The secret language of eyes

I signed up Shaye for some kind of toddler music class. It is supposed to use some special methods to indoctrinate children to have musical talent – not that Shaye needs to be pushed in that direction. She already appears to have at least some musical talent but it was the only music activity open at the local community center. I also teach English classes for preschool children one morning a week and do some volunteer work at the same place, so we spend a fair amount of time there.

Last year, it was under different leadership and there was a wonderful receptionist who personally welcomed every person who came in the door and warmly made everyone feel comfortable. I loved going down there, and that is how I got involved as a volunteer. She made the atmosphere so good that I always dawdled on my way to leave. But the leadership of the center changed and there is also a new receptionist. The new receptionist is nice enough, but very distant and focused on getting paperwork done.

I don’t know if that was the entire reason for the difference but I felt a complete turn-around in the atmosphere. People come in, go to their classes, pay for them, sit talking in little huddles of friends and leave. It appears to me that people are no longer interested in talking to people who aren’t already their close friends. The parents from my English classes for parents and toddlers, don’t greet me or exchange a few words after class anymore. The people in a nursery rhyme class that Shaye and I attended over the summer seemed to almost pointedly ignore me. Once I even feared that it was because they had guessed Shaye’s background, because one woman appeared to refuse to hold Shaye’s hand in a ring-around-the-rosy type of activity. But I also figured she might have had a really bad morning or be reeling from divorce court the day before, you never know. But, in general, I feel snubbed and excluded from the tight little cliques that form when other parents have tea in the café area after class. It makes my stomach turn sour and I barely have the energy to make it home after classes. It all reminds me painfully of being harassed in school as a kid because of my huge, thick glasses and strange eyes.

Well, anyway, that has been the situation ever since the spring, but this morning we went for our first music class and came in a few minutes late. It had been “one of those mornings” with Shaye, so I had had to run all the way to the club and I was out of breath and tired when we go there. I moved into the circle trying to be inconspicuous and not disrupt the class with our late arrival. But several people arrived even later than we did. One of the late arrivals was a little girl with shockingly white-blonde hair. I noticed her mainly because I was watching Shaye dance in the middle of the circle and, as usual, musing over how she doesn’t look dark at all until she is up next to some really pale child. Then, suddenly she looks Romani through and through.

As I watched, I noticed that the extremely blonde little girl had extraordinarily thick glasses, and I realized that her hair wasn’t just extremely blond. It was practically albino white. My interest was sparked and I kept an eye on her for the rest of the class. Sure enough, she had that way of moving, her little pointed face jutted forward, her body moving in a studied way, even though she was fast enough. She looked at a ball just a few inches from her face to make out the pattern of colors on it. She looked like me, especially me as a child.

Once I had seen another child, a boy with thick glasses, in the café area of the community center and I had sat down near his mother and casually said to her that I used to wear really heavy glasses like that but now I have super-powerful contact lenses. She had looked coldly at me and made an inarticulate “Um huh” noise and gone back to staring into space. It was a typical interaction for the new atmosphere at the community center and it depressed me. I had wanted to make a connection with someone sure, but I also knew that her little boy would face a lot of obstacles and misunderstandings as he grew up with eyes like that and that I could help his mother to predict and alleviate many of them, if she would talk to me. I also wanted to talk to her because it does the wounded places in me good to think that I might help another kid with absurdly thick glasses to avoid some of the pain I suffered. Therefore, it stung doubly that she wouldn’t talk to me.

This time, I was even more afraid to talk to the mother. I knew the first one probably was simply too overwhelmed, but she had also seemed afraid. The way she had moved away from me after that and the way I observed her relating to her son, showed that she had not dealt with her own denial and pain over his disability. I was afraid of another such reaction, so I wasn’t sure if I could approach another similar mother.

At the end of class, I was waiting to talk to the teacher about buying the course music CD and I noticed the mother of the little visually impaired girl waiting nearby, so I took a deep breath and said it, “It’s amazing for me because your little girl looks exactly like I did as a child.”

“Really,” her voice showed amazement but not anything unfriendly. I explained hurriedly, that I am visually impaired and that my hair used to be that kind of almost white blonde, that it darkened to honey blonde only after I was 20 years old or so. She willingly explained that her daughter has “ocular albinism”, just like me. Her glasses are not as powerful as mine and it seems as though maybe she can see a bit more than I do, but she still has the look and that certain way of moving that seems really odd, if you don’t know vision impairments. Some of my friends have eventually admitted that, when they first saw me, they thought I was mentally retarded because of the way my eyes flit around and the way I move my body, even as an adult. The little girl had the same erratic eye movement, though her mother said it had been much worse when she was a baby.

She said they had done intensive vision exercises with her as a baby, that were supposed to help her eyes develop better and she was convinced that it her acuity had improved. She knew all the best eye doctors and orientation specialists in the country, so she didn’t need my advice on that account. The line moved and she talked to the teacher and went downstairs to the café area. I followed a few minutes later, mulling over whether or not I should say anything more.

When I got downstairs I couldn’t find the woman anyway. I saw her little girl playing with the other kids well enough, because of her distinctive coloring, but I couldn’t remember what her mother was wearing. I knew she was blonde, but there were several blonde women still around. I fed Shaye and waited. Soon there were only two blonde women left and the little girl was still there. In fact, the little girl came over and asked to try one of Shaye’s crackers. She liked it so well that she asked for another and hung out around us for awhile. She was very sweet and pretty.

Finally, the little girl went to one of the women, who responded warmly and gave her more crackers. I had to hope that was her mother, and not someone else like me who just gave her crackers. I decided to try to speak to her again, just to tell her that if she ever wanted to ask me anything about my experiences, particularly difficulties in social situations and at school, I would give her my contact information and she was welcome to call me, even if it was years from now.

So, I sat somewhat nearby, although not near enough to intrude on her little group of friends. The woman was engrossed in a fast-paced conversation with two other women and I am completely inept at gracefully interjecting a brief comment in such situations. With my extreme nearsightedness, I can’t see people’s faces to judge the right moment when a momentary interruption would be okay. So, I waited for around 40 minutes, while the women talked and talked. Shaye played in the kids’ corner and was generally good, so I figured I could continue to wait.

Finally, one of the other women in the group left and the third was momentarily distracted by her child, so I nervously stepped forward and gave my offer to tell her about my experiences.  She again reacted pleasantly and said she would definitely be interested to hear about it. In fact, she started asking questions right away.

We covered the importance of allowing a child with a vision impairment to do active physical things. I told her about visually impaired kids I had met at special camps for the blind, who could see better than me, but couldn’t walk on even mildly rough ground, because they had been so overprotected by their parents that they had not learned the myriad tiny physical adaptations one has to make to navigate a world that is only dimly seen.

We discussed reading. I was told I should use magnifying glasses and was extremely frustrated with them. It was only in adulthood that I fully realized that they really are no help at all to my particular eyes. I used large print, which was some help, but not really necessary. Regardless of the size of the print, I still read at only about 50 words per minute – a tenth of the speed of a normally sighted and educated person. The only way that I was able to get good grades in school was if I was given extra time on written tests, and only some teachers were amenable to that. My grades also went from about a C average to almost entirely straight As after I learned to type in the sixth grade. Here in the Czech Republic, very few people know how to type, unless they are professional secretaries, so this was worth pointing out. With those tiny netbooks around, even smaller hands can learn to type and it could be a godsend for a visually impaired child.

Then, I mentioned, a bit more tentatively, that the real challenges are actually social. The physical stuff can be overcome with some specific efforts, but the social problems are harder to neutralize. She nodded. “I can see how that would be,” she said. “When I was a teenager, I had to wear glasses and I was embarrassed so I didn’t, and even with that smaller difference in what I could see, I was very uncomfortable in social settings, especially with groups.”

I explained how it is difficult for me to participate in a conversation of more than one person. Just as I had difficulty knowing when I could speak to her, I have great difficulty participating but not interrupting in a conversation with more than one other person. Because I am a feisty person, I tend to ere on the side of interrupting, which makes me appear rude sometimes, even though I am probably more conscious and careful about it than most people. But if I was a shy person, I might have difficulty ever participating in such conversations.

I told her how much trouble I had had just finding her as well, only moments after we had spoken. And I explained how, because I am not totally blind, many people don’t really get that I seriously can’t see much and are offended when I don’t recognize them when we meet. It feels awkward sometimes, but I am always relieved when someone tells me who they are. I always appreciate the effort, even if I had figured out who it was already.

Then, I remembered a part of the equation that even I tend forget because I would never even know about it, if sighted people hadn’t told me. When people, especially children, come into a new social group, for instance at the start of school, they look around and try to make eye contact. If two kids make eye contact and one of them wants to open up communication further, he or she smiles very slightly and waits for a reply. If the other smiles, the first one can smile more. They may not even speak at that first meeting, but a connection has been made and they will usually talk to each other at some point. A lot of these interactions are completely unconscious for sighted people.

I have read that 90 percent of human communication is non-verbal. Some of that has to do with tone of voice, of course, but much of it is visual and I miss almost all of the visual stuff. In the scenario of children meeting for the first time in school, I cannot make eye contact. I can’t even take the first social step. As a child, I couldn’t even fake it. I have learned, with the help of special teachers, to look intently at the smudges where I know people’s eyes should be and try to make eye contact. I know from experience that the effort often makes for a better conversation, even though I have been told that my fake eye contact still is not the same as the real thing and gives a disconcerting feeling. I pointed out to the mother and her friend that I was sort-of making eye contact with them, but that I was really only faking it. They both seemed very thoughtful, after that.

But that is just the beginning of the problem. If I can’t make real eye contact, I certainly cannot engage in that subtle conversation of timid smiles. I cannot make those initial connections the way people are used to and this severely impacts my ability to make social acquaintances. It is a probably the primary reason that I still have few friends in this little town where we have lived for the past six years.

Suddenly, the mother broke into my train of thought, “You’re right. When I was willfully not wearing my glasses as a teenager, I hated meeting my friends at a restaurant. I would walk in and smile at the wrong people or I would smile at my friends and wouldn’t realize that they hadn’t noticed me yet. I always wanted my best friend to meet me outside and go in with me, and I didn’t even really understand why myself. And…” she hesitated then, obviously a bit uncomfortable, but then went on, “…when I first saw you in the music class, I noticed you were different somehow because you didn’t look around the way everyone else does. When it is the first day of a new class, everyone looks around and kind of acknowledges all the people they know or even just sort of know. You didn’t, and I thought you were probably a foreigner who doesn’t speak our language, because sometimes foreigners are so shy that they don’t look around.”

I was momentarily stunned but as usual I automatically tried to cover it up. I probably should have just let her know that I was amazed, but I didn’t want her to feel that she might have offended me by speaking so frankly. So, I just laughed and agreed that that is true and moved on. But later, after I had given her my contact information and we had all gone home, the thought of what she had described filled me with an odd mixture of emotions. I am partially elated that I made a connection with someone at the community center and glad that I could help her understand her daughter better. I am even relieved to find another part of my social difficulties that is not “my fault”, e.i. not due to my being stupid, rude or insensitive. But I also feel shaken to the core. No wonder I feel like I’m constantly moving through a world where everyone is in a clique and I’m not invited. They are all using a secret language to connect with each other and I am shut out, forever, without appeal. The little internal demons of despair and panic that arouses within me are admittedly hard to put down.

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. George Lederer
    Oct 25, 2010 @ 14:40:53

    Arie, this is a wonderful chapter in the ongoing saga. It is positive, warm, hopeful….and profound. It contains fundamental messages about human communication. Let us know how this relationship with the mother and the visually-impaired child continue….please. And kiss Shaye from her “Uncle” George.

    Reply

  2. David Waln
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 04:22:00

    Somewhere along the line – I think it is a combination of very intense eyes and a little hearing loss – I have learned to look at peoples mouth, both when I speak and when they speak. I can understand them better with a little lip reading, and they seem more comfortable without my penetrating stare. I could have never figured this out with out a lot of subtle visual clues.

    Reply

  3. Mama
    Oct 28, 2010 @ 04:29:38

    I’ve read 3 out of 4. Thank you so much for writing this stuff down. It really helps me (even me) to understand and experience vicariously. Awesome, beautiful daughter. You are such a gift.

    Reply

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