In The Eyes of the Beholder

In kindergarten, I had thick brown hair that fell about halfway down my back. My mother, pregnant with twins, and sick of fighting with the rat’s nest that had formed in my hair every night, had forced me to get it cut. When we had arrived at the salon, I requested a shoulder length bob with bangs that rested above my eyebrows— the same style as my teacher, Mrs. Sullivan.

A petite woman with a platinum blonde bob cut that framed her square, black glasses, Mrs. Sullivan was one of those perfect kindergarten teachers — energetic, enthusiastic, and inspiring. We grew pumpkin seeds in plastic sandwich bags, made astronaut helmets out of paper mâché and balloons, and watched caterpillars turn in to butterflies. When the books that filled the shelves of the classroom became too elementary for me, Mrs. Sullivan brought in more difficult books and gave me extra exercises to do at home. She inspired me to work harder and achieve higher— to put it simply, I was infatuated.

After failing the eye exam that the nurse’s office conducted each year, I returned home and declared to my mother that I needed glasses. Aware that Mrs. Sullivan was my hero, and that I had just gotten my hair cut so that it resembled her trendy bob cut, my mother just chalked this declaration up as another excuse to look more like my teacher (and hero). I begged and pleaded with her, wearing my mother down with each “pleeeeease,” and “but, mooom,” until she finally made an appointment with my pediatrician. There, in the doctor’s office, my claims were confirmed and my mother was referred to a pediatric optometrist in the next town over.

A few weeks later, we went to the hospital where the optometrist was located. It took some time to skim through the department listings to find her office, and even longer to find it in the labyrinth of hallways. The optometrist asked me to open my eyes wide and to not blink as she squeezed drops that were supposed to dilate my pupils into my eyes. I sat on the cold leather of the examination chair while I looked through the machine that determines prescription strengths, reading the letters on the chart over and over. There, after pressing my face against the cold eye examination mechanism until I thought I could recite the letters with my eyes closed, I was diagnosed with an astigmatism in my left eye—a misshapen pupil—and near sightedness in both. Although my sight wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t see fairly clearly without glasses, it was just bad enough to need glasses in order to better see the board and books in school. The doctor took a few more measurements of my eyes, said that my glasses would be ready the following week, and then she sent my mother and me on our way.

For the next week, I imagined myself in the same dark-rimmed glasses that Mrs. Sullivan had, my freshly cut bangs resting right above the frames. I looked forward to the day when I walked into my kindergarten classroom, all eyes on me and my new glasses. I imagined Mrs. Sullivan noticing how the frames matched hers, and complimenting me on them. When we returned to the optometrist’s office the following week, I couldn’t wait to get them on. I twisted and turned on the stool as I waited for her to return. After a few minutes, the doctor came back to the office with a small cardboard box in her hands. I closed my eyes as her cool, soft fingers grazed my temples. As she lifted her hands away, I felt a gentle weight drop down onto the bridge of my nose and behind my eyes. With my eyes still closed, images of me with Mrs. Sullivan’s glasses filled the darkness.

When I opened them, there were no black-rimmed glasses like Mrs. Sullivan’s reflected in the mirror. Instead, my small chestnut eyes were staring back from behind big ovals of thick glass framed by thin, silver wire. Because I was still growing, and tended to be a rather clumsy child, my parents had decided that I didn’t need the fashionable frames I had picked out for myself. Without informing me of the decision, they had agreed on the simple wire frames to reduce the financial burden of replacing the glasses when they broke or I grew out of them. I looked nothing like Mrs. Sullivan. The image I had created of myself over the past week, was now far out of sight. As my eyes adjusted under the bright light of the examination chair, my fresh bob cut was transformed from a cool new ‘do, to a dorky bowl cut. When I voiced these concerns— that these frames on my face were not the ones I had asked for, and that I didn’t want to go back to school looking like a nerd— my mother said I could have the frames I wanted when I could pay for them.

As we left the optometrist’s office that day, I noticed I could read the signs on the walls more clearly. Despite my protests, I returned to school the following day. With my new glasses, and a new outfit to match, I walked into Mrs. Sullivan’s classroom, anticipating her compliments on my new glasses. But there were none. In fact, it was as if nothing about had changed at all. I was both relieved that no one had noticed how dorky I now looked, and disappointed that not one of my classmates had admired my new accessory. It wasn’t the ideal situation—the glasses weren’t the right glasses, the hair cut was no longer cool, and no one seemed to notice my new look— but I embraced them and my awkward appearance as best I could.

I was forced to wear that same style of wire-rimmed glasses for five years. Although the prescription strengthened and the size of the glass itself increased, the style never changed. It was those same wire-rimmed glasses that adorned each of my school pictures from kindergarten through fourth grade, their goofiness accentuated by experiments with hair cutting gone wrong, questionable fashion choices, and a few scabbed chins. It was also in those glasses that I got called the most dreaded word of a glasses-wearer of my age— four-eyes. We were lined up, out in front of the art room, waiting impatiently for the class before us to clean up their paints and vacate the classroom. My friend Meghan was standing in front of me, chatting with some other girls in our class. Then, out of the blue, Meghan turned around so that she was facing me, loudly whispering the mocking words in my direction. I was devastated. Arthur the Aardvark was the only one I knew who had been called four-eyes before, and he was definitely a nerd. So, Meghan’s rude declaration affirmed my beliefs that the glasses had turned me into a nerd, too. And for the third-grade me, there was no escaping that label. From then on, I was a nerd.

But, being a nerd with glasses had its perks. The small print in the chapter books I wanted so desperately to read was no longer just an inky blur on the page, but legible, and coherent words. It was through those glasses that I explored the magical world of Harry Potter, solved mysteries alongside Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and adventured through Middle Earth with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf. Through those glasses I saw my little sisters for the first time. I remember walking into the hospital room the day after their birth, my mother looked weary in the hospital bed as she held them both. Their small identical bodies were cradled in the crooks of her arms—the only visible difference between them was the letter on the bracelets that wrapped around their dainty little wrists.

It was in the wire-rimmed glasses that I met each of my four different fourth grade teachers. Mrs. Sullivan was the first. With a short, dark pixie cut, sharp and angular cheekbones, and eyes that could catch you in a lie before it left your mouth, she was nearly the exact opposite of my kindergarten teacher with the same name. When my family moved out of the duplex we rented in Arlington, and into our own home in Gloucester, I had to say goodbye to my old friends and Mrs. Sullivan. The second, Mrs. Sereo, I met when we moved to Gloucester. I hid behind my glasses and my now grown out bangs, as she introduced to the classroom filled with strangers. I scanned the desks in front of me, searching for friendly faces but was met by blank stares only. That same self-consciousness that I had felt when Meghan had called me four-eyes began to settle in. I didn’t want the presence of my glasses to blow my chance at making new friends, and for the first few days I resorted to squinting at the board in hopes of lessening the change I would be labeled a nerd again.

It was only my second day when an ambulance rushed Mrs. Sereo out of the school during recess. She never returned and was replaced by a permanent substitute teacher for the short time that I remained at that school. Always concerned about my education and not my social life, my mother decided to transfer me out after two boys got into a fist fight and she deemed the classroom an unsuitable learning environment. It was at my third, and final, elementary school that I met my fourth teacher, Mrs. O’Shea, a bubbly Italian-Irish woman who couldn’t pronounce her r’s or my name correctly. Still wary of pre-labeling myself as a nerd, I refused to wear my glasses for that first day, and for the next few days afterwards as well. I had met a few girls that first day, but I still wasn’t confident that I wouldn’t be branded as a dork and continued to not wear my glasses to school. The girls invited me to sit with them at lunch, and that weekend, I was invited to their slumber party.

Slowly, I began to gain my footing, becoming comfortable not just with the new friends I was making, but being myself around them as well. As I gained confidence in both my friends and myself, I gained the courage to wear my nerdy wire-rimmed glasses to school. And just as I did not receive the welcome I had expected when I got my first pair of glasses, my new friends seemed to not even notice the frames that now graced my face. When I met them on the school yard before class, they said nothing about my glasses, asking me about my weekend and if I did the homework due, instead. Instantly, the wariness I felt seemed silly. I had believed that wearing my glasses would make or break my chance of fitting in at my new school, of making friends, and of being labeled a nerd or not. But it wasn’t the presence of my glasses that determined my success, it was all up to me.

I don’t wear those same wire rimmed frames anymore, and just a few days ago, my current pair — large, square frames in brown-tortoiseshell— broke. No longer the clumsy child I once was, and with a dispensable income that supports my ever-changing fashion sense, I can pick out and purchase whatever frames I choose. I know now that it is not the glasses that make the person, but that still doesn’t stop me from picking out fashionable frames. And now, with wearing fake glasses becoming a trend, I’m no longer afraid of being labeled a nerd but rather, I feel cool for wearing them first.