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Gristmill: Smiles All Around

Thu, 12/09/2021 - 14:22

My youngest had her braces successfully ripped from her 13-year-old jaws the other day, while I tried to nap in the orthodontist’s parking lot, kept at bay by Covid protocols.

Probably just as well, because whether I would’ve been horrified, fascinated, or just plain worried, her description of the popping sound of the glue giving way bettered any reality, imitating it by holding up her hands and cracking her knuckles.

It was a milestone, to be sure, and she sure was happy, flashing her newly pure smile for my cellphone camera, in the passenger seat’s vanity mirror, later around the house. I can’t imagine the relief, never having had such metalwork installed.

The year I lived with my father in Massachusetts, sixth grade, vivid because it was the exception, he found himself in a bizarre argument with a dental hygienist over whether my teeth had had some kind of early help in formation or alignment.

“No, that’s just the way they are,” he said, betraying an unlikely touch of genetic pride. “There was something done,” she insisted. And so on.

Fast-forward to my early 20s, when all four wisdom teeth rose to masticating prominence without a hitch. A result, I think, of my large head and the room therein. It’s elongated somewhat, not unlike an unshelled peanut, so that should I don an extra-large bicycle helmet, for example, it might be snug front to back, but will tip side to side like the tin hat of a doughboy on the run through the trenches of the Western Front.

Preparing for college graduation in Wisconsin, I recall, the cap-and-gown fitter forgot herself and commented out loud on the overlarge hat size she was recording. Confident, I goaded her: “Seen any bigger?”

She put me in my place with two words: “Steve Chan.”

So here’s a question: Does an enforced awkwardness in adolescence or preadolescence lead to future empathy? Or to anything other than self-consciousness? All three of my kids had braces, and my youngest even looked forward to them at first, but all are better adjusted than I was, each a better person than I am, which makes it hard to judge, as they shrug off the experience and move on. 

Even if my teeth were spared, as a long-haired and cherubic-faced child in the 1970s was there a single upside to being repeatedly mistaken for a girl? Seems it was a completely unnecessary humiliation.

Then one day in middle school I woke up and was 6 feet tall and 165 pounds, the baby fat gone, replaced by facial hair that, in the words of Bridgehampton’s health teacher at the time, “would take a blowtorch to get off.”

Maybe that’s a better question: Whatever happened to teachers like that?

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