Humiliations of a four-eyed fourth-grader October 13, 2012 Editor’s note: This column originally ran Sept. 3, 2011.
When my younger sister got her first pair of eyeglasses in elementary school, she jumped for joy that she could see things she never knew were there. She could read signs from the road and distinguish individual leaves on trees.
To her, it was a miracle.
When I got glasses in fourth grade, I considered it a curse.
In fact, I spent a good part of my fourthgrade year trying to avoid the inevitable. I knew I couldn’t see well, but squinting was a better alternative than a pair of glasses.
At my lowest point, I asked my friend to read me what was on the chalkboard because, of course, I couldn’t see it. I didn’t tell her that. I told her I could get my work done faster if she dictated to me the problems written on the board.
It was a ridiculous and shameful act, born out of vanity and insecurity. But you know what happens when you keep such feelings buried down deep, hoping no one will ever find out. Life has a way of dragging them out of you into the light of day.
For whatever reason — maybe she saw me squinting, or she just had a feeling — my mom made me an eye doctor appointment soon after. The night before my checkup, I lay in bed worrying because I knew what the next day’s events had in store. My bad eyesight was about to be exposed, along with my very unnecessary, but all-consuming, humiliation.
The doctor was surprised not just that my eyesight was so bad, but that no one — not a teacher, nor my parents, nor a friend — had noticed. I should have won an Oscar for that performance.
I picked out pink metal frames, the coolest I could find, and tucked them into a girly purple case, compliments of the eyeglass shop. At home that night, I tried them on for size. I could read the phone numbers written on a tablet next to the phone from across the room. Was I convinced? Nope, my embarrassment was a lot stronger than that.
The next day at school, I waited for the perfect moment to slip on my frames. Ten minutes before the bell rang, I finally found the courage. I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, but the other students gathered around my desk. And they were as nice as could be.
“Oh, you got glasses!”
“I love your glasses!”
“Oh, cute, they’re pink!”
Kids can be cruel, but these kids were not. They were warm and accepting and kind. One boy who had gotten glasses only a few days before told me that he would beat anyone up who dared call either of us “four eyes.” No one did. In fact, after my big reveal, everyone seemed to forget about the glasses and not another word was said.
But while I should have been convinced that not everyone was staring in contempt at my spectacled face, I reasoned that maybe my classroom of 20 fourth-graders was the exception to the rule. What would the fifth-graders think? The sixth-graders? Gasp!
So I lived by this rule for the remainder of that year and the next: wear glasses only in the classroom, never in the hallway, the lunchroom or the playground. And that’s what I did. Even though I was terribly nearsighted and couldn’t make out who was coming toward me in the hallway, or what was behind the counter at lunch, I followed my ridiculous rule.
When I moved to a new school district in sixth grade, I had grown tired of taking my glasses on and off all day and decided to throw caution to the wind: I wore them all day, and I didn’t care who saw. How’s that for growth?
I thought about my glasses debacle this week as I watched my four-eyed children. They don’t wear glasses because they need them. They wear them because they like them.
My 6-year-old son likes to wear non-prescription, black-framed glasses his grandma gave to him to play dress-up. My 3-year-old has a pair of her own — cat-eye ‘60s-style glasses that were part of a Halloween costume.
They wear them around proudly at home or around town, and no one knows they’re just fake. Enjoyment instead of embarrassment, stability instead of vanity.
Wouldn’t it be great if our kids didn’t have the same insecurities we had? I can think of no better outcome than to raise children who are stronger, nicer, sweeter and more confident than their parents. A generation that is better than the one before? That’s a true miracle, and you don’t need glasses to see it.
Amy Palser writes personal stories readers can relate to: tales of family and friends, of childhood and rites of passage, of fantastic people and ordinary things. Her column appears each Saturday. She is the Tribune's managing editor.