A week ago, I bit into a day that had to do with teeth. By teeth, I mean the tooth itself as it grows in but also when it gets drilled or even yanked out. It began when little TJ approached me by the school gate,  stood in my path, and held the right side of his face.

My tooth hurts, he said. Open your mouth, said I. Then, under noon sun, on the lower right, I saw one tooth with a hole, ringed by black and brown. A huge cavity! “TJ, I can just about see through to your brain.” I knew that tooth would have to get drilled or come out.

The grind continued. Kids came to the office with teeth falling out or getting chipped from chin-to-jaw collisions. Late in the afternoon, I heard one of my staff members  comparing her colleague to a bad tooth. “Someone needs to yank that sucker out of here and throw her out the window.” Her co-worker fired back ,”Then what? Pull her out and throw her away and an even crookeder one will just grow back in her place.”

By the end of the day, I could recite the tooth’s life cycle up to its final rest on the steel tray in a dentist’s office. I called another principal on the phone that evening and mentioned the message I had received from my encounters with teeth. She added: “Two years to pull it out and then you’ll have to tear out part of the jaw just to make sure.”

Ah yes. So much wisdom! From all, I pulled six little lessons that went something like this:

  • One bad tooth, chipped, rotted or otherwise out of whack, sucks the attention away from every other thing.
  • A good tooth – the one that sits side by side with the bad – goes ignored.
  • Pain from a bad tooth spreads quickly.
  • Whenever you tug hard on anything, everything around it gets torn.
  • Give a child an hour with a bad tooth and he will give anything to have it pulled..

But the comment from my co-worker comparing a person to a bad tooth that, even when yanked, would return more crooked than before, went to the root. Activist Julia “Butterfly” Hill, once asked “When you say you’re going to throw something away — where’s away? There is no away.”  Throw, yank, pluck, or pull. If you tell me – out of sight means out of mind – I might say sure, but just for a little while.

Painful stuff shifts around and changes places. The discomfort sticks around. Learning to contend with what is and inviting wisdom that comes from the quiet service of the good teeth – patient, humble, going unseen and under appreciated, may open the way for a bad tooth to reveal truths about the unsung merits of everything (and everyone) else.


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