When I was in the third grade, I had the worst set of buck
teeth in the free world. I’m talking terminal buck teeth. (I shared in
greater detail in Things Pondered.) I took a fall mouth-first when I was about
five years old. With mouth wide open, I sailed into the coffee table, shoving
my baby teeth against my permanent teeth lodged right behind them. Within a few
days my baby teeth turned black. I braced myself for the short wait until they
were sure to fall out. And that, they did.
couldn’t wait to get in my new teeth, anticipating how pearly white
they’d be after a dreadful mouthful of black. Pearly white they were, but
when they grew in, they grew straight out of the front of my gums because my
displaced baby teeth had left them there. I need you to picture this. I’m
not talking overbite here. I’m talking teeth you could set your sandwich
on and save it for later. Are you seeing it?
those days, for whatever excruciating reason, orthodontists made you live with
teeth like that before they would put wires on them and force them into
submission. Meanwhile your self-esteem suffered in ways no one with straight
teeth can imagine. Certainly, worse things can happen, but the teasing I took
during the two years I remained in that dreadful shape affected me for years.
The fact is, much worse things had actually _happened but they weren’t
nearly as overt as a mouthful of buck teeth. Factor childhood victimization
into the equation, and the figures added up to some serious misery.
climactic point of my dental crisis came in the third grade with the upcoming
annual class pictures. You know, the kind with the blue background. The kind
you look back on and ask, “Where was my mother?” and “What
idiot let me fix my own hair?” and “What in heaven’s name was
I wearing?” All of you have a picture like it, so remember you own and
add my buck teeth to it. Pretty, isn’t it? I announced to my mom,
“I’m not having my picture taken. I am absolutely not.” Only
I didn’t say it like that. The unfortunate arrangement of my teeth left
me with a decided lisp. I don’t doubt I added the word
“absolutely” to force a little spit into the pronouncement.
mother returned, “You most certainly are, young lady. You are so
beautiful to us. Anyway, before you know it, we’re going to fix those
said, “But I’m not going to have my picture taken until we
yes, you are.” In those days I’m not sure I knew I could disobey my
mother, especially if she was talking “young lady” talk. She got
that look anyway. And who wants to deal with that look? On second thought, how
would she like to deal with my look?
stood in the bathroom at the mirror and practiced trying to simply shut my lips
together. My lips had literally not touched since my teeth had grown in fully.
My goal was not to look pretty for the picture. It was trying to look normal. I
thought if I could cover the hideous things, I’d look like everyone else.
No, I wouldn’t be able to smile, but perhaps I’d just look like a
more serious and mature child. Meditative. Dramatic. Even exotic. Years later
people would look at our elementary school yearbook and muse, “We should
have all known what a serious thinker she was. Just look at her even
then.” Yep, that was the plan.
practiced until my lips were sore. I worked until I finally had a look I
thought I could tolerate. At that point in my life, I kept my left hand over my
face constantly. (Incidentally, when I’m upset, or when I’m feeling
insecure, my family tells me I still tend to put my left hand over my mouth.)
During the third grade, I even held my paper down on my desk with my left
elbow, held my hand over my mouth, and wrote with my right hand. To any
rational thinker, this was no time for a picture, but no mother’s love is
rational, is it? Neither is their eyesight accurate.
day came for the pictures. I stood in a long line of third graders with my
stomach in a knot. Finally, the school photographer motioned to me and said,
“Your turn!” I walked over to the place where “X”
marked the spot and stood in front of the camera . . . with my hand over my
mouth. The photographer said, “You’re going to have to put your
hand down, honey.”
asked, ”Are you ready to take the picture?”
said, “Of course.”
retort: “Then count to three.” All said with my hand over my face.
counted, “One, two, three,” and I dropped my hand. He took the
shot. I put my hand back up and scurried off.
did it!” I thought to myself victoriously. I lived through it.
“That wasn’t so bad, now was it?” I asked myself. And it
wasn’t until about six weeks later. At the very end of the school day,
the teacher pulled out a stack of pictures and placed them with a thump on her
desk. Remember the kind with the cellophane window on the front of the picture
packs? That’s the one. She passed them out one by one, mentioning our
names and oohing and aahing sweetly as she set them on each desk. When I
realized what was about to happen, my stomach turned with dread. Sure enough,
she walked over to my desk totally oblivious to the laughter that was about to
break out. She slapped my picture packet down right in front of me, face up.
one had time to see it because I fell over it immediately. No matter. They
pretended they did. In my memory it sounded like a thousand kids roared with
laughter, but I’m quite certain as an adult that it was only a few. You
know, if I hadn’t hidden my mouth all the time, they would not have been
so anxious to see it. It’s the age-old game of hide-and-seek. Anything we
try to hide, someone else will try to seek. Back in the third grade I had some
very sweet classmates, too, but somehow we have a hard time making out
encouragement in the roar of meanness, don’t we? Some of my classmates
began to make fun of me and call me by names that weren’t new to me.
was devastated. And on second thought, I was furious. It’s always more
convenient when you have someone to blame for your humiliation. A certain
someone who called me “young lady” came to my mind instantly. I
cried all the way home that day, and when I reached my house, I stomped
straight into the kitchen where my mother and grandmother were sipping their
instant Folgers. I yelled as angrily as I could, “Don’t you ever
make me do anything like that again!” I took those school pictures,
ripped them to shreds, and threw them in the trash. I accomplished just what I
intended. I made them feel as badly as I felt. Of course, now I wish I
hadn’t, but at the time I was a spout waiting to spew. Years passed and
when the last orthodontist bill was paid, I’d worn some kind of wire on
my teeth for twelve solid years. (I still have a retainer.) That’s how
long it took to fix those teeth. (My mouth has been a lifelong challenge for
God to fix.)
precious grandmother, whom I called Nanny, passed away when I was sixteen years
old. Bless Dad, she had lived with my parents since they married, so you can
imagine how much her constant presence was missed. I was in my early twenties
one day when I was visiting my mom at my parent’s home. She said,
“You’re not going to believe what I found the other day.” She
got down a box with a lid on it. On the outside of it the words
“Nanny’s Keepsakes” were written in marker in my
grandmother’s own handwriting. It was the most wonderful discovery.
asked, "Where has this been?"
explained that she’s found it in the attic in search of something else.
When Nanny knew her days were few, she apparently boxed up some treasures
she’d kept for decades so they’d all be in one place. She probably
put it in her closet, and after she died, my mother gathered up all her things
that weren’t suitable for Goodwill and put them in the attic. I’m
sure Mom didn’t have the heart to look through them closely at the time.
When she stumbled on the box in the attic years later, she’d forgotten it
not had a chance to really look through it. I’ve just taken the top off.
Let’s you and I take a look,” Mom said. It was just like finding a
royal box of buried treasure. Inside was my grandfather’s bookkeeping ledger.
He was a lawyer during the Great Depression. I was so intrigued by the kinds of
things he recorded as his payment for services. On many of the spaces for
payments received, he’d written “the eggs or the ham.” No
charge. On the box were letters my Nanny’s sons had written her while
overseas in World War II. Precious things. Priceless things. Things that
defined her better than any written biography ever could. I found her Bible,
marked with her own red pen. For the length of time I shared a feather bed with
her, I remember a rare night when I didn’t go to sleep with her reading
God’s Word right next to me.
could not believe what treasures were spread before us from the box marked
“Nanny’s Keepsakes.” I pulled every item out one by one and
studied them carefully. Thinking I’d surveyed everything in the box, I
started to tuck the keepsakes back in their places when I caught a glimpse of a
thin white envelope wedged in the corner. I picked it up, and the
weightlessness of it made me assume it was empty. However, it was clearly sealed.
asked my mom if she knew what it was.
have no idea, honey.”
I wonder if we should open it?”
said, “I’d say Nanny’s not going to. If you want to know
what’s in it, you’re going to have to open it yourself.”
slipped my finger through the buckled edge very carefully. I couldn’t
help but imagine my grandmother licking the seal and sliding her index finger
across the envelope to make sure it was closed. When I’d opened it, it
appeared empty so I shrugged with disappointment and said to my mom,
“There’s nothing in it.” Then something caught my eye. In the
corner of the envelope was a torn piece of an old picture. I pulled it out, and
to my total astonishment it was a piece of a picture of a little bucktoothed
girl in the third grade.
can only assume that my grandmother had pulled that picture out of the trash,
sealed it in an envelope, and put it in a safe place. When she gathered her
treasures, somehow she placed it among them. I looked at my mother, tears streaming
down my cheeks, and cried, “Why did she do that?” Nanny loved all
of her grandchildren. She did not love me more than any of the rest. I could
not imagine why she’d thought to do such a thing.
honestly didn’t know. Neither did I for many years. In retrospect,
however, I think I’ve figured it out. The answer is hope. Pure, biblical,
life-sustaining, gloriously unreasonable hope. Everything is possible for him
who believes, our Savior said. Though I believe my grandmother suspected
something was amiss with me, I don’t think she knew I’d ever been
victimized. In reality, my severe overbite was the least of my problems. All
she probably knew was that I was a troubled child, scared of her own shadow,
quick to tears and, in her estimation, sweet and gentle. After all, for too
short a time I was the only one of her grandchildren that had actually been her
roommate. I believe my grandmother pulled out that picture, prayed over me,
sealed me in an envelope, and said something like, “I will never see what
you do with this life, but I can hope.” (Jesus, the One and Only, session
10) Yes, you can hope.