s impairment—a form of cone dystrophy originally thought to be achromatopsia—affects his eyes. 


The students’ activities could only approximate, however, what Gavin experiences on a day to day basis. 


Gavin wears white-rimmed red-tinted sunglasses to improve contrast and reduce light sensitivity. He also uses an electronic magnifier to enlarge the text on his worksheets. When he walks the hallways and grounds of the school, he does so with a collapsible cane, learning skills that will one day enable him to apply for a guide dog. 


“I want people to hear it from me because it’s my problem,” Gavin said, thinking back to one day last year when he joined others with disabilities in educating the congregation of St. Peter the Apostle Church about them. “I should have the right to tell everybody how it is, not make somebody else do it, (because) they don’t understand anything about it.”


He added, “Not even professional eye doctors really know what it’s like to be like me or anybody else…”


Matthew’s mom Michelle Gavin described St. Peter the Apostle School as being tremendous for her son and the only place she and her husband would put him because of its tight-knit, family atmosphere.


Michelle Gavin said that having her son’s classmates spend a day trying to better understand the challenges he has on a daily basis had an added benefit. 


Though there are few others at St. Peter the Apostle School with disabilities, it’s important, she suggested, that the students learn how to treat anyone they may encounter, who has a disability, with respect, so “it’s not that big of a deal to them,” as his teacher says.


“It’s just great, for the more people who can understand not only Matthew but how to treat other people with disabilities is a blessing,” Michelle Gavin said. “You always say to Matthew ‘You’re special and God makes you special’ and he knows that he was born that way, but to truly make him feel not just special but feel normal. And that’s what he wants to be. He wants to be like everybody else and so the more that kids can just understand and then tuck that away and keep moving and treating him normally, the better things are for him.” 


Her son echoed the sentiment. 


“I love how I can just be treated like a normal person here. Nobody treats me, unless they have to, like I’m well, literally blind. They treat me like I’m one of them because I am,” he said. “I’m no different than them except I just have bad eye sight, and I like being treated like just (how) someone without bad eyesight would be, and I like that about this school.” 

Go to top