I. Spectacle

A Spectacle of Myself

Mrs. Ruth Brownridge. Photo credit Halton County archives.

In the first grade, my teacher was Mrs. Ruth Brownridge. She’d taught school in Halton County – including, I’m sure, in the one-room schoolhouse that closed in 1958 when Percy W. Merry public school opened – for probably about 35 years and had to be nearing her well-deserved retirement. Although she rarely smiled and demanded much from a bunch of 5- and 6-year-olds, I was not afraid of her as her kind heart and love of teaching were evident in everything she said and did.  She recognized something in me, and would, in her immaculate cursive, write long comments to my parents in my report cards, comments that included the words “shy” but also “she is very young” along with “bright” and “A+”.  Comments that had I not learned to read quickly, would never have been conveyed to my parents for whom I was interpreter in verbal discussions and translator when it came to the written word.

Fortunately I loved learning, and my appetite for learning to read and write was particularly voracious. I started getting books (mostly novels, but also some nonfiction about topics that interested me) from the school library, taking them home, and reading them over the weekends. I kept graduating myself to novels meant for older and older humans (kids to pre-teens to teens to adults) until one day (about age 6) I found myself taking home an H.G. Wells novel about 4 inches thick.  That one, I did find boring, and it was the first one I didn’t finish; not so much Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels (which, now that I think about it, I probably didn’t get from the school library but maybe from a secondhand store or found lying around the house.)  Their salty language, violence, and sex scenes were quite a bit beyond what a first- or second-grader would usually be exposed to, but highly entertaining nevertheless. I quickly discovered a big bad thrilling world through fiction and literature and I never stopped exploring that world.  Books were my friends, my family, and my escape.

It was inevitable that my overworked eyes, particularly because they were often put to use in badly-lit spaces (under the covers with a flashlight or well past dusk in my room as I got absorbed in a book and forgot to turn on the light), would soon rebel, and they did just that.

One day Mrs. Brownridge sent me home with a note suggesting a trip to an optometrist as I was having trouble reading what was on the chalkboard (and she knew that I had absolutely no trouble reading in general). My parents drove me into the city to the office of Dr. Mah, who would be our family’s ophthalmologist for the rest of his life, well into the 1980s or beyond. With my dilated eyes, I stumbled out of his office about a half hour later having sat in a big chair that wouldn’t let my feet touch the ground and reading eye charts through various lenses. The process was equally fascinating and terrifying and resulted in a prescription.  

We came back to his office a week or so later and, with a bit of a flourish, he opened a small box and produced a very small pair of pale blue cat-eye glasses. I was less than thrilled.  I had no interest in wearing glasses, not then, not ever.

Nevertheless, I let Dr. Mah settle the dreaded things onto my nose and adjust them to fit.  Suddenly, everything was different somehow, but I couldn’t tell exactly how my world had changed.  Not until I walked outdoors and down the stairs and looked up and saw leaves! on the trees!  I looked down and saw that grass wasn’t actually a green blob but made up of blades. Tree bark wasn’t flat brown stuff but three-dimensional with texture and knotholes, and squirrels were not just fuzzy black leaping things but actually soft shiny animals with cute little ears and tiny little hands they used to hold the nuts we gave them to eat.  My whole world was suddenly, weirdly, wonderfully, in focus.

For some reason most kids in the 1960s didn’t need glasses, so those of us who did, were, of course, teased.  The blue cat-eyes were bad enough, but the ones I got next year when I needed a new prescription were a magnet for bully taunts, especially “granny glasses!”  I should have been the cool kid with the John Lennon glasses, but go figure, I was the kid with granny glasses, or, of course – four-eyes.

I decided I was tired of the taunts and put the glasses away for good – except when I really needed them to see. I’d slip them on in class and keep them in my schoolbag the rest of the time.  This earned me the reputation of being aloof and stuck-up in school because I’d stumble down the halls recognizing no one – they were all just a sea of blurry bodies.  A deadly combination of denial and vanity guaranteed my isolation for those early years with corrected vision, at least until I got a pair of glasses I actually liked (when my parents finally stopped picking them for me.)

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