The event is so vivid that it penetrates the shadows of my memory and shines bright as daylight. It feels like it happened just hours ago and is still at the forefront of my memories.
Until eighth grade, I considered eyeglasses a sign of foreign sophistication, much like education and neckties, worn by civilized people for their esthetic appeal. My uncle Mirza Gholamreza, who was very concerned about his appearance, wore comfortable pants and ties imported from Paris and embodied modernity to such an extent that our townspeople referred to him as Monsieur. He was the first person I ever saw wearing glasses. His penchant for shoe polish, cutlery and other exotic refinements reinforced my belief that glasses are merely a fashion accessory.
With this in mind, let me take you back to my school days. I was always tall for my age, a fact that my grandmother, bless her heart, lamented every time she had to buy clothes for my brother and me.
She joked that we resembled the standards of Yazid, towering and reaching for the sky. Despite this height, my eyesight was weak. Unaware that I had poor eyesight and could not see the blackboard, I was instinctively drawn to the front row seats in every class. Those familiar with school dynamics know that the front row is reserved for the smaller students. This inevitably led to conflict. There were frequent confrontations with the smaller students, but my mischievous nature meant that they eventually backed down for fear of further confrontation. But that wasn’t the end of the problem. One day, a vain and pompous teacher hit me with full force at the entrance of the school, causing the sound to echo across the schoolyard and attract the attention of the other students. While I held my throbbing ear and saw stars, the teacher insulted me and shouted, “Are you blind? Have you turned into the son of Atol Khan from Rasht? People see you on the street and you ignore them!”
It turned out that the teacher had met me on the street the day before and I had not recognized or greeted him, which he interpreted as arrogance. He saw this as an opportunity for retaliation.
At home, my situation was no better. At mealtimes, I would often accidentally knock over a glass of water, a plate or a jug and spill something or break a plate. My family, who were unaware of my visual impairment, reacted with anger. My father cursed and my mother scolded me for being as graceful as an unbridled camel and warned me of the dangers of my carelessness. Tragically, I was unaware of the extent of my visual impairment and naively believed that everyone saw like me.
I resigned myself to the criticism, internally reprimanded myself and pushed myself to be more vigilant. “What’s wrong with you?” I would ask. “You’re always stumbling into things and causing a commotion.” There were other episodes too. I showed no improvement in soccer. I tried to kick the ball just like the others, aiming carefully, but my foot often missed the target, making me the laughing stock of the others. The laughter of the other children was painful and hurt my pride. The worst episode happened one evening during a performance.
Someone resembling the magician Louti Gholamhossein had come to Shiraz and attracted a crowd of spectators in the auditorium of the Shapour School to watch his blindfolded tricks. The principal gave me a free ticket, as did all the first and second grade students. I enthusiastically attended the event, my seat was at the back of the hall. Despite my best efforts to concentrate, the details on stage escaped me; the magician’s performance appeared to me only as vague shapes and movements.
Surrounded by an audience that reacted with astonishment, fear and laughter, I felt isolated, unable to participate in their experience. I tried to understand and asked my neighbors what was going on, often receiving dismissive responses that questioned my ability to see. That night, in the midst of my confusion and realization that I was different, I was shrouded in sadness as I was not yet aware of the true nature of my struggle.
My repeated mishaps, due to my poor eyesight, were misinterpreted as a lack of talent or carelessness. Like everyone else, I blamed myself and did not realize that my difficulties were due to an untreated problem.
Although we have lived in the city for years, our house has retained its rural character, reminiscent of a harbor where people from the countryside come to stay with their animals. This tradition has been maintained in Shiraz. Even after my father’s accident and financial difficulties, our doors remained open to guests. Our house was a well-known haven for travelers from the south, a testament to my father’s unwavering generosity, even going so far as to sell personal belongings to accommodate them.
Among our visitors was an elderly woman from Kazeroon who was known for her lament singing at women’s gatherings. She was a lively storyteller and singer who captivated us children with her stories and songs. Her directness and frankness, especially when she criticized others, made her a good friend of my grandmother, with whom she shared Kazeroon origins and disapproval of my father’s polygamy.
This esteemed guest also brought with her a number of religious and ceremonial texts and, most importantly, an old pair of almond-shaped glasses held together with a wire and string due to a broken temple.
One day, driven by curiosity and mischief, I rummaged through her things, scattered her books and put on the glasses to tease my sister with exaggerated facial expressions. The moment I put the glasses on is unforgettable.
The moment the glasses touched my eyes, my perception of the world changed. It was a profound and monumental moment. That fall afternoon, under a pale, yellow sun, the scene before me changed dramatically.
Before, the trees were just a blurry green to me, their leaves indistinct. But through the lenses, each leaf became sharply defined, falling softly like lone soldiers. The wall on the other side of our room, which I had once perceived as a seamless surface, now showed each brick bathed in the reddish hue of the sun, and their divisions were clear.
The joy I felt was incomparable, a feeling as if the world was unveiling itself before me. This unique moment of revelation, this sheer joy, was unsurpassed and irreplaceable. I was ecstatic, jumping around in a frenzy of newfound clarity, feeling as if I had been given a second birth in which the world around me took on a new, vivid meaning.
When I took off the glasses, the haziness returned, but now I was full of certainty and elation. I carefully put the glasses back in their case, fearing that a word would result in their confiscation and my expulsion. Knowing that the older woman would not be back for a few days, I stowed the tin in my bag and, fortified by the promise of rejuvenated vision, made my way to school.
The classroom, adorned with a traditional Persian stained glass window, orsi, was bathed in afternoon light. Our classroom was located in an old mansion surrounded by an orange grove and decorated with mirrors. Our classroom was one of the most magnificent, as its doors were covered with stained glass instead of windows. The penetrating sunlight bathed the innocent faces of my classmates in a mosaic of vibrant hues reminiscent of finely set jewels.
Our day began with Arabic grammar, taught by a popular old man who was known for his wit, humor and seemingly ageless wisdom. His reputation was well known among those who had studied in Shiraz in my time. With my newfound confidence in my eyesight, I no longer felt compelled to sit at the front. I chose a seat at the very back so that I could assess the full extent of my vision change due to the glasses.
The school, located in an affluent neighborhood known for its impressionable residents, had a relatively small secondary student population, which contributed to the unique and intimate atmosphere in our classes.
Over the years, our class size diminished, much like a sieve that wears out over time. Many students preferred to work, such as selling sangak bread, instead of studying history and literature. The harsh reality of life pushed them away from education. On a day when the class was full, it barely filled up to the sixth row out of ten. I chose the last row to test out my newfound visual aid, arousing the curiosity and perhaps suspicion of our experienced teacher, who was used to my presence in the front row and occasional mischief. His sidelong glances seemed to question the change in my usual behavior and wonder if I was up to something new.
My classmates were also puzzled, knowing that I had long been fighting for a front row seat to compensate for my visual impairment. Despite the underlying curiosity and speculation, the lesson began. The teacher wrote an Arabic sentence on the board and added a table to dissect, which triggered my moment of truth.
I carefully took the glasses out of their case and put them on, adjusting the wire on one side and fastening the candy string around my other ear. My appearance with the quaint almond-shaped glasses on my large features was incongruous at best. The makeshift repairs only added to this comical mismatch, making me a sight that could make even the most somber observer laugh, let alone a classroom prone to hilarity.
As fate would have it, just as the teacher finished his initial explanation and turned to check that we had understood everything, he met my eyes, which took in the full extent of my ridiculous but transformative new appearance.
The teacher dropped the chalk in sheer amazement and stared at me in disbelief for a long moment, unable to comprehend the sight of the glasses on my face.
Wrapped up in the newfound clarity of vision, I was not even aware of the commotion I had caused. Where I had previously struggled to see the blackboard from the front row, I could now see it with crystal clarity from the back of the classroom and rejoice in this personal victory.
My obvious disregard for the situation and my nonchalant behavior reinforced the teacher’s conviction that I had played a clever trick on him. His frustration boiled over and he stormed at me, his thick Shirazi accent coloring his admonishment, accusing me of turning the classroom into a meeting of fools with my pranks.
The class, previously engrossed in the lesson, turned around after the teacher’s outburst and burst into uncontrollable laughter at the sight of my absurd performance with the glasses. The teacher, now convinced of my supposed mockery, became even more annoyed by the uproarious laughter.
To defuse the situation, I tried to take off my glasses, but the teacher’s request that I leave them behind and his threat to show me up in front of the principal only added to the chaos. His threatening presence and the threat of a physical reprimand left me paralyzed with confusion and fear.
As I hesitated, the teacher’s slap not only shattered the fragile peace, but also the scantily repaired glasses, so that they hung precariously from one ear. A subsequent shove drove me out of the classroom amid a cacophony of laughter.
When I was called before the school authorities, my fate seemed sealed with the threat of expulsion. But in a moment of vulnerability, I revealed my struggle with near-blindness, a confession that was initially met with skepticism, but eventually understanding.
The teacher, who was known for his extensive knowledge, regretted my oversight and offered me a pragmatic solution by referring me to an optometrist to assess my visual impairment and prescribe me an aid – a turning point in dealing with my visual impairment.
The next day, after a lifetime of struggle and the humiliation of yesterday, when school was over, I went to Mirza Suleiman, the optometrist in Shah Cheragh’s courtyard. The Arabic teacher came with me, took Mirza Suleiman’s glasses one by one, put them on my eyes and asked me to look at Shah Cheragh’s watch to see if I could see the small hand. I tried on each pair of glasses and finally found one that allowed me to see the small hand clearly.
I paid fifteen qirans for them, bought them from Mirza Suleiman, put them on and became a spectacle wearer.
© Ali Salami 2024