I was only 9 years old when I received my life sentence.
Third grade had started out so promising. My teacher, Mrs. Mortimer, was a kindly, aunt-like lady who largely left me to my own devices in the feral realms at the back of the classroom. My academic goal was to never be called upon in class. Mrs. Mortimer, by dint of benign neglect, seemed OK with this.
This fantasy was shattered one afternoon when my name reverberated throughout the classroom. Startled, my chameleon reflexes kicked in and I instinctively tried to blend in with the shelves of clothbound encyclopedias. Mrs. Mortimer summoned me to the front of the room and instructed me to swap places with a girl who occupied a desk at the head of the row.
A bolt of terror shot through my chest. What just happened? Was this new seating arrangement because of the Frog Incident? I felt like a man who had an impending appointment with the gallows.
And then… nothing. Mrs. Mortimer simply taught third grade as usual. Was she toying with me? Was she hoping that I’d crack under pressure? I was called upon a couple of times over the next few weeks, but the questions involved such mundane things as the precise mathematical method for dividing three apples among five people (I answered “applesauce.”)
The autumn round of parent-teacher conferences were held. I always dreaded these confabs as my parents would invariably return home with the message that I needed to improve before I could move on. It was similar to a parole board hearing.
My parents told me that Mrs. Mortimer suspected something. I braced for the worst, my mind scrambling for a plausible explanation. I didn’t do it! I had merely loaned that frog to a buddy! He’s the one who tossed it into the girl’s bathroom! He’s the one who should be hung by his thumbs!
I was instead informed that Mrs. Mortimer thought that I needed glasses. She said that after being moved closer to the blackboard my scholastic performance had improved markedly.
I let my parents know, in no uncertain terms, that I disagreed with this verdict. Yes, things that were farther away looked fuzzier. But isn’t that how it is for everyone? Would perfect vision enable me to glance up at the night sky and count the rings of Saturn?
None of these arguments held water, so my parents made an appointment with an optometrist. That familiar feeling of being condemned returned.
At my dreaded eye appointment, the optometrist asked me to look at a wall chart that was approximately a mile away. I could read the top letter but after that the chart descended into a jumble of indecipherable squiggles. Perhaps the squiggles spelled a word.
“Read the bottom line,” said the white smock.
I had learned that being confident often helps in such situations.
Squinting at the chart, I replied with conviction, “The bottom line spells fzlarp. That’s a small brown bird that lives in the jungles of Borneo. It eats shoots and leaves.”
I was asked to tell him what each letter was. Beads of sweat sprang from my brow as I channeled all of my mental energy into my peepers.
The strain nearly ruptured my eyeballs. The white smock wordlessly swung a mechanical arm into a spot near my face. Attached to the arm was a medieval-looking device that seems to have been designed to elicit maximum ocular anguish.
I was told to peer through the apparatus. Something inside the thingamajig clicked and the chart snapped into crisp focus.
The white smock announced that I needed glasses to correct my nearsightedness. Glasses! The horrors! I tried to convince my parents that my myopia should remain free and uncorrected, but they wouldn’t listen.
I was soon harnessed to my first pair of glasses. I was instructed to keep them clean and not lose them or drop them. This was a lot of responsibility. It was like entrusting a baby to a 9-year-old.
I rebelled, telling myself that I would only wear my glasses when they were absolutely necessary. I quickly learned that they are necessary all the time.
Despite my best efforts, my glasses were frequently broken. Photos from my grade school years show a scrawny blonde kid whose glasses are held together with brown masking tape. We should have purchased masking tape by the case.
And now, all these decades later, a pair of glasses are still perched on my nose. If that’s not a life sentence I don’t know what is.
On the other hand, had I gotten glasses earlier, I might have seen that that frog was actually a toad.