Seeing Clearly

When I was about eight, and in third grade, our class was ordered to report to the nurse’s office for vision testing (this was back in the day when schools could afford music programs, art instructors, and school nurses). We dutifully lined up single file in the hall in alphabetical order, and when it was our turn, we stood with toes up against the strip of colored tape on the concrete floor of the hallway, peered into to the well-lit office, and followed the nurse’s instructions to read the lines on the chart as she pointed to them.

My last name began with a W, so I was the last kid in line. No one had actually explained what a “vision test” was, but I wanted to pass the test, whatever it was. I didn’t want to face the ridicule of my fellow students if I couldn’t perform as well as they did, and I didn’t want my parents mad at me for failing a test.

So I listened carefully to the students ahead of me in line, and memorized the chart, effectively plagiarizing their work. It didn’t occur to me that I was cheating; I simply didn’t want to face the consequences of failing an assignment.

When it was my turn, I put my toes on the tape, smiled brightly at the nurse, and rattled off the letters on the chart, none of which I could actually see, other than the huge E, and even that was fuzzy.

As a result, my very real near-sightedness went undetected for year, and I made a quite a few extra trips to the pencil-sharpener to get close enough to the blackboard to read any assignment instructions that were too hard to read when viewed from my seat on the other side of the room. When this behavior continued the next year, my fourth grade teacher contacted my parents. They were not happy that I hadn’t told them I was having trouble. They weren’t happy that the solution involved a lifetime of expensive doctor’s visits and glasses. But they took me to the optometrist.

I still remember putting on my first pair of glasses, looking out the doctor’s office window, and seeing for the first time, not a blur of shifting green, but individual leaves on the tree outside, moving separately in the wind.

Education at Scholars Online isn’t about acing a test. It’s about gaining disciplined skills to see complex situations and ideas clearly, and to evaluate them honestly with charity. Unless students do their own work, however well or badly, so that the teacher can identify, address, and correct each student’s own problems, students won’t resolve their blurred vision of the subject, or their own integrity.


  1. I had the same optical experience, also in the fourth grade. Seeing individual leaves and blades of grass for the first time was magical. Another lesson to be drawn for students here is that until you apply yourself and learn, you won’t know what you are missing. Leaves are pretty cool. So is the ability to understand another language. So is Milton’s Lycidas, so is the Book of Job, so is the Pythagorean Theorem. Keats records an epiphany of this type in his poem On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer:

    Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
    And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
    Round many western islands have I been
    Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
    Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
    That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
    Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
    Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
    Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
    When a new planet swims into his ken;
    Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
    He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
    Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
    Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

    Reading a commentary will enrich one’s appreciation of this poem and confirm that Cortez was not the guy who star’d at the Pacific, as our history and literature scholars may already know.

  2. I suspect most of us who got glasses after some period of slow degradation in our vision have a similar story to tell. Certainly the “Look at those leaves!” factor seems to be one of the universal reactions.

    I’m intrigued that you mention the Keats sonnet, Karl: we typically spend some time discussing it in English Literature. For what it’s worth, there continues to be some debate about how Keats was wrong about Cortez. While there is no doubt that Balboa was the first of the Spanish explorers to see the Pacific, it is apparently true that Cortez did himself see it too. That he first saw it from Panama is far less likely, though, since while he made it as far south as Honduras, I don’t think he came as far as the Gulf of Darién, which is almost in modern Colombia.

    Nevertheless — leaving room for some play in the historical terms — what Keats is getting at in the poem, it seems to me, is not so much the renown of being the first discoverer of something, but the visceral personal impact of apprehending something new for oneself. Keats was certainly not the first to have read Homer, or even the first to have read the Iliad and Odyssey in translation. The Chapman translation was a Tudor product, so it had been around for quite a while, too. It’s not even entirely clear that he hadn’t encountered Homer in someone else’s translation before (though no evidence that he had, either, I believe). But for whatever reason, his reading of this particular one had a powerful effect on him. His gift as a poet allowed him not merely to report, but to some extent recreate that experience in and for his readers in a way that no mere expostulation or repetition of the word “wow” could have done.

    The poem also figures prominently in one of my favorite English children’s books from the early twentieth century: the four children in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons also quote it and use it to iconize their own experience.

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