It wasn’t a spectacular fall this year. That makes two years in a row that we’ve had a less than stunning seasonal display of color. And I have to admit, I’m not exactly grieving over it since I’m still not back to normal vision yet. If anyone told me back in March that it might take eight months to get my vision straightened out I probably would have postponed the surgery. But they didn’t. In fact, when I specifically asked about side effects and complications they more or less pooh-poohed my asking. “We do this all the time with great success. We’ll cross that bridge when … no, IF we get to it.” Well that bridge came up awful damn fast.
Most people don’t understand what it’s like to have screwed up vision. We’ve had major advancements in glasses and contacts so those who suffer from myopia seldom have to struggle for very long after a problem has been detected. When I was in grade school every child received a vision and hearing test at school, as well as a dental cleaning and exam. In addition, we were marched off to the nurses office every spring for a remedial physical exam.
The eye test was pretty basic: the students were asked to read an eye chart using first one eye, then the other. Next, the tester would give the child a red, green, white and black marble, and they would hold a picture card in front of you and ask you to place a specific color marble at different spots on the picture. This tested for depth perception and color blindness. I usually nailed the color and depth perception of this test, but after second grade I struggled to read the eye chart.
After the eye test was finished the student was ushered to another room where an audio tester waited with a big black or blue square box. The box had lots of dials on it and a chord with large, clunky headphone attached. The tester adjusted the headset to fit your head, then had you sit on a stool with your back to them as they worked the different dials that made the tone sounds. You were supposed to raise the hand that correlated with the ear that heard the tone. The pitch and intensity of the tone jumped all over the scale from very high to low and super soft or moderately loud. There never seemed to be a pattern for the tones, though like my father I always tried to find one. I was never very good with this test either, but my mother said that was because I had inherited her tiny ear canals and I was prone to inner ear infections.
I hated the dental cleaning and never understood why I had to have it done since our family saw our regular dentist every six months like clockwork. The dental hygiene chair was big and uncomfortable and the water that swirled continuously in the cuspidor made me have to pee. The hygienist would start by asking us to chew a chalky, bright red disclosing tablet, then she would hand us a hand-held mirror so we could see all the “dirty places” the pink stain revealed. I always thought this was kind of unfair since it had either been hours since I’d brushed my teeth or my visit came after lunch. What did she expect? Anyhow, she’d get out her big set of plastic teeth and gums, an over-sized demo toothbrush and would patiently explain how I was supposed to brush my teeth, after which she’d polish my teeth with her oily, belt driven prophy brush. I knew I was almost done when the hygienist shoved a gooey, overflowing tray of orange flavored fluoride in my mouth. The only good thing about visiting the school hygienist was that we got a kit that had a new toothbrush, a slim tube of Pepsident (Mom only bought Crest) and a strip of a dozen or so disclosing tablets.
In the spring our teacher divided us into two groups (one boys, one girls) and escorted us up to the nurses office for our annual physical exam. During my grade school years we had a delightful school nurse who looked just like Meryl Streep and had Meryl’s compassion and witty sense of humor. Sometimes I faked feeling sick just so I could be fussed over by Mrs. Hatfield. I adored her. I think all the children did. Anyhow, Mrs. Hatfield didn’t do the exam, a real doctor did it. I felt kind of cheated by that. I mean, I went willingly because I like Mrs. Hatfield, but I wasn’t crazy about having some old man I didn’t know see me in my underpants and undershirt. He looked a little like Harry Morgan, who played Col. Sherman T. Potter in the TV. show MASH. The doctor tried to make small talk as he placed a cold stethoscope on my scrawny chest and back. Then they weighed us and measured our height, before checking each child for something called scoliosis. Last, but not least, they handed us a little paper cup that held a clear, sweet tasting liquid that was going to protect us from something called Polio.
Back when I was in grade school there were lots of kids who relied on school health services such as these. For many, it was probably the only time they ever saw a doctor or a dental hygienist and for others, it may have been the only time they had toothpaste or a toothbrush. Not that I lived in an overly poor neighborhood. I didn’t. But you always knew there were one or two kids in every class who just didn’t get the simple basic necessities we took for granted.