I was in 6th grade, that era of awkward limbs and suffocating self-consciousness, when a strange man told me I could not see.
“Young lady,” he said, “I don’t see how you’ve been walking around here all this time without running into stuff.”
The optometrist turned to my mother, who stood on the side of the room, her big brown leather purse hanging from her right shoulder; her shoulder bending under the pressure.
“This girl needs glasses,” the optometrist said. “Immediately. “You know— she is what we declare as ‘legally blind.’”
I could see shame descending on my mother.
She covered her mouth with her hand. “Sand, why haven’t you told me?” She turned back to the optometrist, exasperated. “She doesn’t talk. She doesn’t say what’s going on with her, so you just never know.”
A divorcée stringing together a living on an entry-level government job salary, Mama spent her days and evenings working on a military base just outside our small Louisiana town. While her job provided health insurance, there really was no time in her schedule for routine check-ups. Health insurance, then, was for emergencies.
“I don’t even see how she’s participating in class,” the optometrist said. “All joking aside: she really cannot see.”
I had, in fact, lost a whole year of fifth-grade math concepts because I couldn’t see the tiny, chalk figures that my teacher wrote on the board. At the time, I didn’t understand what was happening. I had gone from being an honor student to getting my first C in math. I thought my struggle with math that year had something to do with my intelligence. My ego could not take this, and I could not disappoint those who had lauded me for my academic achievements.
When my glasses came in, I put them on with trepidation. They were a mottled brown— plastic and hideous—though I had to admit that I could see a stark difference in the world around me. Everything—people’s facial expressions, street signs, my own reflection—was stunningly clear.
But my hesitation in wearing the glasses proved prophetic: taunts from peers did come, and so I slipped off the glasses and continued to squint my way through days.
My son Solomon, who is a fourth-grader, inherited my nearsightedness. In his early years, during our annual physical check-ups, his vision tests were perfect, but after he turned eight, the myopic gene awakened from its slumber.
Solomon’s glasses are stylish—a glistening black piece of metropolitan cool. The lenses seem to enhance his doe eyes and enviable lashes, but no matter: like his mother, he shirks his second pair of eyes.
“Everybody’s going to laugh at me,” he cried.
“They’re going to make fun of me,” he prophesied.
And the taunts and jeers did come, one in the form of a kid threatening to crush his glasses at lunch time.
“I told you so,” Solomon said to his father and me, his eyes full of accusation and knowing.
Because schools, in recent years, have been intentional about building awareness around bullying, Solomon and his peers have a language for it. They know what bullying sounds and feels like; they know how to name it.
This doesn’t eradicate subtle forms of bullying.
Solomon has long been a toe-walker. And, he stutters. When he was in preschool, my husband and I detected early signs of disfluency and enrolled him in a speech therapy class, where his jumbled sounds receded like a tumultuous wave that had washed ashore and folded back into the ocean, replaced by a calm ebb and flow. But by third grade, the impediment had reinserted itself with tidal force.
As he gets hung up on words—“th…th…th…th…that”; “Mo…mo…Mommy”— I have wanted to blame someone, something, anything.
“In this country, if you don’t speak well, it holds you back,” I told my husband. “And in this country, black boys can’t afford to get hung up on words. They have to excel… I don’t want him to get teased and lose self-esteem and interest in school, and then, who knows what will happen.”
“Don’t worry so much about it. He’ll grow out of it,” Marcus said, turning away from my worry.
But he has not grown out of any of it, despite the fact that we have tried to “fix” all of these perceived weaknesses—with therapies and prosthetics and prayer. Though I hurt for him, I am proud that he is growing up to be a sensitive and empathetic child, maybe partly because he knows all too well what being ridiculed, dismissed and shamed feels like.
When he is mocked at school, I always, always ask him: “How did you respond?”
“I didn’t say anything,” he says way too often.
“Why not?” I ask. “You have the words. You have the power to explain why you need glasses. Or why you stutter. We’ve watched the videos together. We’ve read the articles. Why do you stay silent?
“Don’t be afraid, Solomon,” I tell him. “You have a responsibility to speak up for yourself. To educate others. And if they keep bothering you, use your power-voice to shut them down.
“Let me hear your power-voice,” I say, bellowing.
During the presidential campaign, Solomon was transfixed by the man who takes bullying, including cyber bullying, to new heights. Solomon watched, his mouth agape, as Trump made fun of a person with a disability, mocked Hillary Clinton’s stumble when she had pneumonia, verbally assaulted and demeaned women, made disparaging remarks about blacks and so-called inner cities, incited the physical assaults taking place at his rallies and hailed a virulently racist America.
On election night, Solomon’s homework assignment was to watch the results, but ultimately his body gave way and he fell asleep, like millions of children across this country.
Just before succumbing to his dream state, he saw the numbers, he saw that Trump was leading the electoral college, and he tried his hardest to differentiate each state’s popular vote numbers from the overall national ones.
He went to bed confident that Trump would not win, because, in the stories, the bully always loses in the end.
The next morning, Marcus and I tried to normalize breakfast: oatmeal with cream and butter, toast, tea. Marcus turned on the TV, but placed it on mute. Solomon kept asking us: “How could someone like Trump get elected to be president?”
As president of the United States of America.
For generations, little boys and girls have considered this seat the ultimate dream job in our nation of dreamers and achievers. They revere it —aspire to it— and so, for the life of him, Solomon cannot make sense of how someone who shows such blatant disdain of others could be his president.
Because Trump used his own version of a power-voice, I tell him. As crude and uncouth as he is, Trump knows something about the power of language, and he used it as a weapon to dredge up some of our countrymen’s fears, resentments, hatred and ancestral sense of entitlement. This kind of power, without purity of vision, is dangerous.
We may not be able to see well outwardly, but I try to teach Solomon to rely on his inner vision to guide him through the world. I urge him to see people – for better or worse—for who they are inside: their dreams and shortcomings; their character traits and untapped capabilities.
Trump cannot clearly see that which is not him— that which is not his own reflection, his family, his money and friends and power.
Trump Towers. There—he has named it.
He has no foresight into the future beyond protecting his own kingdom, his own ego, and so he is free—he thinks he is free—to say and do anything to those who appear fuzzy to him, those he does not understand nor care to understand, those who do not serve his purpose, his visions of all mighty power—an insatiable black hole incapable of ever being filled.
As a private citizen, that was his prerogative. To some degree.
As the highest public servant in the land, his ineptitude at seeing and, therefore, respecting all of America should be deemed as serious as it is for me to drive without some form of corrective lenses: illegal.
Cassandra Lane is a former newspaper journalist and teacher who has published essays, columns and articles in The Times-Picayune, The Source, TheScreamOnline, BET Magazine, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Bellingham Review and Gambit, and in the anthologies Everything but the Burden, Ms. Aligned and Daddy, Can I Tell You Something. She is an alum of Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA) and A Room of Her Own Writing Retreat (AROHO). She received an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. A Louisiana native, she now lives with her family in Los Angeles.