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The Dartmouth
May 29, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

DeChiara: Shifting Focus

I have crossed eyes—and I don’t know if I’ll ever fix them completely.

This column is featured in the 2017 Commencement & Reunions Issue.

The first time I looked directly into my mom’s eyes, I was 20 years old.

My struggles with my eyes started when I was born. I had a bad case of strabismus — the medical term for a lazy eye — in both of my eyes. My irises were barely visible, with just the whites of my eyes showing. I couldn’t see anything. At 11 months old, I had my first surgery.

I’ve always viewed problems as surmountable. Some of this outlook was due to my personality type, some due to my privilege. Getting bad grades? Get a tutor. Feeling unfit? Work out. Feeling sad? See a therapist. Everything was fixable if you just tried, or paid. At Dartmouth, I’ve come to realize my privilege. I have more than most.

And yet — the one thing I don’t have, that I for so long have desperately wanted, is a pair of straight eyes.

My first surgery saved me from being blind. I wore eye patches while at home for many years. Other than the occasional “four-eyes” comment — kids in my elementary school were gravely unoriginal — I felt normal.

I thought that everyone looked at foreheads when they spoke to others. I thought that everyone had trouble telling which direction a ball was coming from in soccer — is that girl running on the left or right? It keeps changing.

As I got older, more things started to bother me and my eyes got worse.

My friends would say, “Are you talking to me?” in conversations — apparently they couldn’t tell that I was looking right at them. Reading for classes sometimes left me dizzy, the words doubling like on an old television set, but there were no antennas to jostle to clear the picture.

At the end of my sophomore year at Dartmouth, I got my second strabismus surgery. I didn’t put much thought into it. I had to be awake for part of it; I couldn’t leave my home for a week afterwards. It was painful and expensive. But at the end of surgery, I looked at my mom and I cried when I realized all that I had been missing. I had always known she had brown eyes, but I never knew what it felt like to hold their gaze.

I went through sophomore summer feeling happy with my decision. No one asked me where I was looking; I could read comfortably (not that I was reading much). It felt like the problem was solved.

But then junior fall I did a transfer term in London. A bartender sniped, “Look at me while you’re ordering,” and once again I felt like a failure. I was looking at him, I was looking right at him.

Maybe everyone in my life was just being nice when they said my eyes looked better. Maybe I’d never be successful at a job interview or on a first date. Everyone says eye contact is important — and I try and I try and I can’t get it right.

I went back to the doctor. My eyes weren’t working equally because my right had perfect vision so the other was slacking off. Third surgery junior summer: Lasik on my left eye.

Three surgeries. Weeks of recoveries. Thousands of dollars. Pain and more pain.

Things could have been worse. I could be blind right now, but I’m not.

But my eyes are still not straight. People say they don’t notice. But I notice. In pictures, I can see my right eye dipping below the left. When I’m reading a long book my eyes start to throb a bit. People still look puzzled — “Me?” — when I ask them about their major or to just pass the ketchup. Yes, you. I’m looking at you.

Not all problems can be solved, no matter how much time or money we throw at them. Certain relationships, romantic or otherwise, haven’t worked out despite the work I’ve put in. Certain classes (or majors) just didn’t fit. And three surgeries later, my eyes are improved but not perfect.

I have crossed eyes — and I don’t know if I’ll ever fix them completely. And that’s okay. I am healthy, I am happy. I had successful job interviews. I’ve been asked out on second dates (heya!). I zoned in enough to not get golden treed. I took a senior portrait that I don’t hate. I’ve read 12 books so far this year, just for fun. And if I really focus, I can look in my mom’s eyes.

Rachel DeChiara ’17 is the former publisher of The Dartmouth.