Monday, March 21, 2011


I've never had a perfect smile. I thankfully avoided the pain and suffering of wearing braces through my childhood, but there were other tribulations to be had with my teeth.

Around the time of puberty when my face started taking shape of the adult skull it would become, my jaws started acting funny. Occasionally I would yawn and my lower jaw would painfully spasm and become stuck open. The only way to get it to close was to open it wider or wait for the excruciating seconds to pass before the muscle would calm down and I could once again close my mouth. After a few months of this, I had had enough. My mother took me to the orthodontist to get things checked out.

I can't remember what he said the issue was. What I can remember is that he prescribed a "stint," a yellow, opaque plastic retainer that I would have to wear constantly for the first three months of the treatment. The retainer only extended halfway up my teeth and was very thick and clearly noticeable. I despised wearing it. I rarely spoke for those months, not wanting to open my mouth to reveal the hideousness inside. I was already heckled for having a gigantic head. Balloon boy, they called me. They didn't need any additional ammunition. Thankfully after my sentence had elapsed I was released on probation, only having to wear it to sleep.

My teeth aren't particularly straight either. Most of my teeth are crooked, the front two being the worst. They used to be quite a bit more crooked, but thanks to some cheap dental work from a line drive to my mouth, they straightened up a bit. I was playing third base. The ball was hit hard at my feet and bounced quicker than I could react. It hit me so hard it nearly drove my teeth through my front lip, but I was only out for an inning before coach put me back in.

The worst experience with my dental history is probably when I had to have my wisdom teeth taken out. I was experiencing rather severe headaches, and after a few x-rays, the orthodontist said they were growing in against my jaw bone and needed to come out.  My sister had previously had hers removed, and I clearly remember listening to her sob uncontrollably from her bedroom for hours after her surgery, followed by sipping soup and eating jello for a week.

I was certainly not looking forward to that experience.

The surgery was pretty quick, and I don't remember any of it, including waking up. According to my dad (the one elected to take the day off and drive me to and from the office,) when they brought me out of the anesthesia, the nurses told me to be very careful and take small steps so I didn't fall. On the walk to the car, one nurse flanked my left side with my dad on the right for support. Remembering to be careful, I began taking small steps. Apparently I took the nurse too seriously, as each step was approximately one inch farther than the last. It took me 15 minutes to get to the car.

The waiting room cheered when they shut the car door.

On the way home, I remember finally becoming conscious of my surroundings, but I couldn't see. My eyes had crossed and no matter how hard I tried to focus, would not come uncrossed. My mouth was packed full of gauze, and when I tried to tell my dad that I couldn't see, or that I was hungry, he couldn't understand my muffled pleas. I had learned a little sign language that summer, so I tried some of that out as well. By little, I mean words like giraffe and keyboard. No syntax, grammar or anything that would really benefit me in this situation. Of course, my father does not know any sign language whatsoever, so my mumbled huffs and interpretive dance from the passenger seat were lost on him.

To make things worse, 25 yards from the on ramp to the interstate, the car died. I motioned to my dad that I could steer while he pushed, but considering I couldn't see straight or convey my thoughts to him, it probably was not the best idea. Thankfully a nice man came and helped dad push it off to the side of the road. My uncle (the mechanic) worked at a Ford dealership five minutes down the road, so we lucked out there.

I haven't had too many teeth-related issues since then. But occasionally, while intoxicated, I still attempt to speak in my own dialect of sign language.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Devil Made Me Do It

What's the best way to make children do stuff? Presents.

Or, in the case of my elementary school, trips to the roller rink. That place was made of magic.

In Kentucky, during the beginning years of KERA (Kentucky Education Reform Act,) teachers were forced to increase our scores on state testing or experience the wrath of the state legislature through fund slashing and lay offs. One way that schools attempted to increase our critical thinking skills and reading comprehension was through a program called "Accelerated Reader." Each student, at the discretion of their teacher, was given a point goal for each trimester/semester that he/she was to reach. Students earned points by reading literature and then taking a standardized test on a computer that would quiz them over specifics from the book, and for students in higher grades, ploy analysis and questions about theme and voice. The larger, more difficult the read, the more points it was worth.

The system worked pretty well. It was difficult to cheat, as there was always someone in the computer lab making sure you weren't looking the answers up in a book or asking a friend while taking the test. In some grades there were "Accelerated Reader Stores," where you could cash in points for cool prizes like Troll pencil toppers and Dollar Store sunglasses.

But not every day was full of cheaply made slinkies and star-shaped erasers. In the 7th grade, my teacher (a hard ass named Mrs. Patrick) had assigned me 40 points for the trimester. This was a pretty hefty amount, one of the higher ones in the class, but I knew I could do it. I decided to work the system: I would read John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," a book worth 48 points if you scored 100% on the test, and that would be the only book I would have to read that trimester. Even if I only missed three questions, I would still get at least 38 points, and I could read four Dr. Seuss books and take the tests for the remaining two points. I didn't take into account that the book was pretty dense reading, and though it was listed as an 8th grade level read, it was much heavier than my attention-destitute mind could handle. It took the entire eight weeks to read the book, and in the final days of the trimester, I took the test. I missed four of the 10 questions, giving me a 60% and earning me zero points.

I had screwed the pooch.

I was embittered. Incensed. Frustrated. I began badmouthing my teacher, saying how much I hated her and wished she would die. Why would she give me such a high point goal? She wouldn't let me retake the test. Such a bitch.

When report cards rolled out the next week, I expected to see my first ever F. I had even forewarned my parents that they wouldn't be pleased with the grade.

She The saint gave me a C. After all the nasty things I had said, she took pity on me because she knew I had worked hard and had almost received the score I needed to get points. I can't remember if I ever thanked her for that. I do remember later that year she had a stroke and had to be removed from the teaching team for a while, and my poor little worrisome mind couldn't help but think/know that I had something to do with her near-death experience.

But I tell you that story as a precursor to this one. Three years earlier, in the 5th grade, for all the students who achieved their point goals for the grading period, the teachers had planned a trip to the roller rink. That was the cool thing to do at the time, since none of us could drive and really, even if we could, the most exciting thing to do was go to the truck stop and talk to other people who had nothing else to do.


But I digress. We went to the Skate-Away, as it was called. At least before it tragically burned down and left numerous disco-loving roller skaters without a place to boogie. I couldn't roller skate at the time, only roller blade, so I brought my own awesome black roller blades with purple snaps. I was so cool. I enjoyed my time thoroughly, rolling around while listening to the "DJ" (read 45-year-old divorcé, most likely still living at home with his parents) play Kool and the Gang's "Celebration" at least five times. Then it was time to leave.

This trip took place in the dreary days of December, with temperatures dipping low and a thick fog settling over everything. When we got onto the bus, we noticed the windows were all coated with condensation. I took my seat beside my then-friend Travis, a fragile little ginger with his orange hair cut into what looked like a speed skater helmet.

Travis had also noticed the condensation and saw others drawing faces or writing their names in it throughout the bus. We were seated a little more than halfway back in the bus, with the teachers at the front. Travis nudged me, looked over at the window, and said, "Bet you won't write the F word backwards on the window." 

This was make or break time. Travis wasn't very high on the social ladder, but hell, neither was I. I had two choices: wimp out and tell him I didn't want to get in trouble, or do it and live in infamy.

I chose the latter. 

I made it probably 3/4s of the way through the backward C when I was interrupted by my name being shrieked out of the mouth of one of the teacher's assistants. The entire bus turned at once to gawk at me. 

Turning my head slowly, finger still on the glass, my eyes met hers. Her expression told me exactly what her mouth did not say: get rid of it. I quickly wiped the window with my sleeve and all evidence of my crime was gone. I crossed my arms and brooded the rest of the ride home, half annoyed that I got caught, and 75% terrified of the punishment I would receive. 

Yes, I was 125% ed.

We got back to school and my teacher told me that I needed to go to the principal's office immediately. 

Dr. Pate was a terrifying man: 6'5"; broad shouldered; skin made of leather; deep, booming voice. The mere thought of having to stand in front of him made me pee a little. I got to his office and found him sitting behind the desk. Before he could even get out a syllable, the water works started. Tears poured forth from my eyes like rain from angry clouds, and were controlled about as easily. He glanced up from his work, looked perturbed, and asked what I did. A jarbled mess of words and snot came out, but I think I got the basics across. He looked at me with a bit of a smirk and asked, "Did the devil make you do it?" Travis did somewhat resemble the devil in my mind, so I nodded yes and wiped my nose on my sleeve. He excused me from his office and sent me back to my teacher's classroom. 

When my sister came down to pick me up and take me home, my teacher met her at the door and explained what had happened. I was still crying, and furiously scribbling "I will never do bad things again," repeatedly onto a tear soaked sheet of paper. My sister asked if that was the punishment the principal had given me and my teacher shook her head. There had been no punishment. I was punishing myself. 

I was such a badass.