Island Life by David Slack


Staring into space

It would be untrue to say I was a homely looking child, but at the age of seven I got my first pair of glasses, and at that point things took a turn for the worse. They were big, horn-rimmed and dark, and they covered a large part of my face. The most calamitous break to my nose was yet to come, so the Groucho Marx effect was not as pronounced as it might have been, but it was still enough for my brother to say to Mum in despair: do I have to look at David?

At seven years of age, I was probably overdue for spectacles by three or four years. In hindsight, it was abundantly clear to the family that I needed them. “Look at the parachutes!” they would say.
“Where, where?” I would wail, squinting up into the sky.

“Look at the gliders”, they would say.

“I can’t see them,” I would cry, in gathering exasperation.

I don’t recall any of this, I should say. Mum does, vividly and often, and unduly reproves herself. She was an exemplary mother. She missed almost nothing. She lavished us with the attention of a teacher who now had a special class of three. But it wasn't until I told her that I couldn't read the school blackboard unless I was sitting right at the front that the penny dropped.

The optician in Palmerston North was a nice man who took me into a darkened room twinkling with red and green lights like some kind of land-borne aeroplane cockpit.

Perhaps at the initial visit, perhaps a later one, Mum asked about contact lenses. He solemnly described the dreadful injuries he had seen done to the wearers of these things who had been in car crashes. It was a dreadful business picking tiny shards of glass from their eyes. Until I reached my twenties I settled for spectacles: square frames, German frames, round ones like John Lennon’s, but not achieving anything like that effect. Imagine. One pair was in the aviator style and was best worn by the kind of man who dried his hair with a machine.

You are doomed to repeat your parents oversights and omissions. Karren noticed the problem. Mary-Margaret said she had to sit at the front of the classroom to read the blackboard. Earlier tests at school had reported her hearing and vision to be fine, but Karren wondered if there might have been a change. It was time for another school holiday adventure.

She asked what would happen at the optometrist. Would it hurt? I reassured her. I described the aeroplane cockpit. She wondered if there might be eye drops. I told her there would not. She relaxed. I hoped for her sake that she might not need any correction. Glasses and lenses are a hassle. We thought it would be sad for her to obscure her pretty face.

We sat down in the surgery, the optometrist, Mary-Margaret and me and the test began. For the first time in 41 years I followed the progress of the letters on the chart with perfect vision, and I heard my own child’s voice reading out the letters, eager to oblige, but wildly awry. It’s a Y not an Q, It’s a Q, not a U. My heart ached.

He drew a disclosure from Mary-Margaret which she allowed with a guilty grin. She reads books under the cover at night when Mum and Dad think she’s asleep.

She can now do so with the aid of a very fetching pair of red spectacles. She chose them herself and counted the days until she could pick them up. She rang all her friends to alert them to the change they would be seeing. She fretted a little that the boys and the mean girls would tease her. The teacher astutely seized the teachable moment and encouraged the class to treat the kids with glasses with respect. The girls who already had them were thrilled with this and put their own ones back on.

Janet Digby is the manager of the See Here project. It was initiated by the JR McKenzie Trust and it asks the question: “What do we know about the state of our children's eyesight?” The answer is “not as much as we really ought to”.

The way we collect data about children who have trouble with their vision seems to be pretty loose, if not sparse.

There are programmes that screen and check our children's vision, but how well do they work, and what information and support do parents get if they’re told that their child needs help?

The project reports a less than perfect state of affairs.

There’s no process for tracking vision-impaired children( which in this context refers principally to the ones whose vision can be fully corrected with glasses).

There is no reliable way to establish whether children have received the help they need.

If your bureaucrat-intolerance has been set to high by the PM-in-waiting then stand by to be further disgruntled. The project recommends that an agency be made responsible for finding out how well the job of screening is being done. It recommends free screening for all children under 18. It also says the B4 School Check needs a good going over. There’s plenty of sensible stuff in there, and you can find it in a concise summary here.

We also learn from the report that being short-sighted tends to yield average or above average academic performance. That may well be so but I can testify that it does sweet bugger-all for your performance on a football field.

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