Elise Robinson never smiled in her baby photos.
No one knew why until she began communicating as a toddler that the clothes she was wearing were hurting her – “like something stabbing me with knives all over,” as the current 17-year-old Chicago Academy for the Arts senior described it -- no matter what they were.
When the Oak Park resident was 5, she was officially diagnosed with tactile defensiveness, which is an unusual or increased sensitivity to touch that makes the person feel peculiar, noxious or even in pain. In elementary school, she was many times late to her first class because it would take 40 minutes to get her clothes on; Robinson said “I remember crying every day getting dressed.”
She would wear big fleece sweaters – even in August with temperatures in triple digits – because the fabric didn’t cause discomfort. Her father, Levoyd, recalls buying every available color of the same type of fleece sweatshirt if it was something his daughter could actually tolerate.
“She would wear those fleeces 365 days a year when she was young,” said Levoyd Robinson. “Anything else felt like razor blades cutting her.”
Elise Robinson also tried cutting sleeves and holes in the armpit area of clothing, and wearing pajama pants, socks and basketball shorts inside out when she went to school through middle school.
She said the bullying throughout elementary and middle school was awful.
“I could hear the kids as I walked by; I could feel their eyes on me,” she said. “People were brutal about it – about the clothes I wore and how I looked – but I never bothered to explain to anyone why I had to do it. I just learned to block out everyone.”
As a distraction, Robinson created what her father called “her own little world spending time drawing.” Robinson spent hours working on pieces, many times incorporating the frustration of dealing with her condition into her art. For a piece in early 2018, Robinson said she will pour plaster into an old pair of her sweatpants and stand them up with a wire – a little piece of payback on her clothing.
“I have always used art as a way to express how I was feeling because I never talked about it,” Robinson said.
Robinson said attending The Academy has been great not only because no one bullies her but also because she is allowed several hours a day to work on her artwork. She still experiences some pain, but with help of years of physical therapy where she would rub a coarse brush on her body before putting on clothes, the effects of tactile defensiveness have decreased. Since sophomore year, she’s worn regular clothes like blue jeans and shirts, knowing she’ll have ample time each school day to create art.
“When I’m working on my artwork, I’m in my own zone,” Robinson said. “I don’t think about the people around me, and I don’t think about the pain either.”
Levoyd Robinson said Elise has blossomed at The Academy, where he is chair of the school’s board. Elise will be his second daughter to graduate from the school; her older sister, Selena specialized in dance at The Academy and is now a student at New York University. Selena had convinced her dad to look at The Academy for her education while she was a dancer in eighth grade at The Academy of Movement and Music in Oak Park. Levoyd had never heard of the arts school on Chicago’s North Side, but after numerous meetings with school officials and seeing students he described as “the most driven and focused kids I had ever seen,” he was convinced The Academy was the right choice for Selena and then Elise.
Levoyd grew up in Lawndale on Chicago’s rough West Side and starting at 8 years old was driven in a school station wagon 90 minutes to and from a small Christian school in suburban Des Plaines. His early education molding would guide him to Howard University for a bachelor’s, then University of Wisconsin for an M.B.A., and eventually he would co-found and become Managing Principal of Chicago Fundamental Investment Partners, LLC -- a fundamental research-driven, credit focused, alternative investment management firm that has over $2.1 billion of regulatory assets under management and undrawn capital commitments across CLOs and separately managed accounts.
Levoyd said he sees the same drive that propelled his career in his daughters – and especially how Elise has fought through pain and discomfort to shine at The Academy.
“She has trained herself to focus and to thrive,” Levoyd Robinson said. “I see her now, and she’s smiling.”