SOMERSET WEST – I can see clearly now

I think I was in Standard 3 aged nine, when they discovered the problem.

Our classroom at Somerset West Primary School that year, 1956, was long and narrow. You entered from the veranda through a door in one of the narrow ends of the room. The blackboard was on the long wall to the right with the teacher’s desk in front of it and about four rows of desks facing it. Each row was about four desks deep and each desk seated two children. I cann0t really remember dimensions but it was probably two or three times as long as it was deep.

Like all boys, I had grabbed a seat at the back of the class – probably only about five metres from the front.

Soon, however, the teacher had me moved to the front of the class and, horror of horrors, sitting next to a GIRL! (I am not sure that I really minded but peer pressure demanded that little boys and little girls should avoid each other.)

The reason for the teacher moving me was that she soon realised I was having trouble reading the notes written on the blackboard. More to the point was the fact that most of these notes had to be copied into our notebooks and I was sitting there, less than five metres from the board, unable to read what the other children were having no problem seeing.

I think part of this ritual was that we got to practice our handwriting and it set the salient facts in our minds. With many of these notes – in geography for example – we had to illustrate the notes to further show that we had understood the lessons. Unlike today with the singular focus per subject, good English was always expected. Whatever the subject, Geography, History, Arithmetic etcetera, you lost marks for poor spelling and grammar. I have noted that most people educated in that era have good language skills and often remember, 50 or 60 years later, what they learned.

However even from the front row, I was squinting and unable to read the board. The upshot of this was that the teacher took the book of my desk mate (girls’ handwriting was generally better that the boys’ anyway) and told me to take it home and copy the notes from it.

When Cyril saw me copying the notes he bristled and accused me of cheating and cribbing other children’s work. Well that was the gist of his tirade – and wanting to report me to the school for cheating. My mother, who I had told and who had the note from the teacher, tried to intervene but was met with scorn for trying to PROTECT me.

In those days, a team from the health department used to come to the schools and give the children a rudimentary health check. I think the check was primarily for TB but it also ensured that any underprivileged youngsters would not fall through the cracks because the parents could not afford to take them to the doctor. Most of us were disgustingly healthy and the checks never bothered us.

Eye testing teams also visited schools for the same reason – quite progressive thinking in the fifties.

A few days after one of the episodes of copying notes from another child’s book, the optical team visited the school.

I failed! I was chronically short sighted and, because of the alarming result of my test, I was given a note for my parents.

Cyril was openly scornful again. I was just playing up, he said, and being too lazy to do my work. This was just another excuse and so on and on…such fun!

My mother put her foot down. Reluctantly and with dire warnings of the consequences if I was malingering, Cyril let my mother make an appointment for me to see a well-known optician in Cape Town. I think his name was Townsend…could that be?

There were no Spec-Savers® type opticians in that day. We arrived at a very ordinary building in central Cape Town and climbed the stairs to the optician’s offices on the first or second floor. A very plain door with the name of the optician and his business on it, opened into a tiny reception area and a rather old-fashioned waiting room.

The optician’s office/consulting room was all wood panelling and books with none of the modern paraphernalia one expects today. I sat in a chair and he wheeled his apparatus over and proceeded with his tests.

I was vaguely apprehensive. What if the optician somehow found it was my fault that I could not see properly – effectively supporting Cyril’s stance?

The optician confirmed that I was very myopic to the point that he did not understand that no one had noticed this before. I suppose it is a sort of a boiling frog syndrome – my eyesight deteriorated but to me that was normal as I continually found ways to WORK AROUND the problem. He also discovered that I have a degree of colour confusion. This was to preclude me working in the electrical and electronics fields and it would probably have stopped me had I ever had the opportunity to learn to fly.

I was prescribed spectacles and my mother helped me to choose a pair of horn-rimmed frames that she thought looked good. Cyril muttered direly in the background.

About a week later my parents came home from work with my new specs. The optician had counselled that I should not wear the glasses to school at once and I should only wear them at home until I got used to them.

I seem to remember that I was outside when mom gave me my glasses – probably doing the hated watering of the garden.

 I put the specs on and I think my eyes filled with tears.

A step back.

Where we lived on the slopes of the mountain the view over False Bay was one of the most spectacular that you could expect to see ANYWHERE. It was simply breathtaking but I had not even been aware of its beauty. To me it was just, the sea is over there and on the right , I know, is Simonstown and Muizenberg and over to the left is the Strand and Gordon’s Bay and the mountains that we drive along to Hangklip. I KNEW this but my VIEW of it was a vague blur. The photo, mined from the internet (acknowledgement to GORDO), is not an ideal image but serves to give some idea of the vista from Helena Heights on the slopes of the Helderberg Mountain. 

Analogy is my strong point but it tends to elude me when I get to describing this. Imagine your TV is slightly off station and the image is a sort of sepia blur. You fiddle and suddenly it is in sharp, brilliant colour. Can you imagine that? I thought of a blind person seeing but that would be presumptuous for I can, and could, see. I don’t think one can imagine being blind but it is perhaps as difficult if you have always had 20/20 vision to imagine the transition I experienced.

Technicolour – that was my first thought. The world has changed to Technicolour – and it is beautiful. I just stood, and stared and slowly looked around at all the things that I had never noticed. The detail of the rocks on the mountain, the dynamite factory and the lake in its grounds five kilometres  away near the sea and more than 200 metres below us…. everything was pin-sharp and in TECHNICOLOUR – even the chickens, thirty-odd metres away, were no longer a heaving blurred mass of white as they fed – I could see individual birds.

Overwhelmed, I cried.

I suppose that is the only time I have experienced what is termed sensory overload. My mother just put her arms around me and held me as, confusedly, I tried to tell her what I could see and how beautiful it was. I suppose it was a kind of revelation to her, too. After a bit she chuckled quietly, genuinely pleased for me, and told me it was alright but to wipe my eyes and act normally to avoid any nastiness when we went back into the house.

Next morning I was to leave the specs at home…NOT. After assuring the parents that I HAD left the glasses in my room I got into the car to go to the bus stop, with the precious specs in their hard case at the bottom of my satchel.

As soon as the car had disappeared over the hill in a cloud of dust, I put on my glasses and marvelled at all that I could SEE.

At school there was some teasing about four-eyes and so on. I silenced that by saying I would rather see than not see – the teasing NEVER bothered me and because of that it never lasted and I, and my glasses, became just part of the normal school scene.

My schoolwork improved and I told my mother later that I had never left the glasses at home – she had known but not said anything.

A few years later, in 1959, I started at a boarding school called Guinea Fowl in Rhodesia. It was a wonderful school out in the bush and there I was given the nickname Goggles. I wore the name with pride and it never bothered me. One or two people still remember that nickname – Goggles.