On a February night in 1978, I stood at attention on the far sideline of the elementary school gymnasium. I was waiting for the captain to call out a cheer. I could clearly see the action unfolding in front of me...the referee's striped shirt, the boys' gray jerseys with navy numbers, their high-topped Converse.
I glanced across the gym, toward the bleachers, and I realized that I could not find my parents. I knew they were there, watching the game, waiting for our half-time pom-pom routine; but I couldn't see them. I squinted. I couldn't see anyone. All the faces in the stands were like flesh-colored smudges...like eyeless, feature-less, skin-toned ovals floating above our school colors. I suddenly felt scared. Did the fans look the same to the other cheerleaders? I missed the captain's "Ready? Okay!" and hurried to catch up to the other girls.
After the game, my heart thudding in my ears, I told my mother. The next day, we went to see Dr. Wooten, the ancient, kind optometrist who shuffled around his office in his house slippers. His receptionist, Mallie, went to our church. She was probably only in her 30s; but with her tight perm, huge glasses' frames, and silk blouse with a bow at the collar, she looked permanently middle-aged. She giggled nervously at the end of every sentence; and she had to look over the tops of her own large glasses in order to slip the different frames on my face.
I wanted to cry. None of the glasses looked good. None of them would match my cheer uniform. I would never be able to master the back-handspring now. My glasses would go flying right off my face. None of the other girls had glasses.
My mother explained to me that I should wear the glasses most of the time. She said I could probably take them off when I was reading, since I was nearsighted. She explained that nearsighted meant I could clearly see things close up; but I had difficulty seeing things that were far away...like the faces in the stands. Who needed to see those faces, I wondered. I was happy to see only those things closest to me. I hated glasses.
At school, I put them on only to look at the chalkboard. Otherwise, I kept them stuffed in the little quilted glasses' case that I hid just inside the open cubby in my desk. At night, I prayed I would not go blind from failing to wear my glasses as often as I should.
I squinted my way through the next five years, until I was thirteen; and my mother and Dr. Wooten decided I was old enough to wear contact lenses. The world finally came into focus.
* * *Years later, during graduate school, I was working part time writing copy for a public relations firm when a colleague and I had a conversation about our nearsightedness.
"I'll never forget when I got my first pair of glasses," he said. He said that he, too, had been eight-years-old when he realized his vision was not 20/20.
"Until that day," he said, remembering, "I never realized that trees had individual leaves. I mean, I knew the trees in my yard had leaves; but the trees we passed on the side of the road always looked like big green blobs to me. I never knew that each tree had hundreds, or even thousands, of leaves. It was amazing to me. I was sitting in the backseat, looking out the window, just fascinated by all those leaves. I kept sliding the glasses down my nose. There were the old, familiar, green, tree blobs. Then I would push the glasses back in place; and there were those beautiful leaves. I never wanted to take the glasses off. I never wanted to miss seeing those leaves again."
His story made me smile. I imagined how happy he had been to see each of those lovely, shimmering leaves. I still remember his story, and how I was embarrassed to admit how vain I'd been...how devastated I was by my own glasses. I wished we had been friends when we were eight-years-old...two little friends who were finally seeing the world for the first time. I could have used a friend like him, a friend who could see things clearly, someone who marveled at the uniqueness of every single leaf.