Steff’s story – The Odd Duck

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(Steff in the ’70’s’)

I set down my packages and settled in to wait for the next homeward bound bus. A fellow commuter stepped back from the curb having searched in vain for some sign of a ride in the distance. As she turned toward me, I became aware that we had something in common.

We both had exotopia, one eye that wanders out to the side away from the other, a congenital condition more commonly known as being walleyed. We noticed each other noticing, but she quickly turned away to sit in silence at the opposite end of the same bench.

Steff Photo | Duckling StoryI should have paid better attention to her reaction, but curiosity overcame judgment. Not in all of my twenty one or so years had I met anyone else as differently eyed as I was. “We have the same, ahhhh,” I offered with a smile, gesturing at my own face and nodding toward hers.

Don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t the instant look of horror and disgust that came over her. She literally screamed:

“I don’t look… ANYTHING …LIKE YOU!”

Just then a bus did arrive. She didn’t even look up to see if it was the right one as she hurried herself onboard. That’s how badly she needed to escape, well, someone that really, honestly, did look like her.

My first job out of secretarial college was a much less innocent affair. I was to temp as a receptionist at a prestigious downtown law firm. One of the young associates had just been made a full partner and nearly everyone in the office was getting a promotion because of it. All were in a party mood. That is, until I showed up. The new partner took one look and judged me on looks alone.

– “She can’t be on the front desk!” he bellowed.
– “Why!?” asked another young man surprised by his reaction. “I’m being made a partner!”
– “So? What does that have to do with…”
– “Just… LOOK AT HER!”

A secretary gently whisked me away into a small anteroom. She sat me down looking even worse than I felt. We stayed there trying to pretend that I could not hear the insulting, escalating argument that more and more voices were being added to just outside. “I’m sorry. Really. It’s… It’s… He’s just such a jerk.” She said, nearly in tears.

Finally, another young man entered and he, too, apologized. “We’ve found someone else to man the phones,” he added, blushing with embarrassment.

I felt sorry for them, but couldn’t hide being hurt. But I damned well was going to get what was my due –a day’s work and a day’s pay to go with it.

– “I’ve been contracted for the day.” I stated flatly.
– “But we don’t have…” He started to say.
– The secretary interrupted, “We do have all the announcements to do. They have to be hand-written.”
– “Would that be alright?” she asked me.

I wasn’t thinking all that well, or I wouldn’t have agreed. The joke was on both the legal bigot and me. My strength was a good speaking voice and problem-solving skills. On the other hand, so to speak, my handwriting had always been miserably problematic at the best of times — uncomfortable, hugely uneven and dyslexic. The job took me the rest of the day, but I did manage to hand-write every envelope for each of the firm’s announcements of the “jerk’s” new partnership. Each one was a barely legible, tear-stained mess. It was way too arduous and upsetting to have been an intended revenge, but the irony of it was not lost on me even then.

You can’t go home after experiences like these and not look at yourself in a mirror. It could have been worse. I was born cross-eyed. A couple of failed operations very early in life turned an inward turning eye outward instead. Actually, I had just been grateful that an original diagnosis, one that would have had me legally blind by adulthood, had so far been proven wrong. Sight itself didn’t change anything or make life any easier, but it did do nicely for a booby prize. Anyways, I was certainly much prettier than the actor Jack Elam, and nowhere near as funny to look at as comic Marty Feldman.

Swan quote, wingsI simply looked in two different directions at once. For one reason or another, about 15% of all human beings arrive with some form of stereoblindness, this “strabismus” in common. In some aboriginal societies, it is said that that would show one to be a shaman. Someone who could look into both this world and the next. In other cultures or past centuries, I might have found myself discarded at birth, or been burned at the stake for witchcraft. So things could definitely have been worse.

Not that there isn’t still enough shunning and/or bullying to either make or break one’s character even to this day. Unlike other more or less invisible challenges, a lack of visual symmetry is as perplexingly obvious as having a different body shape or color skin. But beyond appearances, the lack of stereo sight (and in my own case hearing) is simply another kind of normal. My normal just doesn’t happen to live in a three-dimensional version of space; even though I do tend to fall off or bump into it -unfortunately- quite a lot.

When I was teen-aged I tried to hide this different normal behind a pair of mirrored granny glasses, but something else happened instead. Those mirror lenses turned the tables on family, friends, even strangers who had tended before to absent-mindedly stare trying to figure out whether they were being looked at by one eye or the other. Wearing those sunglasses, I got to watch as people saw reflected what I, myself, saw when I looked at them! Their reactions were pretty revealing. There were people who liked themselves, or didn’t. People who could not hold their own gaze, and those that could not ignore it when it stared back at them. How we perceive ourselves turned out to be far more important than how anyone else sees us.

Today there is a growing acceptance of neurodiversity thanks to the shared life and work of people like Oliver Sacks, Temple Grandin, Robyn Hussa, and Barbara Arrowsmith Young. More and more different, unique, and/or challenged people are being credited with having their own acceptable kind of normalcy.

An “ugly” duckling need not take any form but the one that suits him or her best. Beauty is not about how you wear your feathers. It’s about how you use your wings. In that, even the oddest duck can fly like a swan.

– Steff aka MysticKid


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