Life Through a New Lens
Tuomas Sivula, Division 3, College freshman

I prefer to sit in the back of any classroom I walk into. This dates to the first day of tenth grade, when my calculus teacher explained that he has observed a correlation between success and sitting at the front of the class. In a sophomoric attempt to prove him wrong, the top scorers in the class ended up concentrated in the back row, myself among them. However, that silly act of rebellion ended up creating a link in my mind between the back of class and self-determination. It proved I could beat the odds. I became a more confident student as a result of choosing to sit in the back. Although I have always had freedom to choose where I sat - barring the odd class with assigned seating - this freedom is, in fact, more of a privilege, granted by a technology that I rarely leave my bed without. That technology is the corrective lens, or eyeglasses. Without them, I would have to sit in the front of class to have a hope of seeing any visual material presented. This is just one of a plethora of ways in which my glasses have opened up new opportunities and experiences, leaving me without a doubt that they are my most important piece of technology.

My parents both wear glasses, so when they took me along to shop for a new pair every few years, I began to associate the optical shop with adulthood. To fifth grade me, getting my first pair felt like it would be a rite of passage, the first concrete marker of growing up since my new teeth started coming in. My first prescription in hand, I remember smiling my way out of the optometrist’s office and getting into the back seat for the drive to the temple of adulthood known as Juettner’s Optical. I remember missing a breath as I walked in, more due to the synthetic odor that hangs around glasses stores than the excitement, but easily mistaken as such. The next day, I went to school the happiest I had been in weeks, buoyed by the badge of wisdom I wore on my face. The moment felt life-changing, but I had no way to expect how true that could be.

As I got older, my vision got worse. Now, my left eye can’t read the computer screen I am typing on. My right is still better, but the disparity only serves to impair my depth perception. Every morning, I have to put on my glasses for little things, like wanting a good look at the clock or finding a medicine bottle. They come in handy again when I have to read the road signs to go to a new place or find my friends once I am there. I could go hike to a scenic area or watch a movie without them, but the experience would be diluted. While I recognize that many people have irreparable vision loss and are still able to live full and rewarding lives, the fact is that society is biased towards the sighted. Not only that, but the little actions I use my glasses for snowball into experiences, which can become literally life-changing.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in sports, which make up my primary extracurricular activities in school. I began distance running in middle school because my friend asked me to join the track team, but I never really liked the track because I wanted to explore, to see new parts of my city and take in secluded wilderness vistas. In recent years, I have grown to enjoy the competition of racing, the stress-managing effects of endorphin rushes, and overall health that comes with muscle growth and fat loss, but I still refuse to run on treadmills and tracks unless my coach orders it. To me, running is first and foremost a mode of visual exploration. Tennis is another sport that I spend a significant amount of time with since I picked up my first racket when I was seven years old. My career even survived a broken wrist that forced me to play with the wrong hand for a season and a few minor shoulder injuries. However, not surprisingly, a sport based on making contact with a small, fast moving object requires accurate depth perception. Tennis would have stopped being fun a long time ago without the aid of glasses to see the ball.

These two sports have become not only the bulk of my time outside of school, but in many ways, the center of my life. Most of my lasting friendships in high school were born on a long run or the back of the bus to a tennis match. In my senior year, I was elected captain of both teams by my teammates, a gesture of confidence by my teammates, not to mention providing a leadership position looked upon favorably by college admissions committees. Tennis has even afforded me my first job that I really wanted to be doing - I am now a paid coach for the same program that I started with, introducing the next generation to the opportunity I have had. Besides these concrete achievements, many psychological theories posit that personality is much more nurture than nature - that is, who we are is only slightly based on genetic predisposition, and much more related to what we do and how we react to it. My glasses have allowed me to nurture my adventurous side, introducing me to new experiences and the people that shared them, in turn shaping my personality to be more open and positive.

Looking at the whole of society, I can find several areas that are reliant on clear sight. Consider, for example, an office. The dominant feature at each desk is likely to be a computer, but since vision loss of all types affects the ability to interact with a computer screen, it is reasonable to say that corrective lenses are effectively a prerequisite for this office to be accessible to everyone who works there now. Not only that, but most of the workers probably drove to work, able to ignore that nearsighted people are technically criminals if caught driving without corrective lenses. The car-centric basis of urban and suburban planning that dominates most of the cities in the world, heavily favors clear sight. This might be acceptable if it only affected a small minority of the population, but that is not the case. In the United States, around thirty percent of the population is nearsighted. Including farsightedness and reading glasses, the total percentage of people using some kind of corrective lens jumps to seventy-five percent. Although some of these people are retired, the number of students and workers who are reliant on glasses to comfortably do their work is significant. Beyond that, the value of a retiree’s independence - the ability to go to the store and pick out their own groceries or drive to the doctor on their own - shouldn’t be discounted either. While computers and automobiles would probably still exist without the corrective lenses to make them accessible to the entire market they currently command, the evidence points to the conclusion that they would not be as ubiquitous, and may even create a class divide between people with perfect vision and those without.

This logic may seem difficult to reconcile with the fact that, for the first few millennia of human history, common people got along without any vision aids. In fact, the explanation is deceptively simple. The importance of glasses is caused mostly by the explosion of literacy and visual media in just the past few centuries. As literacy rates have risen, print media and its descendent, online media, have ascended to reign supreme. Video reproduction systems, which happen to rely on an additional optical lens in a camera, have only been accessible to most of the population for less than a century. The same goes for automobiles. Suburban offices and service jobs have deposed family farms as the largest employers even more recently. Glasses have risen in importance as the necessity of precise vision has, without most of us noticing either.

Looking back at that fateful calculus class, I wonder how my school experience would have changed had I sat at the front of the class in order to see. I would have a different, more adversarial relationship with the classroom. What if I had quit tennis and never been a runner? I would have lost a set of friends, and my health would have suffered too. High school is a time when the smallest of factors can be life changing - a time when the choices we make can create lifelong friendships, hobbies, and career paths. My glasses were only intended to let me see, but the use of that sense has influenced a countless number of small factors in my life. My glasses have given me the chance to be the person I am.

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