orthodontia and teaching

I hate going to the orthodontist, not because I’m the one in the reclined chair looking up into the upside-down eyes of the syrupy technician in pink (on Tuesdays; another corresponding color for each different day of the week), but because of what they do to my child, the one who’s actually in the recliner. Anna calls it the torture chair, and for good reason. With tools and hardware that look little different from wire snips and scraps of metal from my garage, they screw and tension various pieces and then insist that my daughter additionally string various pieces of elastic from one rivet to another within her mouth, all to supply additional strain on the structural system within her head. Worse yet, they originally told her that she’d likely be done with this two months ago, but somehow each visit requires a different adjustment, a different estimate, and all the while she’s told that she’s a model caretaker of her mouth, her sentence is continually drawn out. Additionally insulting, I pay installments that add up to an amount that could get the family to Disneyland and back.

I told Anna, in complete seriousness, that she is welcome to burst out and call the orthodontist an asshole if she wants, especially if he extended her treatment any further. I was perfectly clear that this would be completely unacceptable in every other case, but if she wanted to take advantage of this pass, even a little, she should take advantage. I would happily back her up.*

During our last visit, I was sitting there wondering what exactly had brought me to this level of disdain. Surely, there’s benefit that my daughter’s receiving, and even the family dentist pointed out the bite and the structure of her mouth and the necessity in all this (although it’s completely likely that the dentist and the orthodontist are in cahoots, the assholes). It’s not like I don’t make sure my children receive shots and teeth cleanings and visits with grandparents — all uncomfortable endeavors in one way or another. I don’t subject my children or myself to pain because I think it builds character, but because there’s some other benefit that I can’t provide for them myself. So why the disdain for the orthodontist?

And then it occurred to me: It’s because the orthodontist doesn’t love my child. He only loves straight teeth.

That’s a ridiculous standard, I know. The orthodontist is, at best, a technician. He knows dental structures, and with each visit he becomes a wizard of the diagnostics, a twist to the left and the adjustment to the right, we’ll see you in four weeks. He is not caring for my child, not her whole being. He is treating Anna’s mouth the same way the tire guy aligns the front end of a car, albeit with less efficiency and greater cost. What else should I expect?

I expect something else because I send my children to places, each day, where teachers don’t just diagnose problems with pieces of them, but love them for their entire person.** When the Newtown shooting tragedy occurred, many of us were reminded of the dedication that teachers have for the kids and their protection, but in retrospect it’s no surprise. I’ve seen teachers counsel, bandaid, advise, hug, and teach fractions. Teachers show us our children in ways that we haven’t yet discovered them, and they embrace the diversity of the classroom and the variations that any individual brings to the school on a given day.

When I was taking my first course in education, I was transitioning from a degree in “hard sciences” to the softness of teaching and learning. The class was asked, one student at a time, why they were pursuing education. I’d said that I loved physics and loved figuring out how to explain it; most every other person there described how much they loved children, or people, or interactions, or some other actually meaningful sentiment that contrasted my own. I looked at them, these aliens, not comprehending. I’ve since changed my stance — I realized I actually like people and their stories and their struggles, as well as the physics, and I love the mess that we make when those are all intertwined. Looking back on that, though, I wonder what a room full of budding, zealous orthodontists would say about why they pursue their own profession. “I love children” is not what they’d say. I know simply based on the exchanges and small talk before wires are examined and tightened. This guy doesn’t know Anna; he knows braces.

And so, he’s an asshole. But it’s all relative, and I’ve put him up against the incredibly high standard of the teachers that I entrust my kids to every day. There are kids in there with crooked teeth, but their whole selves are loved, nurtured, and taught.


*On the day she gets her braces removed, the office and all its staff will have a parade for her throughout the suite, serpentining around the reclined chairs and ducking under the dental lamps. They’ll ask her what kind of parade she’d like to have, and I think I should also give her permission to just flip them off, waving fingers in the air as she leads the parade out of the building and on our way to go get caramel apples.

**The school district and various other efforts try their best to subvert this and reduce the educational system to a collection or orthodontists, but the teachers, I’m quite sure, outsmart them and continue to educate whole children.

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