Thursday, April 1, 2010

Milk Teeth and Muscle Men

My morning at school today started in vivid technicolor.  Walking past the boys washroom, I saw one of the prep students bent over the sink, dripping long strings of bloody gore from an empty tooth socket.  A crowd of small boys stood around him, buzzing with admiration. Catching sight of me in the mirror, he straightened up with a jump, and the whole pack bounded out to intercept me.
            "Miss!  Miss!  I pulled my tooth!  See?  I pulled it!  All by myself!"
            He certainly had. It was a very nice tooth. All white and shiny and quite definitively detached. I congratulated him warmly and shooe'd him off toward the front office to spread the good word - and hopefully find a cotton plug to stop the bleeding.
            Warm congratulations are important.

When I was small, I hated to pop balloons, not because of the noise, but because the noise was coming. I couldn't bear the tension and I couldn't bear to end it.  I over-anticipated.
            I played the same game with my teeth - I could worry over a loose tooth for days.  I'd probe it gingerly with my tongue, drinking in the spidery knowledge of apogee: would it let go with this push?  With this one?
            I remember the night I lost my own first front tooth.  I had nursed it for almost a week - I could turn it three hundred and sixty degrees with my tongue, feeling it rasp across the top of the new tooth growing up beneath it. It finally came out the night of my primary school's annual production. Riding a wave of first-night adrenalin, I pushed it - once, sharply- and it fell out into my hand.  Just like that.  So simple. So - complete.
            The admiration of my classmates was very sweet, but when my teacher came over to us (her attention yanked away from irrelevant tasks like seating parents and checking sound levels on the stereo)  I was taken aback by her lack of enthusiasm.  She was not merely unimpressed, she was actually irritated.
            How could she?  This was one of the BIG ones - my first front tooth - I was moving UP in the world - I was becoming a BIG Girl.  I handed her the precious tooth and asked her to please look after it for me because my costume didn't have pockets.  She took it, rather reluctantly, and put it, rather coldly, on top of an amplifier and told me she'd "do her best" to remember it after the show.
          That year we had a great production - the Big Top. Lights swooped and dipped across the audience as we all came on, dressed as lions and tigers and sword swallowers and elephants and singing:
            "Hey, there! Hoop-la! the circus is in town!
            Have you seen the elephant? Have you seen the clown?
            Have you seen the dappled horse gallop round the ring?
           Have you seen the acrobats on the dizzy swing?
           Have you seen the tumbling men tumble up and down?
          Hoop-la! Hoop-la! the circus is in town!"
            We were all of us a little drunk on it - we'd never heard of Ringling or Barnum or Bailey but our under-cover play area was a real circus tent that night.  The gym rope laid on the ground to make a circus ring was bright-painted barricades under the bright lights, with elephants and dancing horses on the other side.  Our parents were great sea of faces - a whole town gathered to see us make magic in the painted ring.
            I was a Lovely Assistant to the Strong Man. Shining in my nicest party dress, I pushed his barbell out into the circle of lights. It was so heavy that I could hardly move it and when the Strong Man, with his third great heave, lifted it high above his head, the audience leapt to their feet and shouted their applause until the tin roof rang. The joke was on the audience; they didn't know that the weights were actually plastic milk containers disguised with paper-mache.  The other Lovely Assistant pressed her hand to her mouth and giggled behind her fingers, but I was twisted into knots inside.  Would my teacher remember my tooth?  Would someone else find it, sweep it off the amplifier, discard it as rubbish, not recognizing it for the very important thing that it was?
            As the final song swept us out of the ring, I got ready to bolt.  Hurdling high-divers and high-stepping horses, I raced over to the corner with the amplifier, and saw my teacher there, picking up my tooth and folding it carefully into a sheet of paper.  Turning, she looked at me and smiled a very adult smile.
            "This is yours."  She said, with what I recognize now as irony and sympathy - both together.
I loved her forever and ever.
            I still that tooth in a box - a tiny scrap of ivory, together with the other teeth that the tooth fairy collected and saved in her dresser drawer and gave to me later- when I'd grown up.  They are my milk teeth - they are the me that was six years old and a school production was bigger and brighter than all the lights of Broadway, and losing a tooth was the grandest, most momentous event imaginable.

            Hey, there! Hoop-la! Here's the circus troupe!

            Here's the educated, dog jumping through the hoop.
            See the lady Blondin with the parasol and fan,
            The lad upon the ladder and the india-rubber man.
            See the joyful juggler and the boy who loops the loop.
            Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Here's the circus troupe!

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