- Tuesday, December 07, 2004
When I was in the third grade, I had the worst set of buck teeth in the free world. I'm talking terminal buck teeth. (I shared in greater detail in Things Pondered.) I took a fall mouth-first when I was about five years old. With mouth wide open, I sailed into the coffee table, shoving my baby teeth against my permanent teeth lodged right behind them. Within a few days my baby teeth turned black. I braced myself for the short wait until they were sure to fall out. And that, they did.
I couldn't wait to get in my new teeth, anticipating how pearly white they'd be after a dreadful mouthful of black. Pearly white they were, but when they grew in, they grew straight out of the front of my gums because my displaced baby teeth had left them there. I need you to picture this. I'm not talking overbite here. I'm talking teeth you could set your sandwich on and save it for later. Are you seeing it?
In those days, for whatever excruciating reason, orthodontists made you live with teeth like that before they would put wires on them and force them into submission. Meanwhile your self-esteem suffered in ways no one with straight teeth can imagine. Certainly, worse things can happen, but the teasing I took during the two years I remained in that dreadful shape affected me for years. The fact is, much worse things had actually happened but they weren't nearly as overt as a mouthful of buck teeth. Factor childhood victimization into the equation, and the figures added up to some serious misery.
The climactic point of my dental crisis came in the third grade with the upcoming annual class pictures. You know, the kind with the blue background. The kind you look back on and ask, "Where was my mother?" and "What idiot let me fix my own hair?" and "What in heaven's name was I wearing?" All of you have a picture like it, so remember you own and add my buck teeth to it. Pretty, isn't it? I announced to my mom, "I'm not having my picture taken. I am absolutely not." Only I didn't say it like that. The unfortunate arrangement of my teeth left me with a decided lisp. I don't doubt I added the word "absolutely" to force a little spit into the pronouncement.
My mother returned, "You most certainly are, young lady. You are so beautiful to us. Anyway, before you know it, we're going to fix those teeth."
I said, "But I'm not going to have my picture taken until we do."
"Oh, yes, you are." In those days I'm not sure I knew I could disobey my mother, especially if she was talking "young lady" talk. She got that look anyway. And who wants to deal with that look? On second thought, how would she like to deal with my look?
I stood in the bathroom at the mirror and practiced trying to simply shut my lips together. My lips had literally not touched since my teeth had grown in fully. My goal was not to look pretty for the picture. It was trying to look normal. I thought if I could cover the hideous things, I'd look like everyone else. No, I wouldn't be able to smile, but perhaps I'd just look like a more serious and mature child. Meditative. Dramatic. Even exotic. Years later people would look at our elementary school yearbook and muse, "We should have all known what a serious thinker she was. Just look at her even then." Yep, that was the plan.
I practiced until my lips were sore. I worked until I finally had a look I thought I could tolerate. At that point in my life, I kept my left hand over my face constantly. (Incidentally, when I'm upset, or when I'm feeling insecure, my family tells me I still tend to put my left hand over my mouth.) During the third grade, I even held my paper down on my desk with my left elbow, held my hand over my mouth, and wrote with my right hand. To any rational thinker, this was no time for a picture, but no mother's love is rational, is it? Neither is their eyesight accurate.
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