Few things are as traumatic to the prepubescent community as orthodontia. Gym class, maybe. Impending puberty itself, certainly. But when it comes to the apparently arbitrary infliction of humiliation and pain, nothing quite beats a gleaming new set of braces.
This experience is specific to a certain generation, I think. Many of us caught an intermediate wave of orthodontia after the practice became very widespread, but before they worked out all the kinks. Generation X, we used to be called, but now that we’re 30-somethings, no one has a name for us anymore. The Boomers annexed the 30-something tag 20 years ago, but no one calls them 50-somethings now. Now we call them “The Generation That’s Going To Detonate Social Security in the US”.
Anyway, the point is, there’s a planet full of kind and decent people who, as children, were terribly abused. We were the lab rats and guinea pigs for a nascent industry called orthodontia. Incredibly expensive, extremely painful. Good times.
I was a victim myself. In sixth grade, it was determined that I had a dangerous overbite, and I was promptly dispatched to Dr. Sam Forster, DDS, who had a cozy little office down the way. Dr. Forster seemed a kindly enough old man at first. He gave me little paddle-ball and tile-puzzle toys whenever I came in, and always ruffled my hair in the manner of hair-ruffling adult types everywhere. He also had a brilliant propensity for inflicting pain. I’m convinced now that Dr. Forster was a man born out of his natural era. His talents really belonged in the Middle Ages somewhere.
Man, I hated those braces. The next three years were an era of fairly constant dull aching, punctuated by regular visits to the good doctor to get the things tightened. I remember clearly my first few visits, looking up at Dr. Forster as he worked and wondering, how did this come to pass? What series of bad decisions had I made to end up here? This man is turning a screw in my mouth with a wrench. Does Amnesty International know about these guys?
It got worse. Besides the grinding bone-pain, braces in those days also more or less tore the inside of your mouth to shreds. Sort of like Cap’n Crunch cereal, but with deeper, cleaner cuts. My understanding is braces these days are much more humane—still metal, maybe, but with strategically placed plastic parts and rounded edges. Not so, back in the day. Braces were hard, sharp, and made from industrial iron scrap. Imagine having a length of rusting barbed wire superglued to your teeth. At least, that’s my recollection.
What’s more, I was given tiny little rubber bands and ordered to attach them to various hooks glued to my teeth. This lent a creepy, drooling aspect to my smile, and caused my mouth to literally snap shut. Was there no end to these indignities?
Naturally, I rarely wore the stupid rubber bands. I did discover, however, that they made for the perfect covert classroom projectile. You could cock one of them around your knuckle in such a way as to peg a librarian up to 30 feet away simply by straightening your index finger. Amazing thing, really. They were quite accurate. My little bags of rubber bands got used up in a hurry as I armed all my friends.
Frankly, I needed the allies. Junior high kids are famously cruel and inventive, and when I showed up wearing braces, I quickly won a nickname. Tommy Milchner, being hip in a sixth-grade way to obscure James Bond villains, called me “Jaws”. I would win my revenge a year later when Tommy himself suffered the ultimate disgrace—one of those wraparound headgear “appliances.” Cleverly, I called him “Tommy the Assclown”. Such is the karmic ebb and flow of childhood discourse.
At any rate, I gradually settled into the routine, resigned to my fate. Even at that tender age, I had a keen sense of opportunism. A soft complaint at the dinner table often earned me extra ice cream. I also convinced my mom that a waterpik was critical to proper oral hygiene. This resulted in many happy hours hosing down the much-despised family cat.
Perhaps the worst part, though, was the seemingly interminable nature of the ordeal. At first, I was told I would only have to wear braces for six months. Then six became nine, and nine became a year. At that point I was told another six months would absolutely do the trick. It was a lie. They were all lies.
Psychologically, it was brutally effective. I came to assume that all adults lied all the time. This stance served me well when, later and to my parents still-smoldering lament, I discovered punk rock and marijuana. “You have only yourselves to blame!” I would shout. (To myself, in my room, when no one was home. I was a relatively gentle punk.)
The day finally came when my braces were to be permanently removed. I remember my mom gave me $20 for being such a brave little man for so long, and truth be told, I did feel handsomer somehow. Dr. Forster used a variety of tools to pry the metal from my teeth, leaving a gritty residue of three-year-old adhesive—the same stuff they now use to attach ceramic heat shields to orbiting satellites. Actually, I don’t know that for sure, but it stands to reason.
My mom thanked Dr. Forster and we gathered up our stuff to leave. I added a few more little plastic toys to my bag, and headed out for the final time. At the very last minute, just as my mom turned her back and opened the door, I wheeled around and hard as I could kicked that bastard Forster right in the shin. To his credit, he never squealed, and I think we both recognized that some sort of cosmic balance had finally been struck.
Ah, yes. Sweet memories. There’s a rather fantastic picture my Mom recently unearthed of me going to some junior high dance. I’m wearing a 1980s vintage skinny tie and a Members Only knockoff jacket. My hair is carefully feathered, and I’m standing in front of my Billy Squier poster in my bedroom. My date, I think her name was Dawn, is standing awkwardly next to me (we were far too nervous to touch one another, and when we danced later that night, I remember employing the straight-arm zombie-like stance particular to those tender years.) We’re both smiling into the camera with a mouthful of braces, and there’s actually a glare from the flashbulb reflecting off the damn things.
I showed the picture to my nephew the other day. He’s getting the new “invisible” braces, made from some gentle space-age polymer. Looking at the photo, he smirked. “Nice hair. Are those sparklers in your mouth?”
The kids today. What are you gonna do?