Blind Since Birth and Barely 4, Jermaine Gardner Happily Hits All the Right Keys—and Heartstrings

updated 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When the doctors told Jacqui Kess-Gardner that her newborn son was blind, facially deformed and apparently both hearing impaired and mentally retarded, she was close to despair. Fearing that she and her husband, James, would be unable to cope with such a terribly handicapped child, she had all but decided to put little Jermaine up for adoption. Then she talked to her mother. "She said, 'These are the children we hold dear,' " recalls Jacqui. " 'We don't give these children away, we keep them. You bring that baby home.' That shook me back to reality."

Today Gardner has glorious, living proof that her mother knew best. Her son is a sunny toddler whose normal hearing and intelligence point up the sometimes fortunate fallibility of the medical profession. He also possesses a gift no doctor could have foreseen. Jermaine, who just turned 4, is a musical prodigy whose talents are astonishing: He has perfect pitch and a piano repertoire of more than 50 classical compositions.

His gifts did not show themselves immediately. Though James, 36, an auto worker, and Jacqui, 33, a beauty salon owner, read to him often and filled their Baltimore row house with classical music records, Jermaine was an unresponsive infant. He never smiled; his mother sometimes resorted to pushing up the corners of his mouth, just to see how a smile would suit him, but Jermaine didn't catch on. Then one day, when he was 8 months, Jermaine was sitting on the piano bench, as he often did, while his brother Jamaal, now 8, played Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star. A good pianist but no prodigy, Jamaal hurried through his practice and ran off to the basement with his parents. "Suddenly we heard someone playing the same thing Jamaal had just played," says Jacqui. "We looked at each other and said, 'Who's on the piano?' We snuck upstairs and there was Jermaine, going to town."

Not yet out of diapers, Jermaine had found his calling. He began spending most of his waking hours perched at the piano, giggling and throwing back his head with delight at the increasingly lovely sounds his tiny fingers coaxed from the keys. By 13 months he was playing the right-hand part of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata in a duet with an aunt. When he started lessons at 2½, his teachers were awestruck. "Jermaine is a pianist waiting to happen," says his current instructor, Jack Beyers, at the Maryland School for the Blind. "His talent is extraordinary—I don't see any limits."

Not one to settle for mere technical proficiency, Jermaine quickly learned how to ham it up for his audiences, too. Before launching into the recitals he gives for family and friends, the baby virtuoso announces that he is the incarnation of whatever composer he's playing. "I am Mozart," he will say, or "I am Franz Liszt." When the last note has been sounded, he makes sure his listeners know it. "Clap now," he commands, then squeals and covers his ears if the applause is too loud. "He doesn't like clapping because it's sharp," his mother explains.

Jermaine spends about 90 percent of his at-home time at the piano. His mother often feeds him breakfast there and even dresses him there, and he revolts when he's finally dragged away. "Sometimes he screams bloody murder," says Jacqui. Even a prodigy must learn his ABCs, however, and Jermaine spends two and a half hours each morning at a neighborhood preschool program for the visually impaired, where he is learning braille. After school, he sometimes plays with his brother, and their relationship, while sometimes competitive, is close. Once, when Jamaal couldn't remember the next note at a home piano recital he was giving, Jermaine called out, "It's an A," and Jamaal gratefully completed his performance. In return, Jamaal tries to protect Jermaine, whose protuding forehead and flattened nose sometimes elicit insults. "Once we were in a shoe store and a boy was staring at him," remembers Jamaal. "I got really mad. I didn't say anything, but if I did, it would have been something very mean."

So far, Jermaine seems unaware of his handicaps. "We talk about his blindness, but I don't think he's grasped the contrast," says Jacqui. "One day he asked, 'Why are my eyes broken?' but I think it was just because someone in his class had said something about it." Three corneal transplants have been unsuccessful, and the blindness could be lifelong. But there is a good chance that his facial imperfections, although the cause is unknown, can be corrected. This July, he begins a series of operations to rebuild his forehead, replace his unformed left eye with a prosthesis and reshape his nose.

His blossoming abilities have gained attention lately outside Baltimore. Jermaine has appeared on the Today show and Good Morning America in the last six months. And though he wrinkles his nose in distaste at the mention of rock 'n' roll—he loves jazz—last month he flew to California for Stevie Wonder's birthday party. There he soloed and played tunes from Wonder's Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants album with the honoree, and afterward Wonder presented him with a $1,900 synthesizer. His parents couldn't be happier. "I would love it if he became a concert pianist," says Jacqui. "Then I would die knowing he could make his own way."

It isn't the prospect of fame and fortune that pleases the Gardners most, though; it is the dignity that Jermaine's talents have already given him. "People see him now and say, 'Oh, it's that child who plays the piano,' " Jacqui says with pride. "Nobody says 'That poor blind baby' anymore. There's no more pity."

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