Alright, kiddos: A few weeks ago I took Part III of the National Board of Examiners in Optometry exam. The morning started at 5:45 a.m., and I was en route to the airport for my flight to Charlotte, N.C. But let’s be real, I didn’t sleep that well because anticipation and anxiety are the thieves of rest. The trick, I’ve discovered, is to set your alarm to something that doesn’t immediately upset you when it goes off. Personally, I wake up to Beyonce’s “Love on Top.”
Half of you think I’m joking—I assure you, I’m not.
Luckily I have fallen asleep in my contact lenses without washing off my make-up, so I’m pretty much ready. OK, now I am joking. Kind of.
Aside: Don’t sleep in your contacts. Just like your dentist can tell you don’t floss, we can all spot the non-compliant contact lens wearer, even the immaculate one looking back at me in the mirror this morning.
The train to O’Hare is surprisingly uneventful. No one is singing, being offensive, soliciting, or even making awkward eye contact with me. Is it weird that I’m bothered by this? Normal train rides are the worst. Then it occurs to me, maybe I’m the weird one on the train.
For once I know what terminal I’m supposed to go to, and I march confidently towards my gate. I’m not one to brag, because I have so few marketable skills, but I will say no one can pack a carry-on suitcase and breeze through security like me. In a flash, I am shoe-less, belt-less, coin-less. Laptop’s out, liquids in their baggie, I’m waiting to get full-body scanned. Ain’t nobody got time for pat-downs.
When boarding time comes, I am rudely reminded how divided a society we really are. Sure, when we were going through security we may have all been equals, standing in our socks and watching our worldly possessions slide away in front of us. But when the plane gets to boarding, the reality of the world sets in. First Class. Gold Class. Platinum Rewards. Star Alliance. Moon Alliance. By the time they announce Pluto Rewards Members are invited to board the plane, I’m quite sure this is a joke. Finally, I’m the only one standing there and the flight attendant smiles sweetly and announces that “All other guests are welcomes to board!”
Please. Just say, “Siva. Get on the plane.”
The flight to Charlotte is beautiful. I love seeing the majestic skyline of Chicago appear through the mist, a soft sulfurous glow lighting the city as it begins to stir awake. I spend the entire flight reading the Candidate Guide and going over the NBEO stations in my head. I scare the lady sitting next to me by miming the injections prep (but to be fair, I’m relying on muscle memory and not much else).
Charlotte is wonderful. It has all the qualities of a hidden gem. The Southern charm is legit—what other airport has white wooden rocking chairs, for goodness sake?! My hotel has freshly baked cookies, and my room has a Jacuzzi. I spend the afternoon exploring downtown Charlotte and getting acquainted with the area. It’s such a beautiful day, everyone I pass by smiles and calls me m’aam, and I’m so happy that I momentarily forget why I’m here. As time ticks closer to my exam, the nerves set in–butterflies in my basket, and the like. I decide to calm myself down by watching the E! Network. This backfires immediately because I am unnecessarily invested in Khloe and Lamar and I fear their imminent divorce.
I decide it’s time to use the Jacuzzi.
So I crawl into it with my notes and study in there.
What, you thought I wasn’t going to use the Jacuzzi?! Have you met me?!
At 11:30 a.m. the following day, I make my walk to the testing center. I remark again how beautiful Charlotte is: The leaves, turned a burnished bronze, are gently falling. A soft breeze plays with the ends of my hair, the air is warm and sweet. Everyone is yielding to pedestrians without so much as a honk. Again, the nerves dissipate and I think, “What is there to be nervous about?”
The National Center of Clinical Testing in Optometry is amazing. They really know what they are doing. Aside from all the standardized patients being called Mr. or Mrs. Lee, everything is exactly what you’d expect it to be. While it may be strange to call a middle-aged woman “Mr. Lee,” it’s hardly the weirdest thing I’ve been asked to do. Every question you could possibly think of has been answered to your satisfaction before your brain has even finalized the question. They literally have an answer to soothe your nerves regardless of the situation. I swear they have a protocol if a three-legged dog comes into the testing center while you are doing gonio. And it’s probably rational, to the point, and thorough. It probably goes along the lines of, “Candidates will be given a time delay until said three-legged dog is escorted off the premises. Then you may resume gonioscopy. No extra time will be given if you choose to pat the dog.”
As the seven other candidates and I filed into the waiting room and took our seats, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a similar situation during optometry school interviews four years prior. Interviews were a trip. In fact, in some ways I feel like it was just yesterday that I was standing there in my freshly purchased suit, squirming under the pressure, hoping desperately to get into the program. In other ways, the worries of interviewing seem like decades ago. I can barely remember what’s on the OAT exam, let alone why I cared so much about that silly little number.
What I do remember is the silence being thick, and the all-encompassing feeling of apprehension hovering over our nervous little heads. I remember at every school there were a bunch of other nameless suits like myself, all looking around at each other, not making eye contact but desperately trying to break the ice at the same time. I remember at one school there was a girl who looked so pale I thought she might pass out. I remember another guy wearing what can only be described as tan Crocs with laces. I remember one girl getting into a fight with another girl about NoCal versus SoCal, and then they asked me to weigh in and I said I was Canadian and they both stopped talking, as though I had announced I was from Jupiter and my people had sent me to discover Earth. I wonder what schools they ended up at.
In fact, I often wonder what other schools are like. What if I had fallen in love with Mr. Tan Crocs at School A? If I went to School B, would I have a more fitted white coat like the girl to my left? Would I have joined the NoCal versus SoCal debate at School C and burned a thousand bridges? In truth, there is no point worrying about what might have been. And let’s be real kids, we all know ICO is best.
But something about the eight of us sitting in that waiting room, patiently watching the clock, kept stirring up memories of starting this optometric journey. It seems oddly fitting to be in a similar setting now, watching the process come full circle. Here we all were, nameless strangers once more, all vying for that common goal. The feeling is the same, assembled into a downtown building in an unfamiliar city, covertly checking each other out, trying to gauge the situation and then deciding it’s best to keep your head down and look at your lap. I notice then that my white coat has a Fluress stain. Classic Siva.
During interviews, at every school, after the silliness of grades, GPA and OATs are addressed, the meatier question finally gets asked. “Why optometry?”
Everyone we know has a good answer, because deep down, everyone chose this profession to help others. Everyone–even my arch-nemesis. In a divided and increasingly apathetic world, it is a wonder to think that in the last four years, we have been surrounded by people who have been genuinely motivated by selflessness. That’s pretty damn cool. I love me some stock brokers, but I doubt their formal schooling was as virtuous.
I chose optometry because I happened upon a CBC documentary and it made all the little cogs in my brain click, all at once. The documentary was called “Ray of Light” and it followed a man named Dr. Chandrasekhar Sankurathri. He lost his wife and two young children in a bombing on Air India in 1985. Feeling without purpose, Dr. Sankurathri returned to the small village in Andra Pradesh, India where his wife was from. He found a community gripped in the claws of poverty, overwhelmed by a lack of access to education and healthcare. It’s hard to imagine the reality of this, when the majority of us have access to so much so easily.
And so Dr. Sankurathri built a school for children, named after his daughter, Sarada. He built an eye clinic named after his son, Srikiran. Buses transport children to the school in the morning, where they thrive. Not a single student to date has failed or dropped out. At night, the same buses gather local citizens crippled by eye diseases ranging from diabetic retinopathy to cataracts to uncorrected refractive errors and addresses their needs without charging them a penny if they can’t afford the treatment. To date, the Srikiran Ophthalmology Institute has served 2 million people, allowing them to see again. Srikiran, by the way, means “ray of light.”
That’s why I chose optometry. I saw the documentary and felt something click in a way nothing else had. It was something I absolutely wanted to do, and to do well.
So here, almost at the end of the road, I realize one more time there is nothing to be nervous about. Just like interviews felt like the most terrifying thing in the world, Part III would be over in a flash and everything would be fine. It is just another step on the way to my dream job.
So instead of being overwhelmed, anxious, and light-headed as we walked towards the exam lanes, I felt a sense of calmness wash over me. This is what I want to be doing. And I know why.
I thought about all those who have invested in me along the way–my family, my friends, my teachers, my banker…and most of all how much I have invested in myself. All the late nights, all the pulled out hair, all the chewed-up pen tips, dried-out markers and ripped-up pieces of paper. I was ready to show Part III who was boss.
I walked into the first room and said, “Good afternoon, Mr. Lee!” and the rest, as they say, is history.
For more information on Dr. Sankurathri and the work of his foundation, visit http://msmf.ca.
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