Everything was golden until that morning.
Lifeguarding saved me during the first semester of grad school. The classes were intense, and drilling into my skull to relieve the pressure had only made things worse. So I took a job with a private school summer camp to get away from the books.
Good choice! The job was simple: work in the sun, keep watch, clean up, repeat. Most of the kids were careful to follow the rules, and the first month passed without a single scare.
The only danger came from dodging giant black widow spiders in the pump house. I’ve never seen so many, and the spare chlorine barrels were deep in their domain. It was Mirkwood Forest in there. I made a deal with their queen; she would let me work in peace, and I would tell no one of their genetics lab.
But the work was good, and this particular morning looked to be no different. The 4k group (four-year-olds) came to the pool first. They weren’t allowed out of the shallow end, and the teachers had to get in the pool with them. This made the job a little easier. I watched as the kids tried to make me laugh with improvised knock-knock jokes (they had just learned the concept that morning).
My favorite of the bunch:
Kid: Knock knock.
Me: Who’s there?
Kid: Why did the pineapple pee his pants?
Me: (quickly adjusting to the new format): Why?
Kid: Because the pee is the juice! (tumbles to the ground in hysterical laughter)
About this time I noticed one of the children—a quiet boy—rise from the water with one hand covering his right eye.
I wasn’t worried. The kids often got little scrapes, insect stings, and chlorine in the eyes. Nothing that kind words, a band-aid, and a trip to the nurse’s station couldn’t fix.
The boy walked around the pool and stood in front of me, hand on eye, saying nothing.
I still wasn’t worried.
I crouched to his eye level. “What’s wrong, bud? Did someone poke you in the eye?”
“Is the chlorine too strong? Does it sting?”
STILL not worried. (ok, maybe a little)
I’m not prone to shock, but I do have a hyperactive imagination. The latter sometimes overpowers the former.
“Let me take a look” I said, and pulled his hand away from the eye.
There was no eye.
Just the socket and the bloody remains of an eye.
I didn’t know it was possible to have eight heart attacks and a schizoid embolism simultaneously, but there I was. All the clichés about being dumbstruck, scared speechless, etc.? Yep.
My brain went into meltdown mode. How could this happen? Scenarios smashed through my head: a jabbed pencil, a flung toy, part of a satellite falling from space…
I never saw a thing. I had turned my head, blinked, and a kid lost his eye forever.
Selfish thoughts came, too—I imagined not just the end of my employment but the end of everything. I had failed to prevent a child from losing an eye when my only job was to prevent a child from losing an eye.
I didn’t visibly lose it, thank goodness. But I definitely went catatonic with fear.
Why the freak out? Because I failed to notice the most important details.
No blood; not a drop anywhere. He wasn’t screaming. He wasn’t even crying. He was, by all appearances, a lot calmer than me.
Take a breath, look again.
“W-w-w-what…” *gulp* “What happened?”
He leaned forward and whispered so the other kids couldn’t hear. “My pretend eye fell out.”
I glanced down at the pool, and there it was. A glass eye resting on the bottom. It winked back at me (still pretty sure that happened).
I hopped into the pool and scooped up the eye. It was the contact-shaped kind: thin, convex, and mercifully unbroken. I offered some kind words and notified a teacher, who helped him get it back in place. His parents dropped by later to offer apologies for not getting him a new eye since he’d “grown out of that one.” I apologized for not knowing about it in the first place.
I sometimes think about that pretend eye when frightened. About how I focused on the worst case scenarios instead of seeing the bigger picture. The boy with the glass eye was only four years old and a lot braver about it than me.
Take a breath, look again.
Is it really that scary?
Have you ever let your fear turn something harmless into a nightmare? I want to know! (Spiders don’t count. They are all agents of doom.)