This I Believe

Joseph - Hemet, California
Entered on November 2, 2006

I Believe in . . . THE TOOTH FAIRY

At the early edge of my memory, when I was very young, I dimly remember bottles of formula. A little more clearly, I remember my mouth beginning to hurt, the overture to the eruption of my first teeth. In the beginning, they worried me; I didn’t know what was happening. As I remember, the upper two front teeth grew in first, and, in a little while, the lower front teeth followed. About this time, my mother began to give me solid foods – or at least crackers, toast, cookies, and the like. In a very short time, and to mother’s great delight, I discovered biting and chewing; finally I began to understand the purpose of these teeth. More and more of them grew in and my diet rapidly expanded into solid food.

I became content with this arrangement. One day, however, I noticed that one of my teeth was a little loose; I was sure that I had broken it. I found myself pushing it sideways with my tongue and reaching in with the thumb-index fingers and moving it from side to side. As it loosened, I mentioned it to my parents who both assured me that it was perfectly normal; they said not to worry. But they also cautioned that when it did come out, I should be careful not to swallow it and I should try to save it. They told me about the Tooth Fairy and how, once it was free, I could clean it up, put it under my pillow, and expect a surprise. I had no idea what they meant but accepted the inevitable, calling it as they did: magic.

It came out; I brushed it as clean as I could get it, and put it under my pillow. Later, when I went to bed, I reached under the pillow to make sure it was still there and, satisfied, fell asleep. The next morning, I remembered it and reached under the pillow to find it was gone. It its place was a nickel. I asked my parents about this and they reiterated the Tooth Fairy story, citing the nickel as proof.

While I could not dispute the nickel, I did wonder how this transformation happened. Who is this Tooth Fairy and where did she come from? Do they have nickels there? And how did she get it under my pillow? Why did she want my broken tooth anyway, and where did she take it? What is this magic thing? I began to question any number of things about this Tooth Fairy and my unanticipated relationship with her.

Back to the nickel – my parents explained that the nickel was mine to do with as I wanted. I went with them to the local grocery store and spent my entire fortune on Bazooka Joe bubble gum at a penny apiece. This was sugary, sweet, unwholesome stuff that I loved and that my parents would seldom let me have. It came wrapped in a Bazooka Joe mini-comic strip. Carefully I unfolded the waxy paper comic from around the gum and popped one of the normally forbidden treats into my mouth. The comic itself measured about two by three inches and contained several panes in faded pastels and some writing. I asked about the writing and my parents told me about letters and words, showing me what my name looked like in the letters on the comic. They read the short stories to me over and over, each time pointing out more letters and words. The gum disappeared quickly; the comics did not.

When first tasted, the gum was smooth, sweet and exciting to a youthful palate. The mechanical action of chewing, though, made it stiff, much like taffy, and the longer I chewed, the more stiff it became. It would be years before I associated the willingness of my parents to let me have this usually forbidden treat and the loosening of a second tooth. When the second came loose, the Tooth Fairy episode played itself through once more with one small difference, this time, she left a dime!

About this time, my sister, two years my junior, confided in me one day that one of her teeth was becoming loose. Being a veteran, I explained to her the magic of the Tooth Fairy, how the system worked, and counseled her on what to expect. Then she asked: Where does the Tooth Fairy come from; where does she get the money; why does she want my teeth; how did she get under my pillow? I had to answer that I didn’t know but she raised in me the same curiosity that had plagued me earlier.

So now, approaching my sixtieth birthday, if you were to ask if I still believed in the Tooth Fairy I would have to answer this way. Becoming an adult shatters some childhood dreams, the Tooth Fairy among them. So no, I no longer believe in the Tooth Fairy. But I do believe in what the Tooth Fairy can do: she can awaken in a child’s mind the ability to question why things happen, to wonder what causes them, to think about where they come from, and to speculate about where they go. She can light a candle of imagination in the mind of a child and she can nurture the process of constructive inquiry. In this sense, yes, I believe in the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Cupid, the Grinch, Le Chât en le Châpeau . . . In the context of myth they awaken a young mind and fertilize its growth.

I also believe that the learning process evoked by these characters lingers. At nearly sixty, I still have teeth and while I do the usual home maintenance, I have a Dentist who has an Assistant who, together, do the more complex work. I visit them about once every sixty days, whereupon I am escorted to a chair, and am anesthetized in front and back, left and right, top and bottom. They then leave for about fifteen minutes to let their potion do its work. As the anesthesia progresses, I find myself trying to feel my teeth with my tongue, a task increasingly difficult to do; nor can I feel my teeth with the thumb-index combination. When they return, the Dentist scrapes, drills, pokes, flosses, and uses his own thumb-index combination to see if any of my teeth are becoming loose. On the other side of my mouth, the Assistant does the same. When they finish, I sit up, regain balance, replace my glasses, thank them, and proceed to the front desk. There, not speaking, I sign all the insurance forms, pay the co-payment, and leave.

On arrival at home, I look in the mirror expecting to see in my reflection, a semblance of the multi-jowled Deputy Dog cartoon character. But I don’t; despite what I feel, nothing appears unusual. To recover, I lie down for a few minutes to reflect on the experience, waking an hour or two later. I check my teeth with my tongue to see what they have done and instinctively reach under my pillow to see if my co-payment has magically appeared.