Once when I was a boy of six or seven years, I went through a period of drawing faces. I don’t remember what sparked it; maybe we were making self-portraits in school. In any case, it led me to conduct an experiment in which, for a time, my young life took on the embarrassing task of imitating art.
Now, an adult who views portraits drawn by young children can see that the images are usually constructed more from the idea of what lines and shapes go together to make a face rather than the complex arrangement required to make an illustration look truly human. For example, in the pictures I drew of myself or other people, ears often resembled half-saucers sticking out from the sides of my subjects’ heads. Noses almost always showed round flaring nostrils. I could never, as hard as I tried, get lips to look right.
Eyes, on the other hand, I felt pretty confident about even as a beginner. They were easy to draw. To make an eye, I simply put a colored circle inside a pointy white oval. Then I put a smaller black circle inside the colored circle for a pupil, a bunch of little lines for eyelashes, and voilà! Eyes anyone would recognize. Maybe sometimes they were a little too big or too close together, but the eyes themselves seemed just fine to me.
Then one morning when I was in the basement of the church where my father preached, I happened to pass by a full-length mirror. It was probably placed there so people could check to see if they looked good enough to go into the worship service. I knew by then that this was something people cared about at church.
As the minister’s kid, I had a different attitude about the place. To me, the building was a playground. I knew, for instance, that if I pulled on the double entrance doors just right, even if they were locked, I could open them and sneak into the church when no one was there. My friend Josh and I would regularly break into the church to play the organ, drink communion grape juice, and eat sugar cubes.
Like most boys that age, I used a mirror not to check whether I looked acceptable, but to test out how many different funny faces I could come up with. However, that particular morning, because I had been drawing faces so frequently, something about my own eyes caught my attention. I noticed that when I looked in the mirror, I couldn’t see the whole outline of the colored circle inside the white pointy oval. Instead, my eyelids covered part of the top and bottom of the circle, cutting it off from revealing its whole shape.
Well, that’s not right, I thought, and so I opened my eyes a bit wider. When I had them stretched open about as far as they would go, I could finally see the whole circle (what later I would learn was called the iris). There, that’s better. I kept them open that way for a bit. It took some effort, but I was glad to see that I could make my eyes look normal if I wanted to.
Then a worry crept into my head. Perhaps it was because I was standing before that particular mirror, where people prepared to look acceptable to God and one another. I could not shake the feeling that I needed to make my eyes look more normal if I was going to be around all those church people. So I decided to try something out.
I opened my eyes again as wide as I could, and I kept them that way as I walked into church and took my seat next to my sister. All through the worship service, except for the times I forgot, I kept my eyes “normal” by opening them as wide as I could. Afterwards, when it was time to get juice and cookies and mingle, I made sure to keep the whole circle inside my eyes visible as much as possible, especially if I was looking at someone.
So powerful was this image in my mind of what normal eyes looked like that not once did I actually think to pay attention to other people’s eyes to test whether my idea matched reality. Instead, I used my considerable powers of concentration to stay focused on the task of keeping my own eyes open wide at all times.
It became more and more difficult. Even with frequent blinking, my eyeballs were burning and watering. The muscles around my eyes began to ache, but I fought hard to keep them open. It’s like doing push-ups to make my arms stronger, I decided. It’s hard at first, but then my eyes would get stronger and would stay that way all the time. I would keep them open like they should be while at church, then let them rest afterward.
I couldn’t last much longer. “Mom.” I tugged at her skirt, staring at her with my watery, saucer-like eyes. “I’m going to go home now, okay?”
“Okay, go ahead,” she said without looking down. Since my dad was the preacher, we lived right next to the church. By the time I got home, my eyes had rested a little, and I felt rather proud of myself for successfully pulling off my little experiment. A little more practice, and everything would be sorted out.
Then my older brother Clint grabbed me and said, “Courtney! What were you doing in church today?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. I could feel the heat beginning to creep into my neck and ears. Maybe I hadn’t been so successful after all.
“Every time I looked at you, your eyes were open so wide. The whole time! You looked crazy!”
“Yeah! What were you doing?”
I realized in that moment that there was no way I would spell out to him the thought process behind my actions. The logical sense it made before just evaporated! It suddenly seemed so ridiculous that I knew explaining it to Clint would be a very foolish thing for me to do.
“Um, I don’t know. Nothing?” It was the best I could come up with at the time.
He stared at me for a second, laughed and shook his head at his goofy little brother. “Oookaay. If you say so.” And that, thankfully, was the end of it.
Suffice it to say, I took a closer look at people’s eyes after that, and adjusted my drawings accordingly. I still can’t get their lips to look like lips, though.