Like many Jewish parents, my parents erred on the side of over-protectiveness. My mother felt that it was unnecessary for me to be exposed to the dangers of the outside world until the age of six, at which point school attendance became mandatory. My father accepted my mother’s judgement and I was happy to collude with them. Accordingly, I spent my early years contentedly pottering around at home without having to face the social and educational challenges of kindergarten.
What my parents failed to realise was that I was living my life in a blur. Stealthily and undetected, a family tendency for short-sightedness was expressing itself in me and defining my perception of the world. I knew that the best vantage point for viewing people and things was for me to study them at close range. However, since people did not like to be peered at too closely, I confined my attention to things. Faraway fields, flowers, clouds and passing traffic interested me mildly but I was at my happiest when examining things that I could grasp and inspect or manipulate at close quarters.
The halcyon days ended when I timorously entered the Grade 1 classroom of the Primrose English Medium School, Germiston. The school corridors, the vast playground and the school cloakroom had to be negotiated in perilous journeys from the safe haven of my classroom. Canny little chap that I was, I quickly formed an attachment to the child next to whom I had been seated and followed him around the school grounds like a stalker, trying not to let him get too much out of focus. Withersoever went Brian Jones, there went I too.
Inside the classroom, I felt safe and I did well at all subjects except mental arithmetic. This was because mental arithmetic was the only subject on which the teacher tested us by chalking up the questions on a blackboard that was positioned beyond the range of my visual acuity. Although I squinted furiously and even tried to visualise and copy the answers given by children sitting on either side of me, I was forced to enter random numbers as my answers and so gave the clear impression of having a circumscribed deficiency in that particular aptitude. Sherlock Holmes would have drawn a different conclusion, but alas, Miss van Jaarsveldt was no Sherlock Holmes.
The penny only dropped during my second year of schooling. I don’t remember who first raised the question of my poor eyesight or what precipitated the enquiry but I do remember accompanying my mother to see my first eye specialist, Dr Israel, at his consulting rooms in Commissioner Street, Johannesburg. I gathered that he was the specialist of choice because he had once attended to my grandfather’s eyes. Since my grandfather had died in 1925 I imagine that Dr Israel was already close to retirement when he saw me. He did, however, prescribe spectacles for me and for the first time in my life I had the wonderful experience of seeing the world sharply defined in 3-D.
Dr Israel continued to see me at regular intervals. Having diagnosed me as myopic and slightly astigmatic he prescribed Vitamin A in the form of a bitter-tasting golden-brown syrup which I had to take on portions of bread. My consultations with him also included a series of eye-muscle exercises which involved closing first one eye, then the other, until the parrot in the picture fitted snugly into its cage instead of perching outside it and the dog was able to hold the ball in its jaws instead of snapping at it in vain. I desperately hoped that these exercises would obviate the need for glasses, so I tried to help the process along by squeezing my eyeballs while waiting to see Dr Israel, which slightly sharpened the focus. But this worked only as long as the pressure was maintained – my sight immediately reverted to its abnormal state as soon as I stopped doing this. Children, do not try this at home.
When my sessions with Dr Israel ended for whatever reason, my next eye specialist scornfully told my mother that I had been given the wrong lenses. However, as far as I was concerned any kind of lens was a vast improvement compared to my life in the aquarium in which I had hitherto been immersed.
In addition to learning the words ‘myopia’ and ‘astigmatism’ I learnt from my prescription that my eyesight was measured at minus 3.5 dioptres. So I added ‘dioptre’ to my list of new words, without having the faintest idea what it meant. (Interested readers, please note: a dioptre refers to to the refractive power of your lens and gives an indication of how curved your spectacle lenses need to be in order to correct your vision). I also fell in love with the profession of eye specialist which had enriched my perception of the world, so much so that whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up I would declare my intention of becoming an ‘ophthalmologist’. This was another new word that I was careful to spell out when writing it, with all the ‘h’s in all the right places.
Matching me with the right lenses proved to be only half the battle. Frames were an issue too. Little boys, as well as little girls, are conscious of how they appear to others, more so in a school milieu that values play-wrestling and contact sports. I, therefore, shunned games in which I would be seen as clumsy or which would expose me and my spectacles to being struck by a misdirected (or perhaps accurately directed) ball and confined my playground activities to conversations with other introverted children while casting longing glances in the direction of my more robust classmates. This did not spare me the occasional mishap, such as the time when Ronnie Ralph playfully hurled an apple core in my direction which fractured the bridge of my recently acquired horn-rimmed spectacles. To his credit, he was aghast at the damage, apologised profusely and immediately helped me to stick the two halves together with adhesive tape. However, the incident did nothing to draw me into engagement with the rough-and-tumble side of school life.
Sea bathing was another hazard, as I discovered when a giant wave on Muizenberg beach knocked me over and parted me from my glasses. After scrabbling around in the shallows for a while I managed to retrieve them but from then on I made a point of leaving my glasses behind, first wrapping them carefully in a towel and designating one of the brightly painted beach huts to serve as a beacon on my return from sea to shore.
Looking at class photos of those years I am interested to see that I was the only child wearing glasses. This gave me a certain distinction. I was happy to be called ‘prof’ by a few, but less happy to be addressed as ‘goggles’ or ‘four eyes’ by one or two other brattish classmates. No child likes to be singled out for a distinguishing characteristic and fellow myopes will not be surprised to learn that there are few photos of me between the ages of seven and sixteen which capture me with my otherwise indispensable spectacles in place.
Times change. These days, spectacles are even worn as fashion accessories with fancifully decorated frames made in all shapes and sizes. Lenses are tinted in every colour of the rainbow and if strong, no longer resemble the base of a bottle with concentric circles. Optical disability, like any other disability, is becoming increasingly accepted as part of the human condition rather than being seen as a deviation from an imaginary norm.