E is for Eye Doctor

The eye doctor will look into your eyes with special equipment.

There’s a pause, while she looks at me narrowly to see if I’m getting the subtext. Deciding not, she makes her point a little less sub-tly.

He’ll know how well you can see, so you should be careful what you tell him.

It’s the fall of 1963 and I am standing in the school nurse’s office, silent as I often am in the face of an accusatory authority. It’s clear she thinks I’m lying.

Just minutes before I was standing with my hand over my right eye, staring hopelessly at the standard eye chart on the back of her office door. Of course I know this chart starts with an “E”, but I can’t actually distinguish it: the whole thing is a blur. For some reason, she finds that truth not just uncomfortable, but unbelievable.

It had all started last June, just before the end of classes. Sitting at the back of the room with the other tall students, I found that the writing on the board was no longer crisp. Rubbing my eyes, hard, made it better for a while.

But this fall, I can no longer read the writing on any wall, front or side. Copying the teacher’s notes from board to scribbler is a big part of our learning experience, so this clearly poses a problem. Leaning over the shoulder of the person in front of me, to read his notes, just as clearly poses a problem for him.

Do I talk to my teacher? I do not. Instead, I walk up the aisle, squint at the board, return to my seat, and repeat: peripatetic note-taking without end, amen. Yet as unobtrusive as I think I’m being, the teacher notices this one-person bucket brigade.

Does she talk to me? She does not. Instead, she draws the obvious conclusion — This kid needs glasses! — and calls my mother for approval for a screening visit to the school nurse: a screening visit that has, somehow, gone horribly wrong.

He’ll know how well you can see.

Feeling both guilty and inarticulately indignant, I head off to the first of what will prove to be a lifetime of optometrist visits.  The school nurse has at least been truthful with me: he does indeed know how well — or poorly — I can see.

For goodness sake, Marj, her eyes are worse than mine, and I can’t recognize my own wife across the room without my glasses!

And that about sums it up.  But with my new glasses in hand — or on nose — a whole new world opens up. Not just the blackboards, which are now perfectly legible, but other wonders besides. House numbers, it turns out, can be read from the car. Who knew? The bungalows atop the hill across the street are distinct structures, rather than a low-lying blur. Amazing!  And leaves on trees? Oh, my goodness: God bless them every individual one.

My mother, somehow, seems not to share my delight. It’s years before I understand that my expressions of wonder trigger guilt in her — How did I not see that she couldn’t see? It’s only when I’m a parent myself that I also understand the inarticulate indignation — Why the heck didn’t she say something?

Yet on the meter of parental failure/oversight/omissions, this one doesn’t even jiggle the needle. No harm, no foul.

As for the school nurse, that’s another matter. Understanding her point of view — How can this kid’s eyes possibly be this bad? — the adult me can forgive her misplaced suspicion. Not so understanding, however, the unfairly maligned child within cannot forget.

Do I ever talk to her again? I do not. And that’s no lie.


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6 Responses to E is for Eye Doctor

  1. Jim taylor says:

    Those early childhood experiences persist long after they should. My wife Joan still believes that she cannot sing, because 70 years ago her Grade One teacher told her to stand in the back row and move her mouth, but not make any noise. It’s utter nonsense because when there’s nobody around to hear her — well, nobody who counts, that is, just me in the car with her and the 1950s hit parade blaring off the CD — she can sing just fine. On key, even.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – One of the stupidest movies ever made – Pretty Woman – had at least one good line: “It’s easier to believe the bad stuff.” (or close to that), as in “the bad stuff people tell us about ourselves as opposed to the good stuff.” Certainly I remember the cutting remarks more vividly than any praise (surely there was some?). I try to remember that when I see school-age children being praised extravagantly (says me) for accomplishments that are pedestrian (says me). I wonder whether we do them any favours by over-valuing what they do – but I’m not sure we’re doing them any harm, either. As for the singing, I once read that G.K. Chesterton said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” That’s my excuse; I’m glad Joan doesn’t actually need one.

  2. Your story, which appears in Volume I of my new Nebraska By Dummies book, is sadly representative of many children’s (vivid) experiences in school. In asking this question of more than 125 people who are now 50, 60+ I’ve found it common that an offhand or even intentional remark (immediately forgotten by the remarker) can have such profound, even life-changing, repercussions. For the lucky, “I guess I showed HER!” saves a few these kids. It’s in elementary school where we are so vulnerable, but also where we learn an elementary response: fight or cave.

    Your remarks to Jim are good. We now have a generation of angry, “too-high self esteem” kids with entitlement issues. Undeserved high praise is just as bad: kids recognize injustice however it’s delivered. I think a child is streets ahead of the adult in knowing basic right and wrong.

    Your shortsightedness story gave me leave, in my book, to introduce Nebraska’s first serial killer — Charles Starkweather whose myopia — never recognized and corrected — was the cause of his doing poorly in school, turning to schoolyard fighting as a substitute achievement, and the rest is sudden death for a dozen people. Glad YOU got your glasses in time, Isabel!!

    • I should have said AMERICA’s first serial-killer — another first of our seemingly-boring, flying-under-the-radar Nebraska which has subtly muscled in on History in the crime department as well.

      An intriguing, surprising state I may be putting on the map!

      • Isabel Gibson says:

        Barbara – Thanks for the correction – I’d hate for Nebraska not to get its due – especially at the hands of its latest booster!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – I fear I learned something more like “fight or pout”… As for the possible connection between undiagnosed myopia and serial-killerdom – well, I expect there’s a research study in that. I, also, am grateful for the early administration of my cat’s-eye glasses.

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