I walked into my second grade classroom with my hands over my face. It was fear that made me face my classmates like an ostrich, too scared to show myself.
"She got glasses!" someone cried out.
I kept going to my desk with my face covered, even though the secret was already out.
"We can SEE them," another kid yelled.
Children don't react well to change, whether it happens to themselves or someone else. Stability offers a mirage of reassurance, a belief some hold on to long past childhood. Anything that reveals people can be different is suspect. I was only seven years old, but I already knew this, even if I couldn't articulate it. It made me the kind of kid who got nervous over a haircut. This new addition to my appearance had the potential to go over badly, but I couldn't hide forever. I lowered my hands and the world didn't end. I settled into my place in the classroom hierarchy as a glasses person.
What is a glasses person? Being a glasses person is more than what you wear on your face. A glasses person apologizes when someone else steps on their foot. A glasses person always carries a pen. A glasses person is a compulsive book buyer. My glasses said so much about me without saying a word. Dorky but not geeky, weird but not unusual, smart but I didn’t believe it.
The next two decades were a cycle of styles. Circular thick-frames over my eyebrows. Rectangular wire ones that eventually bent at weird angles. Tortoise shell. Rimless. Cats eye. Green, blue, purple, black, brown, navy. Some of them have stories. The brand new lenses I scratched only a few hours after leaving the optometrist. The pair I broke in college the night before my driver's test. The frames I picked because they looked similar to Liz Lemon's from the first season of 30 Rock.
With each grade progression, more of my bespectacled classmates would make the switch, starting the new year with their faces free of frames. I resisted the peer pressure, loyal to the Before Me, the Always Me. I was better than that. She’s All That? She’s All Something, but not this.
By high school, classmates would bug me occasionally to try contacts. I cycled through excuses: "My mom has dry eyes, so I probably do too." "The thought of touching my eyes is so gross." Until finally, the real reason: "Glasses give people something to look at, since I have a very plain face."
Of course, this put the other person in the position to counter my statement with denial to cushion my self-esteem. "Annndreaaaa, don't say that," they'd say. Other people saw through me and would just roll their eyes. The thing is, I really believed it, even if I didn't want to face the truth. The truth that no one would say. That underneath my glasses, I was ugly.
I didn't know back then that ugly comes in the form of people with cruel hearts and cold eyes. Not only did I think I was ugly, I thought I was THE ugliest. A walking sea monster. A sub-human creature released on the world. My cheeks are chubby, my nose is a tiny upturned button. No freckles, no killer cheekbones. There's nothing remarkable there, I told myself. People wouldn't remember me if it wasn't for my glasses.
So, like many before me, I took pride in choosing to be an outsider. I never forgot to draw symmetrical circles around my eyes in self-portraits. No matter what I went as for Halloween — the Statute of LIberty, Queen of Hearts, a court jester — my glasses were there, even if it created a jarring effect. This wasn’t something that made me sad. I accepted it as fact, just like eye color, as if there wasn’t actually a choice involved.
It took a long time to get to the place where I would consider taking off my glasses, much less actually doing it. By the time I got contacts, a month before my 27th birthday, there was a twenty-year gap between myself and that second grader. I walked home from the optometrist marveling at my ability to look at the trees and park benches around me without frames blocking my view. I felt so exposed, so vulnerable. Something could come flying in my eye and nothing would be there to protect it. I took notice of my interactions with strangers. Were people looking me in the eye more or was it me who was lifting up her head?
A month after I got contacts, I walked into a bar with friends after a party. I was in a cute dress and a little drunk, so I felt invincible. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a former high school classmate. I figured she didn't recognize me, much less remember me, and I kept walking with my friends.
I was a few steps away when I heard, "Andrea?"
My first reaction was... how? How could she recognize without my glasses? I thought I looked so different now. I still have days where I feel like the reverse Clark Kent, as if people who knew me before contacts can’t recognize me. As if the face behind the glasses wasn't there the whole time.
A couple months ago, a coworker dropped the bomb. “You don’t look like a glasses person," he said, after I told him I used to wear them.
I felt a bit insulted, even if he didn't mean it that way. “I wore glasses for almost twenty years!”
He shrugged. “You just don’t have the face for them."
“How could I not have a face for glasses when I wore them for most of my life?”
Maybe I’m not a glasses person. I’ve just been a person this whole time.