My ten-year-old son recently got glasses. It’s not a surprise: my wife and I both wear them. And while two wrongs don’t make a right, apparently two nearsighteds make a farsighted.
I was nine when I got my first glasses. I was in third grade, my first year in the old, long-gone Gibson Elementary School in Tennessee. Now, with the perspective of half a century, I can see it as one of the defining events of my life.
If you’ve been to one of my readings or heard me speak at cons, you might’ve heard me describe Gibson as “a town of 300, 250 of whom were related to me.” That’s a slight exaggeration, of course, but not much. Gibson, as well as the nearest towns of Humboldt and Milan, were filled with relatives. My parents each had many siblings, so my cousins were thick on the ground.
Now, in many stories, Southerners are depicted as helping each other and providing support whenever one of them needs it. That’s true, as long as you’re not too different. It will surprise no one reading this to say I was really different.
And the first person to drive that home was my third-grade teacher, who I’ll call Mrs. M. In my memory, she most resembles Susan Lucci in her Erica Kane prime. I’d never had a teacher who just flat-out disliked me before, and to this day I don’t know exactly why.
And that was when my eyes decided to go bad.
When I told Mrs. M I couldn’t see the chalkboard, she didn’t believe me. She thought I was making excuses for not doing the work (and I always did the work). Finally she moved me closer, ultimately to the front of the row, but it didn’t help. My limit of clear vision is about a foot in front of my face, so even ten feet from the board rendered it blurry. Clearly frustrated by my intransigence, she finally dragged my desk up smack against the chalkboard, to the amusement of the rest of my class.
I was sent to the office, where the principal Mr. Webb sent a note home to my parents. They took me to an eye doctor (who had an enormous rack of John Birch Society pamphlets in his waiting room), and eventually I was presented with a pair of thick, plastic frames and even thicker lenses. On that day my social doom in Gibson was sealed, and remained so until I moved away.
Naturally all this came back when my son needed glasses. Luckily, his teachers have all been amazing, even with his occasional outbursts of, as John Hammond said of Ian Malcolm, “excessive personality.”
And even though he also got big plastic frames, it’s a different world now: I haven’t heard the term “four eyes” in anything but old movies and TV shows for years. He seems to like his glasses, even.
Still, every time I see him wearing them, I remember Mrs. M, her black nimbus held in place by a metric ton of hair spray, and the humiliation with which she met my sudden vision problems. I have no idea if she’s still living, and truthfully don’t care. There’s nothing that can undo her damage, even after forty-some years. But the memory does make me appreciate the kindness shown my son, and the changes in society as a whole.