Saturday, April 6, 2013

Stroke recovery: Happy ending beats myopia blues

I have finally made an appointment for an eye exam. Vision has been on my mind a lot lately as I am experiencing some vision changes and challenges with tasks and balance.

An account at “The Elder Story Telling Place" of another elder’s childhood experience started me down memory lane and a reexamination of my own experience with myopia. 

I was oblivious to my extreme nearsightedness until I was in the fifth grade, about 1958. By that time the vision problems had done a number on my perception of my abilities.

The fall of 1958 was the first time my elementary school tested for vision. Our class was summoned to the auditorium. We filed in and sat in the first few rows of folding chairs.

Mr. Dennis, the physical education teacher who usually came to our school once every week or two, sat to our left, between students and the stage. Another adult ushered my classmates one by one to the right and positioned them directly across the auditorium from Mr. Dennis. 

The adult assistant made sure each one followed directions correctly, positioning a card over one and then the other eye as Mr. Dennis pointed to a line of letters on an eye chart.

I remember the intensity that filled the room as we waited for the “test.” I don’t remember exactly what happened when it was my turn. I just remember my turn ended when Mr. Dennis boomed out in his resounding PE-teacher voice, “My goodness, this child is blind.”

I cringed with embarrassment and shame. I worked hard to keep from crying. By the time a few days passed, however, my parents had taken me to a local eye doctor, and I was in possession of new glasses with blue frames. I was no longer embarrassed.

In fact I was in a state of ecstasy about all I could now see: crisp details of an amazing world instead of a soft smear of colors; individual leaves on trees instead of a green blur; the features of my Daddy’s face across the breakfast table instead of an oval with dark smudges that I knew were eyes, hair and mouth.

From that day to this I have taken my glasses off only to bathe, sleep, read fine print and sometimes to accommodate a hair stylist’s ministrations. Two years of wearing contacts was the only time I didn’t wear glasses, but that is another story.

As an adult, childhood memories have bubbled up and helped me recognize the marks left by my nearsightedness in those pre-glasses days of childhood. Away from familiar surroundings and routines, my experiences evidently hammered home negative childhood assumptions. I am thankful for the early vision and hearing tests that are available for children these days.

Some of those childhood assumptions:

Assumption #1“I am stupid.”
Assumption #2 “New places are scary.”
Assumption #3 “Crowds are scary.”

I was delivered to the huge (to me) classroom for four-year-olds at our church for the first time. I was skinny, shy and anxious about pottying.

The space was a confusing crowd of bodies, movement, color and sound. A couple of wooden blocks flew by my face. Then I realized I needed to go to the bathroom. I finally saw a big person, got her attention and shared my dilemma.

“The bathroom is right over there,” she said and pointed. I went in the direction she pointed but I couldn’t find the door. I must have survived without accident. My only memory was feeling scared and stupid for not being able to find the bathroom door.

As I became familiar with that classroom, it was a source of order and joy, not fear. I learned there were different activity areas in the room and where they were located.

I knew that we always had a group time where we sat on our little wooden chairs in a semi-circle around the piano and sang, sang, sang. We had a thrilling Bible story told by a kind, loving and animated teacher. The dedicated adults helped us with fun arts and crafts that reinforced our Bible lesson and that we could take home.

I treasured the little leaflets with bright pictures and the Bible story that we took with us when our parents came to take us with them to the church service. If progress had continued that way, the negative recordings in my head would probably not have gained such an enduring niche in my mind. I may have realized earlier that every individual faces challenges, fears or disappointments of one kind or another.

But patterns reinforcing those mental recordings continued--from my ineptitude at sports (I could rarely catch, hit, kick, or dodge a ball) to my inability to master how to tie a fishhook on a line.

Elementary school reinforced my earlier assumption that everyone was smarter than me. I can remember sitting in the second row from the front in Miss Johnson’s second grade classroom, panic-stricken.

She would explain something, writing on the blackboard, and it would make no sense to me. I was too shy and too panicked to say anything. I assumed I was the only one who had no clue.

Later, when she handed out workbooks or a worksheet, I would see what she had been talking about. I would understand the lesson. Panic would subside.

I imagine that scenario replayed throughout the second grade. I have no idea why I never questioned what I was experiencing. I guess I was just relieved that I grasped the concept, and successfully completing the assignment probably became the immediate priority.

My third and fourth grade teachers seldom used the blackboard, and early in the fifth grade, I had those new glasses. Memories of those earlier terror-stricken moments must have receded until something bubbled them up in my adult mind.

Assumption #4 “I am really, really weird.”

My second-grade year also included a visit to the city fire station with my Brownie troop. The outing evidently created another mental recording that at some point became one more thing I believed about myself. The gentleman guiding our tour evidently decided to set one of the visiting Brownies up on the firetruck.

Since I was unable to see the details he was pointing out on the truck, I had drifted off into a world of my own, oblivious to everything and everybody around me. Zoning out via imagination was a frequent occurrence for me.

Unfortunately the city public relations guy chose me for the firetruck-sitting honors, probably because I was a featherweight. As soon as he started lifting me up, I went berserk. Under the impression someone was “getting me,” I turned into a myopic tiger, scratching, clawing and writhing to escape capture. He retreated with his hand leaking blood from sizeable scratches.

When I recall the incident as an adult, I don’t remember being scolded or punished. I do remember how I felt that day. When I learned about the damage I had inflicted on him, I felt mortified that I had reacted like an insane person and inflicted bodily harm on a well-meaning city employee. 

As these childhood memories continued to surface in adulthood I became successful at replacing the negative recordings in my thoughts with accurate, positive truths. But those childhood assumptions must still lurk deep inside. Sometimes, in stressful situations they play again, until I consciously call a halt and embrace truth.

Assumption #5 “Unhappy beginnings can have happy endings.”
My experiences with childhood nearsightedness have left me with a better understanding that children cannot always identify or articulate what is distressing them.

Their distress and even terror is real and may manifest in ways that can appall and embarrass parents and other adults. Neither do a child’s actions always provide adults with a hint as to the real reason for inappropriate behavior.

My mother was finishing up her teaching degree the year I got glasses. My experience also made a difference in her teaching. She alerted more than one set of parents that their child may have vision issues not identified by the school’s yearly vision check. 

She found tremendous satisfaction when a student received help that bolstered the young scholar’s ability to function in the classroom and in daily life.

Assumption #6 “Vision, whether natural or corrected, is a miraculous gift. I will be thankful for it every day.”


  1. Wow,that was a powerful post that had my brow knitted the whole time. It never occurred to me how frightening it must be for a child to have vision problems. They have no frame of reference and think what they are seeing is what everyone else sees.
    Thank you for opening my eyes with your story.

  2. I am so sorry you had to endure that kind of terror and grief. I am sure I would have done the same. They say the first 3 years of a child's life are the most formative. I am surprised that your parents did not see your issues with vision. My uncle saw his toddler son bumping into things and wisely took him to an eye doctor, who then prescribed glasses. That little boy is now an adult but is also legally blind. I am so glad your story has a happy ending.

  3. Goodness, you had a time of it growing up. I do not know of anyone needing glasses at such an age who had so many bad episodes! My vision is 20/400 and I also am blind as a bat without my glasses. I never take them off except for bed and shower. I got mine at the age of 9.

  4. my son Daniel was in 6th grade,JR high before we found out he had the same problem you did, his teacher said he always sat at the back of the room and he would see him squint to see the board. after we got glasses his grades spiraled up. that was in 1978. he never said a word and i assume it is because what he saw he thought was normal.

  5. Observant teachers, like your Mom, have made large differences in many children's lives. My brother was blind as a bat until a first grade teacher observed he needed help seeing the blackboard. I too have worn glasses most of my life, and my reading habits have made my near-sightedness more prevalent. My myopia comes from my Dad, who also wore glasses all his life.

    Happy to hear you had a positive outcome. Hooray for glasses!!

    PS I still have issues with #s 2, 3,4.

  6. To get back to you on the chairside table. I bought it from Solutions Home Organizer).

    I use this company to find many nifty things. The table is about chair arm height and has wheels so you can roll it anywhere.

    Yesterday, I ordered a collapsible rack for drying lingerie, etc. I like to think small plus they sell many useful products for seniors with physical issues. Dianne