In school the printed word scurries away from my one “reading eye” – words in fact seem to me like insects released from a box. While the class reads aloud, I watch the spirals of hypnotic light that ripple across my eyes when I move them from side to side. I do not belong here. My little body at this desk is something uncanny – a thing that belongs in the darkness and that has been brought to daylight.
But I talk, answer questions, make others laugh. I’m interested in everything and tell the class that I can spell Tchaikovsky.
Mrs. Edinger becomes the first saint in my life. She takes it upon herself to help me read. After school we sit at her desk, and with my nose jammed into the pages, we go over the words. And though I’m squinting and struggling supremely over each alphabetic squiggle, she has the patience of an archeologist, one who dusts the microscopic shards before putting them away. With her, I hold my eye very still and make out the words.
Years later I learn from my mother that Mrs. Edinger is a black woman and perhaps the first person of African American heritage to teach in this local New Hampshire school. We are mutual explorers as we go over the hopeless print. She’s noticed my determination and has figured out that I have a photographic memory. This probably contributes to her desire to see me read – she knows I’ll retain the words that I’ve struggled so hard to grasp.
Hours of after-school time are spent before I can match the class in reading. I have to hold my book an inch from my eye and try hard to hold the hot, spasming muscle. The exhaustion of this is like the deep fatigue drivers feel after being too long on the road. The ordinary effort of reading is, for me, a whole-body experience. My neck, shoulders, and finally, my lower back contract with pain. The legally blind know what it is to be old: even before the third grade I am hunched and shaking with effort, always on the verge of tears, seeing by approximation, craving a solid sentence. Then the words dissolve or run like ants. Nevertheless I find a lighted room inside my head, a place for self-affiliation. I am not blind, am not the target of pranks.
But leaving my reading lesson, a boy I think of as a friend steals my glasses and my panic brings me alive like a tree filled with birds: I navigate with my hands.
“Hey, Blindo, over here!”
He laughs along with several others, then they run.
I lunge with my arms straight following the sounds of sneakers. I’m determined not to cry: steel keys revolve and lock in my brain. Then I trip on a curb and cut my hands on a storm drain.
To this day I picture that boy clutching my glasses at a safe distance and watching me drift about. I learned early that with my glasses I’m blind, without them I’m a wild white face, a body groping, the miner who’s come suddenly into the light.
On this particular afternoon I am instantly put on display. Now, in one stroke, I am a jellyfish, measureless and unwieldy. More than thirty years have passed since that moment, but I’m still disconcerted by what it felt like to belong so thoroughly to other people, to be, in effect, their possession. There should be a book of etiquette for those who find themselves in the predicament of the monster. Robbed of my glasses, I was no longer an impaired boy who’d been barred from sports. I was amphibious.
I suppose he must have thrown the glasses to the ground and run away. Probably an adult was coming; I can’t remember now.
Photo by Jane Evelyn Atwood: Blind Twins (1980)