Through the Looking Glass
Through the Looking Glass
Since I was two, I’ve worn glasses and hated them; especially now that my acute myopia has, in middle age, dealt me a new betrayal by not exempting me from needing bifocals, which still must be slid to the end of my nose to read anything at all in print. But, at least I can read and see; for this I am truly grateful.
However, gratitude is an alien beatitude to a five year-old whose determined mother, in an effort to straighten her child's lazy-eye, slaps on an eye-patch covering the ‘good’ eye, mollifies her with candy which will later rot her teeth, then sends her out to the bleary no-man’s-land of the backyard to ‘have fun’ stumbling around looking for the sandbox, which she finds reliably every time by falling face-first into it.
Family pictures feature a midget extra for The Pirates of Penzance, an understudy sailor, or scurvy knave. I careered into the furniture and fell often on the asphalt playground cracking the many scabs accumulating on my knees and elbows, with the result that my exasperated mother would inquire of my sisters, “Who the hell has been picking on this kid?”. It was her strategy that when no confession to a domestic crime was forthcoming, she would, with equanimity, smack each of us in turn rather than exhaust herself with further investigation. My mother was an eminently pragmatic woman
Eventually, my intrepid mother accepted defeat and decided to buy me glasses, and with misguided intentions chose bright red and green plaid frames for her daughter instead of the regulation ‘fleshy-pink’ ones worn by the two percent of the elementary school population who were similarly afflicted. “I hope you appreciate that it took me quite a while to find those frames. You know, I wanted you to have something different”. Apparently, thick lenses and one cross-eye wasn’t distinction enough.
Change affords us the opportunity for improvement, to correct or abandon personal attributes we dislike, such as unfortunate monikers, a criminal past, or Mr. Magoo glasses. And with our family’s move from the inner-city to the suburbs, where my mother hoped to escape the annual infestation of head lice and the other social ills which she was convinced would inexorably lead her daughters to either teenage pregnancy or penal detention, I decided to avail myself of this improving opportunity, and pretend in my new school that I only needed glasses to see the board. I figured I could pull-off the rest of the blurry day based-on my previous experience as a pirate.
My parents enrolled my two sisters and me in the local Catholic school where they were confident that our moral, social and physical well-being would be safe-guarded. Into the second week, I was pleased with my new school and the progress my duplicity was making. I was enrolled in St. Edward the Confessor primary school at the beginning of the fall term when recruitment for the various teams, clubs and choirs was underway. The affable Father McLean was choirmaster and dead-ringer for Michael Caine and as I loved singing, there was no real contest for my membership.
The choir held several charms for me; not only did I get to spend an hour every Wednesday with the object of my heart’s desire, choir practice had the added bonus of being scheduled during Math class, which I loathed, partly because it was taught by a ‘New Math’ tyrant who wobbled around the classroom; her pulchritude barely supported on tiny stiletto heels, girthed in a too tight skirt, the entire confection topped by an out-dated beehive hairdo. And partly because I was really bad at Math. The severity of my ‘dysmathia’, as I prefer to call it, was only deepened by this loss of instruction. So, I got to sing, indulge in romantic fantasizing, avoid Miss Fat-bottom’s Math class and hardly ever wear my glasses. Life couldn’t get better.
However, luck deserted me the day Anne-Marie Phelan left the county detention center and swaggered into my homeroom. Her return to St. Ed's was anticipated with much eye-rolling and ominous whispering until the day she stood at the classroom’s threshold with Mother Mary Rita. You could hear a collective intake of breath, as if Billy the Kid had just pushed past the swinging saloon doors. Who would her unlucky seating partner be? Some rather backward child psychology had led our Mother Superior to the conclusion that the best way to reintegrate this hardened twelve year-old miscreant was to befriend her to the class’s most awkward, shy and puny kid; and so it was that I became the recipient of the newly-formed charm and social graces of the butch, Anne-Marie.
Anne-Marie Phelan had short, dull, black hair that stuck-out of her head at odd angles. It appeared that her hair stylist had eschewed the use of scissors in favour of just gnawing-off the ends. A similar lack of competence in skin care had left her face riddled with pock-marks. She was six inches taller than I, and her broad, heavy shoulders and hirsute, simian arms took up three-quarters of our double desk, causing me to perch precariously at the end of the bench as she plunked down beside me, sprawled-out her legs, heaved her elbows onto the desk and gave me an evil smile which revealed several rows of tiny, blue-grey teeth and two sharp canines. I knew I was dead meat, and all the insincere gestures of friendship she proffered only intensified my anxiety and delayed the fate I sensed was coming.
One week into her probation, a glimmer of my seat-mate’s true nature appeared, when at the conclusion of recess, we lined-up at the Girl’s entrance, waiting for the second bell to signal our re-entry to the school. The curious convention of making boys and girls have separate entrances was predicated on the belief that boys were much too rough and tumble to share an entrance with the demure and gentle gender, a notion to which my subsequent experience would give the lie.
It happened that Anne-Marie, whose dogged presence I couldn’t escape, had conspired to stand in front of me in line, while Leanne MacFarlane, a demonic cupie doll, a kind of ‘Chuckie’ in drag, stood behind me, effectively ‘book-ending’ me between them. Thus trapped, Anne-Marie turned to me, peered quizzically at my eyes, and declared above my head to her waiting foil, ‘Hey, Lee, this kid’s a Chink”. She spun me around to give her considered opinion of my ethnic origin, “Yep, she’s a Chink alright”.
I was completely baffled by this assertion; yes, I was a runt, a four-eyes, and a Wop, but I wasn’t going to stand- still for ‘takin-it’ on behalf of a race I’d had little experience of and owed nothing to. “No! I’m not”, I protested, “I’m Italian”, “Bullsheet!, You’ve got Chink-eyes”, “Yeah, that makes you a Chink, kid”. Just then, the second bell rang and we filed-in.
When I got to class, I asked the Sister to be excused to go to the bathroom; a request she denied me; but I was desperate to get to a mirror and verify whether or not I had Chinese eyes. This isn’t quite as obvious a detail to discern as a normally sighted person might think; I could only really see my eyes with my glasses on, but the very thick lenses distorted their appearance.
Ultimately, whether or not I was hanging from some distant Oriental branch of my family tree was to prove a moot point, as it became clear that the tag-team of Anne-Marie and Leanne was to be my nemesis. In fact, fate brought about my downfall quickly, as that afternoon Anne-Marie insisted on accompanying me on my way home. She was chatty, and even apologized for the racial slurs flung at me earlier. I began to relax a little, and wondered whether or not she wasn’t really just a diamond in the rough which I could help polish. We’d join the choir together; I’d help her with her homework, catching her up on the lessons she missed, I even had an aunt working for Elizabeth Arden who could supply me with depilatories and professional instruction in their use. She in turn, would provide me with undying gratitude, a smug do-gooder sense of superiority, and protection from bullying for the rest of the year. Anne-Marie would be my acolyte.
While I was half-listening to her over-enthusiastic banter, and scheming about how I could shape this brutish creature to my purpose, we abruptly stopped at the end of a gravel drive. Gorilla-Girl quickly grabbed both my arms, locking them behind my back and whistled sharply for her confederate, Leanne Macfarlane, whose driveway it was. She came belting down the drive, gathering several little Macfarlanes along the way. They pelted me with gravel, while their sister energetically punched and kicked me, pausing intermittently to catch her breath and resume her anti-Sino invective. Finally, my screaming brought out Mrs. Macfarlane, whose chief objection was to the noise I was making. Nevertheless, her appearance subdued her daughter’s violence, whereupon the various little Macfarlanes lost their focus and enthusiasm, and dispersed to resume chasing and tormenting each other. Anne-Marie’s betrayal and subsequent desertion left me alone and bereft, with all of my hopes for her reform and my security, dashed.
I carefully placed my glasses on my nose, and limped tearfully home where my mother interrogated me about the events that left me so bruised, battered and upset. I made my revelation in the hope of gaining sympathy, tenderness and possibly a treat or two. Instead, my mother became furious, grabbed her reticent daughter by the arm and headed for the office of Mother Mary Rita, Mother Superior of St. Edward the Confessor and chief disciplinarian of its denizens.
My mother was incensed when, instead of being assured that the perpetrators would be punished and her daughter protected; the formidable Mother Superior performed a Pontius Pilate by washing her hands of the matter, pointing-out that since the brutal act was committed off-school grounds, and after school hours, there was nothing she could do. Apparently, Mary Rita’s convent studies had extended beyond Canon Law to Civil Tort.
However, my mother’s anger, when roused, was just as indomitable as the Mother Superior’s determination to deny her redress. So, she quickly formed a new plan, muttered, “Bitch”, and dragged me out of the school, and down the street to the Macfarlane’s, where she banged on the screen door until Leanne answered, smirked sweetly at us, and called for her mother.
Mrs. Macfarlane was a beleaguered and weary woman who, when it became obvious that her savage progeny were effectively beyond her control, opted for short spurts of peace and quiet, a goal which she felt that she had at least some chance of attaining. She listened, unmoved by my mother’s account of the attack, which she concluded with the warning, “Listen lady, if that daughter of yours and her ‘friend’ hits my girl again and breaks her glasses, you’ll be paying for them, and believe me sister, they’re not cheap!” Mrs. Macfarlane told Leanne to apologize, then get back in the house, after which, she shut the door on us.
My mother looked down at me and said, “That scared her; hit 'em in the pocket-book, works every time.” She was satisfied at having defended the glasses of which she was inordinately protective, and saving me from further torment. I didn’t have the nerve to tell that I wasn’t wearing my glasses when Leanne attacked me, and that I hadn’t worn them at school, except in class. But what really worried me was that my powers of deductive reasoning told me that my mother had actually given permission to Leanne and Anne-Marie to continue abusing me, just so long as they removed my glasses first. As I have noted earlier, my mother was a pragmatic woman, but her logic was seriously flawed
My father’s remedy was equally unhelpful, but was the only one I could expect from the middle child of a family of eight combative Italians, half of whom were sisters, and reputed to be the superior pugilists. Garibaldi was a veteran scrapper from Toronto’s tough inner-city ‘Ward’ district, as such, the remedy of resort would be to teach me how to box; seriously. I would’ve been better served by sprinting or fainting lessons. After a few rounds, the futility of his project became obvious to my disappointed father, who resigning, attributed my complete lack of talent for bobbing, weaving and throwing an upper-cut that ‘hits pay dirt’ to the unfortunate genetics on my mother’s side, which seemed, in her case, to have skipped a generation.
In the end, these skills proved unnecessary. At last, fate was turning in my favour; the thuggish Anne-Marie was, as a result of thieving, hauled back to detention for further reform. Later, I witnessed with smug satisfaction as my older sister Louise, known affectionately as ‘Vicious’ to her younger siblings on account of her volatile temper and talent for torture, suffered a similar initiation by one Rhea McQueen, who was in turn, thrashed by her older brother ‘Mack’ under whose protection my blonde, nubile sister subsequently fell.
And so it was, that Louise and I were left in peace to pursue our academic careers; for the assurance of her well-being, my sister had the handsome and much-feared ‘Mack’ McQueen; as for me, I sought refuge in my thick, sturdy glasses, behind which I remained safely obscure to a world whose perils I could now clearly see.