Pete Peterson's 'The Education of an American Dreamer'

This reliance on faith in all its forms made it hard for my parents to accept my nearsighted, color-blind eyes. By the seventh grade, I was practically sitting on the teacher's lap to see the blackboard, and plunging my face deep into books to read. Every time I attended a movie in Kearney's one theater, I headed straight for the front row. When the kids chose sides for softball, I was always picked last because I couldn't see the ball well, and on winter afternoons when I played Monopoly I had to lean over the board to see how many squares my roll of the dice had bought me. "Nonsense," my mother said when I told her there might be a problem. "Your father's and my eyes are fine."

When the school nurse finally insisted that I see an optometrist, he had me look through a succession of lenses at an eye chart that became clearer and clearer as he adjusted them. Understandably, he asked to see my current glasses, to determine the advance of my nearsightedness. He was stunned when I told him I had never had glasses, but surely not as stunned as I was when, at age thirteen, I walked out with my new glasses and saw the world in focus for the first time I could remember. I had no idea I had missed so much. The cars on the street had license plates that actually bore numbers; the signs in the store windows told of shovels for sale and discount trousers, and, even from a distance, I could read the Central Cafe's neon sign: "Home of Fine Foods Since 1923." The movie theater was a block and a half from where I stood, and I could see without running to stand under the marquee that George O'Brien was playing in something called Painted Desert. At home, I picked up the afternoon newspaper from the front steps and realized I could read it without holding it inches from my face. In the days to come I learned that I didn't have to squint except when the sun was bright.

But my parents were still convinced that my eyes should have been more like theirs.

They were equally suspicious to learn that I was color-blind. In fact, my father insisted on taking the color perception test himself, and when he passed it he looked at me with doubtful disapproval. How could such a smart kid flunk such an easy test? Experiences like that dramatized the distance that grew between what I knew of the world, and what I saw my parents believed.

Adolescence sharpened still further the differences between the Greek world that my parents inhabited and the American world that I longed to join. Non-Greek girls brought out the worst of their prejudices. With no Greek girls my age in Kearney, I had to look elsewhere. But whenever I seemed interested in one of the American girls, my parents' comments were anything but civil. My mother was especially harsh, making some awful generalizations about Amerikaniki girls.

I did have one girlfriend, Jean Christman, whose father owned the town's bakery and was a regular customer at the Central Cafe. I put off telling my parents that we were going out, but I had to come clean when I wanted to take her to the high school dance. My sense is that the customer relationship softened the news just a bit, and as a result the prom came and went without too much commotion.

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