(First Grade class picture. I'm in the second row down, third from the left.)
When I was three, my family went to visit a friend of my father’s in Ohio. Our families were very similar. Both families consisted of parents with lots of small children. During our visit the parents stayed upstairs talking and eating and the children spent most of the time on the lower level running around with blind abandon. I loved those times when our parents just left us to our own devices. There is nothing better than a bunch of kids dancing around trying to figure out, for themselves, what they will do to have a great time! After working our way through cowboys and Indians, space battles and super-heroes, we settled on “hide-and-go-seek”.
Because I was only three, I really wasn’t very good at any game. I was the youngest child there and the youngest will always try, desperately, to keep up with the older children. My dad’s friends lived in a split-level house with a turning staircase which led to the lower floor. On the landing between the two sets of stairs there was a clothes hamper. The thing stood about 3 feet tall. It looked as if it was made like a basket, but it was really a solid plastic thing with a hinged beige lid. One of the resident children knew that the hamper was a superior hiding place and successfully stayed hidden in it through the first round. In the second round I was inspired to use the same hiding place. (Even though you have already correctly surmised that the hamper would be the worst place to hide after a successful first round. I never said I was an intelligent three year old.) I was, also, not very coordinated. Most three year olds aren’t very coordinated, but if you know me, you know coordination is not one of my strengths. I remember how hard it was to climb into the thing. I remember that it was half filled with dirty laundry. I remember not being bothered by that fact. (Again, I wasn’t that smart.) I had trouble settling into the hamper. The lid was down, but I was squirming around trying to get comfortable. I’m sure it must have looked ridiculous from the outside. A clothes hamper dancing on the landing. Dancing just enough to push the hamper to the edge of the landing and send it tumbling over the lower staircase. I have a very clear memory of the lid popping open, dirty laundry spilling out in front of me, and the concrete floor rushing towards my face.
I remember the crying and bleeding and the swollen lip. I remember how mad my dad got. “What were you doing in that hamper?!” he demanded. But all I could do in reply was cry and gasp and hold the ice filled washcloth against my two, bleeding front teeth.
It became clear, in the next few days that those teeth would have to be pulled. You could move them back and forth in my mouth like two little running legs. And so between the ages of three and seven I had no front teeth.
For four years, every Christmas, I was reminded by some smart aleck relative, that there existed a Christmas song called “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth”. For fours years I could not eat my favorite vegetable: corn on the cob. For four years I refused to smile for pictures. From Kindergarten to third grade, my school picture looked like I was posing for one of those Civil War portraits. I was a little boy who did not want to smile. I was ashamed. When my teeth did finally come in, at the age of eight, they were huge bucked things sticking out of my upper jaw in an inverted “v” shape. I didn’t care though. I finally had teeth and the shame was over. I displayed my new choppers like Joan Rivers used to wear
her newest plastic surgery. The smile on my face in my third grade class picture is over the top cheese. I have a look of complete confidence even though the rest of my face really doesn’t warrant the attitude.
Nearly every day I look out into the faces of hundreds of children. All of them, every last one of them, has some little thing about them that makes them feel…unsure about themselves. I always try to remember that fact. One of the most important jobs I have is giving children a sense of empowerment. That sounds a little ‘participation awardy’. That’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m saying is, none of us are perfect (Least of all me!) but everyone of us has the potential to be useful in this life if we can see beyond those things that make us imperfect. I learned very early in life that I didn’t have to be the smartest, the best looking, the most athletic, the most talented…But I could really make a difference if only I could be good. Kindness, generosity and grace go a long way to making your life a useful one. Oh! just think of what this life could be if we all grew up trying to be 'good'?