This is a personal post, not a legal one, so feel free to skip it. Don’t worry, it is not about to be some Angela’s Ashes style disclosure that will curdle your milk on your breakfast cereal, though it is about my childhood, there are no significant harm issues.
When I was eleven, my teacher taught us a lesson about Louis Braille, the man who invented Braille language for the blind. My teacher told us that Louis Braille had gone blind in one eye due to an accident with an awl, doing woodwork when a splinter went into his eye. He then told us that years later, Louis Braille once rubbed his blind eye and then rubbed his good eye with the same hand without thinking about it and it made him blind in both eyes. [This is not quite true – there was an infection from the wound as a result of the first injury, but it had nothing to do with rubbing it]
This story meant that until about twenty-five, I would only ever touch my left eye with my left hand, and vice versa, to make sure that if I went blind, it would only be in one eye. Thanks teach!
I was very afraid as a child of going blind. I still am, to be honest. I used to test myself by putting a tie around my head so that I couldn’t see, and trying to do basic everyday tasks – getting dressed, brushing my teeth, going downstairs, making breakfast. I knew the dimensions of my home, how many paces from bed to door, how high the doorhandle was, how many steps from my door to the top of the stairs, with my eyes closed. I even tried to teach myself Braille whilst I still had my sight, figuring that it would be easier.
When I was twelve, we had an eye test at school. And I failed it. I should have seen it coming, in retrospect. I was able to answer any question asked aloud, or written in a textbook, but I never put my hand up for any question written on the blackboard. And when we were out in a car and my dad said “Look! can you see that kestrel?” I never could, but I just nodded excitedly and pretended. The eye testing people told me that I’d have to wear glasses for a little bit, just to fix my eyes and that wearing glasses would make my eyes better so I wouldn’t need them. Lies.
When I came out of that eye test and I knew I’d have to wear glasses, I knew that my life was ruined. I didn’t take it well, I was not a brave little soldier. A week later, I stopped being Andrew and became “specky four-eyes” or “brainbox” or “Professor”. I hated every moment of wearing those glasses, becoming just a kid who wears glasses and not me any more.
A year later, I went for the repeat eye test, and I had just one goal – getting a pass and not having to wear them anymore. So when I went in the room, I immediately memorized the board. It worked up until they revolved it, at which point my ability to read tiny, tiny writing mysteriously vanished. I would have to do better next year. So I upped my game. I had memorized not only the first board, but all of the later boards that I had seen when they had put lenses on. Turns out, it is harder to fool optometrists than you think it would be.
Wearing glasses made me very shy. In case this is feeling a bit self-pitying, I’ll show that I have some perspective. There was a kid in my class who had lost his arm somehow, and if you gave him 50p, he would take his artificial arm off and let you touch his stump. He had a lot more to be sorry about than I did – so I’m just trying to tell you how it felt for me then. I know it wasn’t really that bad.
I’m still shy today, to be honest. A lot more shy than anyone would imagine, and that’s because when I went to college and was surrounded by a peer group of strangers, who didn’t only know me as “specky four eyes”, didn’t know me at all, I had an important revelation. “None of these people know that you’re shy”, I thought, “so you get to pretend that you’re someone who isn’t. Who would you like to be? And just be them”
So I found some really good masks to put on, and eventually, the people I was pretending to be sort of became the people I was. I was also really lucky to be born into a generation where glasses and being brainy and being interested in smart stuff went from being things that would marginalise you and get you bullied if you mentioned them to suddenly becoming cool. I’ve been waiting about ten years for the old world order to be restored and for people to start picking on geeks again, but it turns out we won. Thank you Joss Whedon!
Anyway, about three weeks ago, I noticed that I wasn’t able to read magazines properly. I was doing a sort of dance with them, moving them back and forth until I could see the print, then it would go. And then it turned into books. And then I noticed that I was actually reading better without my glasses than with them. I’m thirty years older now than when I was faking those eye tests, so I wasn’t thinking “My god, I’m finally fixed, I don’t need glasses any more” – but I was back to thinking those terrible things about having to navigate the world without sight.
It turns out that I just need varifocals. I’m not going blind, I’m just old. Officially old. But it was something of an emotional day, stirring up all those old thoughts, and I just thought for once I would share them.
I was blind, but now I see, as Primal Scream sang.