“I know it is almost the last day of the school year,” said the teacher when I dropped off a book in her classroom, “but do you have a few minutes? Could you please check Jacob’s eyes?
“Sure, better late than never,” I said. “How about right now? Jacob, got a few minutes?”
Jacob was one of twenty-seven fourth-graders in this class, one of the quiet ones who accomplished very little. I had been coming here once a week all year, doing writing lessons with them and helping them become more fluent and comfortable with their writing. I was a known person for these children, including Jacob.
We sat down in the hall, next to a long table and facing each other.
“Thanks for coming with me, Jacob,” I said. “I will just need you for a few minutes. Ms. H. and I have been wondering if maybe your eyes are not seeing as well as they might, and if reading and writing are no fun for you because of that. When you are reading does the print ever get fuzzy?”
Jacob smiled his usual quiet smile. “Yes,” he said simply. “No one has ever asked me that before.” He smiled the quiet smile again, while I said Oops to myself and smiled back.
“Let’s find out what’s going on,” I said. “Turn your chair so you are facing me, please” he did this “and look at the black dot on this pencil eraser.” I held the pencil vertically, with its eraser end up to show him the dot. Smiling in a teasing way, I added, “And tell me how many pencils I’ve got here.”
“One,” he replied politely.
“Right,” I said. “Now I am going to move it around and I want you to follow it with your eyes – only your eyes,” I added as his head began to turn. “Keep your head steady if you can.”
(Let this be a lesson to you, I told myself. Just keep a Beany Baby in your bag at all times, so you always have one to put on a kid’s head to keep it from moving!)
Jacob’s eyes followed the pencil across his field of vision as I moved it slowly to the left, then to the right – maybe six seconds. By the time the pencil moved back to the center, Jacob’s eyes were glistening and he gave his head a shake.
“That’s hard on your eyes, isn’t it,” I said. He nodded, blinking. He is a very silent guy, I reminded myself. “Do your eyes hurt or sting a little?” I asked.
He nodded and blinked a few more times. I lowered the pencil and its black- dotted eraser.
“What we just did is called tracking,” I said. “When you read, your eyes have to move across each line of print and also down the lines of print so your brain can make sense of the words.” Jacob was looking at me steadily. “You knew that,” I said. He nodded once, the polite small smile still in place.
“If you don’t like to read, it might be because it hurts to move your eyes,” I suggested. “Do your eyes get watery like they just did, or feel uncomfortable when you are reading, especially reading at your desk? “
“Yeah, “ said Jacob in an A-Ha kind of voice.
“How about when you are reading something on the whiteboard at the front of the classroom?”
He shook his head. “No,” he volunteered. “I can see the whiteboard just fine from my desk and my eyes don’t hurt.”
“Hmmm,” I answered. “So tracking is not so much of a problem when the print is not close to you and it is bigger.” Jacob nodded again. “I can see why you wouldn’t want to do much reading of books if it hurts!”
“And mostly what we do on the whiteboard is math,” he said. “And the numbers and words in our math books are bigger than the letters in a book I read at my desk,” he added. A little pause. “But sometimes the words and even the numbers on the whiteboard move around too.”
“That’s good to know,” I said truthfully. I shifted in my chair and held up the pencil again. “Okay, there is another thing your eyes must do besides track back and forth and up and down. This is called teaming, or convergence. Both eyes have to look at the same thing -- letter, word, number, picture, whatever -- at the same time, together. So you don’t see double letters and words.”
Jacob sat up straighter and looked at me hard, without the smile. “That happens to me a lot, “ he said, unexpectedly voluble and almost eager. “I have to blink and squeeze my eyes to straighten the words out.”
I took my trusty pencil and a plain piece of paper and printed the word
on it in letters 1/2 inch high. Then I wrote the word again on top of the first one, leaving 1/16th of an inch between the strokes of the two sets of letters. The two words looked shadowed.
“Like that?” I asked Jacob. This time his face lit up.
“Yes!” he replied. He looked at me expectantly now. “That happens all the time!”
“Well, let’s see if we can figure out why.” I held up the pencil again, eraser on top, black dot facing him. “I’m going to bring this black dot in toward your nose, slowly, and your eyes will feel funny; please just keep your eyes on the black dot.” I smiled what I hoped was a conspiratorial smile, adding, “You might see two pencils, or maybe two of me, but don’t worry.”
As I slowly moved the pencil toward his nose, his eyes began to cross. Good, I thought. When I got to within a couple of inches of his nose I pulled the pencil slowly back and his eyes uncrossed.
“There were two pencils,” he reported.
“Good,” I said. “Now we will do that again and I want you to say “Two” when you see two. I’ll pull the pencil back and you will say “One” when there is one pencil again. Does that make sense?”
We did it again, at the same slow pace. This time his eyes crossed as before and he said “Two” at about seven inches away from his nose and, when I pulled the pencil away, he said “One “ at about twelve inches away.
“Terrific! Thanks, Jacob.” I put the pencil down. “I do think it would be good if your mom or your dad could take you to get your eyes checked. Would it be okay if I emailed them about this?”
“Email my dad,” Jacob directed me promptly. “His name is Bill.”
“I will,” I promised. “And maybe we can work together to so you don’t see double words any more.”
“Okay,” Jacob said, with his same polite smile again.
“See you in fifth grade, Jacob,” I said as I got up and we moved toward his classroom door. “Have a good summer.”
“Thanks, you too,” he answered.