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Shell Shocked: The eye test that lied

By Staff | Apr 1, 2015


That was the 20-20 vision line on a standard eye test chart when I was a kid. It was used in all the usual places ranging from the school nurse’s office to the neighborhood optometrist’s store. They all used the same chart and the instructions were always the same: please cover your other eye and start reading the letters on top.

The letters on top were about the size of telephone poles. If you couldn’t read those letters, you’d be fitted for eyeglasses as thick as coke bottles. Most kids were able to get through row after row of gradually smaller sized letters — until you got to the 20-20 vision line –the moment of truth for good eyesight.

If you couldn’t read the 20-20 line, you were usually fitted for eyeglasses for border line nearsightedness. If you could read the 20-20 line and the lines below it, you were considered to have superhuman eyesight and were relegated to the sewing class to help other students thread needles.

Most of the kids would squint a bit when asked to read the 20-20 line. “F’s” looked like “E’s” and “C’s” looked like “O’s.” I didn’t want to wear glasses as a kid because I’d be called “Four Eyes” by my peers, which was phase one in the dawning of a new nerd. So I squinted and seemed to get most of the letters right. And, fortunately, I avoided a trip to the optometrist.

But since our eyes were checked regularly, these eye exams were given to us kids fairly frequently. We were forced to read the very same charts over and over. It didn’t seem to occur to our visionary (no pun intended) elders to use charts with different letters. It was always the same chart with the 20-20 line reading FLOTDEXC.

Is it any wonder that the 20-20 line became so familiar to me that I simply memorized it? One day I realized I didn’t have to squint anymore. I simply recited “FLOTDEXC” from memory and passed the test with ease. I didn’t care what the smaller letters on the line below said. I was 20-20 normal vision. That’s all I cared about. No eyeglasses.

I also began to realize that I wasn’t the only eye test cheater. Other kids caught on as well. I remember seeing classmates who held their textbooks as far out in space as they could stretch their arms. They needed glasses but passed the vision test by also memorizing FLOTDEXC. They were also dodging the bullet of being fitted for glasses and the label of “Four Eyes.”

I watched other kids walk into walls. They, too, desperately needed glasses but avoided them as well. It may be incomprehensible today, but during my childhood there definitely was a social stigma attached to wearing glasses. Aside from being classified as a nerd, there was also another level of degradation being called a sissy. Any boy wearing glasses was both a nerd and a sissy, which meant that he was perceived to be a poor athlete, a basketcase with girls, and a social misfit.

The kids who wore glasses obviously didn’t know the secret of the eye charts. And I was just enough of a selfish kid not to spread the word, lest the grown-ups would get wise to us and change the charts.

As it turned out I needed glasses as a young adult. This became clear to me when I went to see a foreign language movie with titles. I couldn’t read the titles and thought the film projector was out of focus. When my friend told me that he could read the titles clearly, I panicked. I knew I needed glasses but still feared being called a nerd. Was I now old enough to overcome this social stigma?

I went to an optometrist and, as luck would have it, he used the same old eye chart with the FLOTDEXC line in it. I couldn’t believe it. Was it still in existence after all these years? Didn’t healthcare officials wonder why some patients who seemed to pass the eye test still walked into walls?

I had to force him to find another chart with different letters so that I could get an accurate evaluation. And, yep, I did indeed need glasses.

The optometrist was puzzled as to why I insisted on a different chart. I never told him about the childhood scam my schoolmates and I indulged in just to avoid wearing glasses. That was our little secret. So now that I was adorned with classy, contemporary aviator-style glasses, was I still to be viewed as a “four-eyed nerd” and sissy after all? Was I to be compared to Clark Kent?

The answer was no. Eyeglasses became fashionable and a sign of sophistication. Even people who didn’t need them began to wear them. I was saved by the shifting tide of popular taste. Goodbye, FLOTDEXC.

Art Stevens is a long-time columnist for The Islander. His tongue-in-cheek humor is always offered with a smile.