“He said Yes!” I told Doug, feeling fluttery and happy inside.”My dad said, Yes I can go with you to the movie!” I had braced myself for my dad’s firm No when I went down into his basement workshop to ask if I could go on my first date with Doug, the popular fullback on the public high school football team. My assumption, based on my older sister’s experience when she had wanted to date a certain boy, was that Doug’s non-Catholic Blackness would make him ineligible for me to date. To my surprise, though, he said. “That’s fine. What are you going to do?” Perhaps five years of parenting since my sister had asked permission to date a non-Catholic boy had relaxed the standard. I had fun with Doug, more fondly called Bubba by most people, just because he was so different from me! He was a good friend of Kathy and Dan, my friends from The Living Arts Center where we were all creative types used to being on the fringe.
Donning glasses in third grade had plunged me into a cage of visual self-loathing. I hated how I looked! When Mr. Oddie took pictures of our family to use for a series of posters depicting family closeness, I was convinced that he had purposely put me in the background, featuring my beautiful big sister instead. She didn’t wear glasses!
Nothing I could do helped me see my beauty while wearing glasses, especially sparkly blue speckled cat’s eye frames mended with a grey blob of epoxy. Getting whacked in the glasses by a missed kickball, had proven my athletic ineptitude in fifth grade. To have my glasses break added misfortune to shame, magnifying my sense of alienation from others. Going back to school the next day with patched glasses required bravado I had not previously needed. That calamity did open the door to a new chance at looking good, however. I got new eyeglass frames.
This time, the frames were a little less conspicuous and had a natural shape. Their brown color that matched my hair seemed less gaudy than the blue speckled cat’s eye frames. They didn’t improve my athletic skills or my popularity, however, and I lost out to the beautiful, unbespectacled girls for cheerleading and softball. I was convinced that wearing glasses made me unfit for these and other junior high activities that I believed used good looks for their criteria.
Somehow my friend Barb must have seen past the glasses because we got along great and were fast friends during eighth grade. Our other friends in Girl Scouts didn’t seem to mind my looks, either, and I had fun on our outings and campouts. My cage of self-consciousness relaxed a bit that year, especially when I caught the bouquet at my new Aunt Jean’s wedding! “Wow!” I dreamed in my twelve year old mind. “ Even a girl with glasses could snatch the fairytale of marriage”.
As a freshman in high school, I made friends with Kathy and Carol, Martha, Ann, and Patty, Mary Jo and Claire, who didn’t even seem to notice that I was so ugly and different. Kathy even declared we were best friends and gave me a sterling silver “friendship” ring. I scraped together the few dollars it took to buy her a matching one. I even liked my sophomore class picture because I realized that I had a nice smile.
In the Fall of sophomore year, however, Doctor Miller, the optometrist who I was by now very familiar to me, opened a whole new realm of possibility for me! For seven years I had taken semi-annual trips to his office for vision check-ups. Most years the Fall checkup would result in new lenses with a stronger prescription. I was getting used to the usual three days’ adjustment time when the kitchen floor, with its speckled pattern of white and pink flakes in a background of grey seemed to pop up at me. Dr. Miller could make my trip home from the office easy, though! He lived next door to us. And his wife, Madeleine was his assistant! I remember that on the days I got new lenses, I could go to his office by myself, wearing my old glasses. He would change the lenses right there in his office while I waited, gazing around the waiting room in a blurry interlude. Then, he would take me home in his luxury car. Sometimes I would imagine choosing optometry as my career, believing that I’d be rich.
That sophomore year, he had a new idea! After doing the usual check-up he said that this time I had a choice between glasses and contact lenses. If I chose contacts, I would be able to have clear vision without glasses! It was like he had just waved a magic wand like Cinderella’s fairy godmother and my rags had turned into a gilded gown! I could be beautiful! I only hesitated a few minutes when I learned that it would take some time to get used to wearing contacts and that they would take extra care. They were more expensive than glasses, but my mom was willing to invest in them. We said yes.
When I got home that evening, I took off my glasses and gazed in the mirror at my eyes. For the first time, I admitted that I had beautiful, blue eyes and with contacts my eyes would not be hidden behind glasses anymore! I liked the way I looked without glasses.
Dr. Miller was right about the arduous adjustment period for wearing contacts. It took a few weeks to get used to the scratchy discs under my eyelids. And taking care of those tiny pieces of blue plastic did require meticulous discipline. All that, however, was a small inconvenience compared to the luxury of self-respect that was unleashed when contacts were part of my lifestyle. I loved the new way I looked and I lost my self-consciousness and shyness. I rarely questioned my outer beauty again, and look fondly at my senior portrait that joins those of my other nine siblings in my mom’s study.
At sixty, I wonder why I couldn’t see my true beauty, and send love to that young girl who hid behind her glasses. Perhaps, feeling the opposite of self-love helped me know how it feels to transform self-hatred into healthy self-love, something that I guide others to do in my current profession. Whatever it means, I am grateful today for the man who opened that door for me with his optometry skill. Thanks, Dr. Miller, for doing your job! I remain a grateful patient!
“Get off that roof!” I heard Mr. Steigerwald yell from across the street. I had crawled out my bedroom window to sit on the roof where I could think on my own for a bit, but one of my “extra parents” had seen me and scolded me for it. I was thinking, “You’re not my dad, so you can’t tell me what to do!” But I really didn’t believe that. If I didn’t do what he said, he would be calling my dad and let him know where I was. Other times, Mr. Steigerwald would help me out and I ‘d really appreciate his parenting. Like when my brothers and I could walk a few blocks from the swimming pool to the bearing shop where he worked and get a ride home instead of walking for an hour and a half.
We had several neighbors who I felt were extensions of my parents. I knew they were watching out for us and cared about us.
All of us kids on our block, once I counted a hundred, knew which yards were fair game for our Kick-the-Can and Cops-n-Robbers marathons which would last from morning’til the street lights went in. We’d have twenty kids playing and could spread out over about half the block, running through the yards of certain neighbors.
Broadening my views of life and people and enticing me to love my body and outwardly express myself were the gifts offered by my Living Arts teachers. I’m celebrating my 60th birthday with 60 days of gratitude for people who made a difference in my life. Today’s recipients are three men who had very different views of life than my Catholic School teachers.
Bing Davis was probably the most radical person I had ever encountered. His art and conversation opened up a whole new world of self expression and raw opinion. He was the first African American teacher I had, and a very outspoken one at that. My first encounter with him was at an introduction to The Living Arts Center that I attended with John Spinnato and both of our moms.
I’m celebrating my 60th birthday with 60 days of gratitude for people in my life. Yesterday, I remembered two girls who gave me the opportunity to feel the pain of rejection and make me question my value as a friend. Today, I want to express my gratitude for two young women who lavished me with friendship without question. They liked me just the way I was and I liked them back!
Barb, who I met in eighth grade became my friend for that year. I don’t know why I had not known her all along in my Catholic school years, since most of my classmates had been there since first grade! Maybe she and her family moved in later, or didn’t put their kids in the school until that year. Anyway, Barb and I seemed to bet along pretty well, and we did a lot together because we were in the same Girl Scout troop. I had not been active in Girl Scouts for a few years, but Barb’s mom organized a troop for “Cadettes”, junior high aged girls, and I joined it.
“If you were somebody worth being friends with, then we would be friends with you.” That’s what the note in my desk read. Did Ann and Jean really write that in response to the note I had left at Jean’s house? “I thought we would keep walking to school together. I want to be friends.” When I had gone across the street to pick her up as usual, she wasn’t there! I saw her walking down the street with Ann. Ditched! Rejected! Replaced!
My thirteen year old heart was broken and I didn’t know what to do. I wrote my note and hoped for the best, but I already knew that Jean, who had just moved into the neighborhood, was choosing Ann and not me. Ann and I had not been friends any time since first grade, so I figured we weren’t going to start now.
Today, I’m reflecting on my elementary school teachers in my 60 days of Gratitude to celebrate my 60th birthday. Each of these women brought certain qualities that help shape and form my journey as a spiritual being having a human experience. There was Sister Joanna Mary in first grade who I just remember as being very kind. She encouraged me to use a box to support my feet at my desk. I was so short that my feet would not touch the floor when I sat on the seat. I always sat in the first or second desk in the row. I remember making a page with “what I wanted to be when I grow up”. I want to be a teacher so I can teach others about God.”
She was steadfast and gently authoritarian, and I enjoyed her half-day kindergarten, my first foray from home. That was my teacher, Mrs. Wilson. I walked to the school by myself every day. I am very grateful that my neighborhood was safe for a five-year-old to walk 6 blocks to school every day. It’s interesting that I don’t have any recollection of meeting other kids for walking, or even making friends with anyone except Charlotte. Was her full name Charlotte Adams? That’s what pops into my head.