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Teeth teach wisdom
“Well, how does everything look?” I asked my son as he placed his wallet and keys in their customary spot in the kitchen. Now that he’s driving, he had announced earlier in the day that he was more than capable of getting himself to the dentist for his semi-annual cleaning. I wholeheartedly agreed.
“Things are looking pretty good, but he says it’s time to visit the oral surgeon. I don’t have room for my wisdom teeth.” At that he shrugged, puffed out his cheeks as if he were swollen, and hurried in the next room to play Xbox before dinner.
I smiled as I fixed dinner. Not only has Dan benefited from seeing both of his sisters survive routine oral surgery, but he’s a guy. He was business as usual and I was left to contemplate how I felt, 6 years ago, as I watched our eldest daughter walk back to the oral surgeon’s operating room for the same surgery my husband and I both survived as 16-year-olds.
While Matt had looked calm as a cucumber I had experienced nervousness. Why? After all, Megan was not heading into a torture chamber and we had chosen a surgeon with years of experience. When I got to thinking about it, the surgery served as a rite of passage, for it is common to hear teenagers talk of “happy gas,” stitches, and swelling.
I had worried a bit more about Megan because she had never required any dental work other than routine cleanings. She had been blessed with trusty enamel and early on had earned the nickname “Brush Queen.” How would she handle the shots and the tugging?
Today, after 22 years of parenting, I have learned that I can talk to my children until I’m blue in the face about how courageous I know they can be. My kids have come to expect that kind of support from me. But I also know that it is sometimes best for them to face new, age-appropriate experiences on their own. If I hover too closely they conclude that my strength has gotten them through the experience. I have robbed them of an opportunity to grow in character.
When Megan slowly walked back into the waiting room some time later, with a crooked semi-smile and a dental assistant supporting one arm, we were bonded in a new way: We were wisdom teeth survivors! I anticipate the same rush of feelings when I bring Dan home to recuperate.
I experienced that same satisfaction as a child 40 years ago when I, too, walked to the dental chair alone. Only in my case it was a Saturday and Dr. Ashrow had been summoned by my near-hysterical mother. Her dinner party was scheduled to begin in two hours when I ran through the kitchen covering an injured mouth with one hand and holding pieces of both permanent front teeth in the other.
Upon learning that I had fallen forward while racing down the street on my brother’s steel-wheeled skateboard, Mom grabbed the phone and Dad nailed the skateboard to the ceiling of the garage. My brother disowned me for a time.
Dr. Ashrow focused on the heart of the matter: My severely injured tooth needed to be protected and remain as undisturbed as possible. If I was willing to wear a metal tooth cover he felt confident the roots would heal. After braces I could have both front teeth capped to match my other teeth.
I was 9 years old and agreed to the plan. When I look back on pictures of myself, with the gleam of that silver tooth punctuating every smile, I am surprised I was given the freedom to choose. I am equally surprised I chose that ugly metal cap. It was the best, but the hardest choice to make.
Over the years I heard every silver tooth joke. I strengthened rather than wilted. I give credit to my parents who allowed the situation to be my teacher and encouraged me to look beyond the pettiness and insensitivity of some of the kids around me. They stand in stark contrast to the mother I saw interviewed this week who argued that the breast enhancement surgery she financed for her 16-year-old was essential to improving her self esteem.
I also credit God, who showed me over time that good lessons — like compassion for others and less self-consciousness — resulted from my third grade tooth challenge.
The choice to incorporate faith backs up all the facts we Christians like to talk about. And it is essential, for if we forget to translate biblical facts into practical ways to approach and respond to daily challenges, faith seems meaningless. We rob ourselves and everyone else of the chance to experience God. To witness His activity. To discover His lessons. To savor our own growth.
Let’s look for God this week and identify His work in our lives, that we may become stronger and wiser through it all.