I lost my first tooth to a bag of peat moss. I’m pretty sure that I was being a turd at the time, if I’m honest about it. The funny thing is, this thought never occurred to me. The idea that I was in any way to blame or in some small way might have even deserved an assault in peat moss form was beyond all possibility until earlier this week when the memory came upon me for no apparent reason. Peat moss itself has never failed to remind me of that day, as if there exists in all peat moss a kind of unbroken consciousness that seeks to have me relive that moment every time I encounter it. And what’s even funnier is that I’m pretty sure now that it was actually mulch, something I encounter far more often, and not peat moss at all. Wow. And all this time I’ve had a subtle dislike for peat moss, softened only by the homophonic quality that makes ‘peat’ sound like ‘Pete’. And since this blog is about the two sides of forgiveness, there’s one apology right off the bat. Sorry, peat moss. Mulch, we’ll have words later.
Back to the thought in question, though. All of my life until just a few days ago I have seethed with anger (okay, that’s a little strong…grimaced in annoyance let’s say) at the thought of Andrew Underwood, the kid behind the peat moss. As you can well imagine, considering that we’re talking about losing a first tooth here, this event took place in kindergarten. As it happened, I was in carpool at the time, riding in the back of a station wagon. In my mind it was a Cutless Cruiser, but that might only be because my mom had that car at the time, and so all station wagons were Cutless Cruisers. Fun fact, I only just now discovered that these are actually ‘Cutlass’ Cruisers. I did not know what a cutlass was back when she had the car, I suppose, and now that I think about it, ‘Cutlass Cruiser’ makes me think of marauding pirates…what was going on there, Oldsmobile?
The scene in the back of this station wagon is very clear, even clearer than the word ‘Cutless’ always has been (in my defense, wasn’t it written on the car in cursive?). Although it doesn’t sound possible given the constraints of a station wagon, there were three or four of us sitting in a kind of circle back there. This could only have been accomplished by ignoring seat belts. In the 1980’s this was not so strange. Even in the back seat of normal cars, the seat belts only went across your lap. There was lot of fretting back in those days about what would happen if you were wearing one of those during an actual collision. Apparently, some poor girl had been cut in half by such a seat belt. True story. It happened one state over to the daughter of a friend of a friend of this lady we knew. Alright, probably an urban legend, but as a kid this seemed perfectly feasible. Okay, not true either, really, but it was a great excuse for not wearing your seat belt.
As so many comedians and writers have already noted, there’s nothing quite like riding in the back of a station wagon to give a child an existential crisis. You can only see where you’ve been, and wherever you are at the moment you see nothing of it while you’re there. Sure, you can wave at the car behind you, but even that gets old after a while. So we three or four were sitting in a circle somehow, and we were talking out this existential dilemma or maybe just picking our noses and eating it…who remembers, really? And then out of the blue, completely unprovoked, Andrew Underwood threw the bag of mulch at me (I’ve accepted now that it was mulch). Isn’t it weird how that happens sometimes? We’re just minding our own business when someone just does something really awful to us. Well, random violence and pigeon poop aside, there’s probably more going on than we realize or are willing to admit to ourselves, and that’s what got me thinking the other day. I’m pretty darn sure I had said that Andrew stank. Something like, ‘You stink, Andrew! Ew, Andrew stinks!’ Cruel. He did stink, though. He smelled really strange, like poo or something rotten. And yes, I’m only now realizing, after 27 years, that I was almost definitely smelling the mulch that was sitting in several giant plastic bags at our feet. Man, I really owe this kid an apology.
Anyway, at the time I just thought that he smelled, and I said so. I made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that he stank. In case you don’t remember, I’m pretty sure this is about the worst thing you can say about someone when you’re six. At least it was in the 80’s. I have no idea what kind of crazy things six year-olds call each other today, and I honestly don’t want to. Back then, this was pretty bad. But I didn’t think about that at all. I am almost positive that Andrew had done something to me on the way into the car that made me angry at him. It was rare that I just attacked someone for no reason, and I still feel that there was some action that required a far greater and opposite reaction from me. This was my MO, as I will discuss later.
Under normal circumstances, I would bite when threatened. I was a biter. My family will testify to this. I was an equal oppourtunity biter, in fact. It didn’t matter how much older or bigger you were, if you messed with me, you got bit. In the eighth grade a guy came up to me in youth group and showed me his forearm. There was a tiny set of teeth marks in it. I had bitten this guy, who was a year older, back in preschool. It was also in a carpool, by the way. Weird stuff goes on in carpools. I’m still not sure if it’s even possible for teeth marks to stay in skin that long, but I saw them with my own eyes. That’s right, he’ll remember not to mess with me.
But on this day I had a loose tooth. It was my first loose tooth, and I was very excited about it. It was so loose I could wiggle it with my tongue, and this has got to be the strangest feeling that isn’t cause for alarm that a human can have. My tooth was wiggling! And everyone said that was okay! ‘Another one will grow in its place,’ they said Are you insane?! My tooth is moving back and forth in my mouth! But I was fine with that. I was a trusting soul. If they said it would grow back, give me a permanent tooth, then I believed them. It turns out I had two sets of permanent teeth. Two. I had 16 teeth pulled over the course of two or three years to make room for the second set so that as soon as they grew in they could slap braces on them. Oh, they didn’t tell me about that, now did they! And whether I was conscious of my decreased biting power on that day or simply thought that Andrew’s affront to me was not quite bite-worthy I shall never know. As it turned out, I was fine saying that he stank.
I must have said it four or five times, and the angrier he got, the more I said it. What a turd I was! And then WHAM! came the bag of mulch, and out came my tooth. I felt it go, felt those last tiny roots pop and release my tooth forever. That didn’t bother me too terribly. What bothered me was that I couldn’t find it. After a cursory search, which for a six year-old involves only looking in your hands and then deciding something has actually disappeared, I yelled that my tooth was gone. The driver of the station wagon told me not to worry, that I’d probably just swallowed it. Friends, if there is a right thing and a wrong thing to say to a child in this situation, telling them that they swallowed the tooth is definitely wrong. In no way do the words, ‘don’t worry’ and ‘you swallowed a tooth’ go together in any world a child lives in. It’s even a scary prospect as an adult. So whoever you were, I forgive you for terrifying me.
As the idea that I was going to die from internal hemorrhaging, death-by-own-baby-tooth, began to subside, a far darker realization had manifested itself. The tooth fairy would not be coming after all. The much darker realization, that the tooth fairy would in fact disembowel me to get at the tooth that it needed so badly it was willing to pay for, fortunately never materialized. But this was my first tooth. Had this little stinker really just robbed me of my first ever visit from the tooth fairy? No.Freaking.Way. The little bombs that explode in cartoons’ eyes were smoking away in mine, and my fuse was short. Would I have taken one of his teeth in retribution? Probably not, but at the time I was big into the Old Testament, so I can’t put it past myself. I was very angry for sure, and Andrew looked scared. And then I found my tooth underneath the bag of mulch. It was just chilling there on that weird not-carpet fiber that lines the floor of cars, and my first visit from the tooth fairy happened after all. I think I got two dimes.
Now, the tooth story ends there, but whoa, Nellie! it got me thinking about a lot more than just one kid I might have (definitely maybe) misjudged. As a young person I tended to stand up for myself and for others, which is laudable. I also bit and punched to do it, which is perhaps less so. But I sharpened my tongue more than anything else, and that was probably the worst. I wasn’t a bully by any means, but I spoke my mind and didn’t particularly care what people thought about that. This meant a lot of good things, of course. I tended to make my own kind of music, just like Mama Cass taught me, and if someone didn’t like it that was their loss. I wasn’t a violent kid, but I prided myself on never backing down from a fight. If you pushed me, I pushed you back. Not very clever, but then Marty McFly was my hero. I had an overdeveloped sense of justice and what it meant to do your part. I was constantly being told that I could not police the world, and as many times as I assured those wise elders of mine that I didn’t want to police the world, just this corner of it, I was really missing the point. I was out to fight battles and right wrongs for the sake of fighting, and many times I judged people as good or bad without the slightest idea of who they really were. One kid in particular comes to mind, who was neither good nor bad, as far as I can tell, just in a tough spot.
I look back and have this image of myself as a friend to all that would have me, and for the most part I think I really did look out for the little guy and try to be as non-discriminating as possible. But I could be cruel, as I suppose most children can, and there were times when I used my words to hurt people after I’d grown out of using my teeth. Sadly, this was not always in self-defense, as the biting had been. Sometimes I just thought it was funny. I honestly don’t remember very much about Andrew Underwood, except that my anger toward and dislike of him continued for years past the peat moss/mulch incident. He might have been a cool kid. I don’t remember even ever seeing him after that fateful car ride. I suppose that he might have gotten in trouble for knocking out my tooth, but it’s just as likely that he was hurt by what I had said and his mother decided to put him in a different carpool. We just don’t think about things like that when we’re six years old. If you feel a person has wronged you and they aren’t around after that, it means that you won and they must be being punished. The idea that we might have hurt them unnecessarily or caused them embarrassment or shame (beyond what we were shooting for, of course), doesn’t even occur to us at that age. Sadly, unless someone is kind and caring enough to alter our world view with a few strict talking-to’s, we may never figure that out on our own.
I can’t tell you how many times my mother said about some kid I thought was mean or arrogant, ‘Well, you know he comes from a broken home…’ It irritated me to hear that. How was that an excuse? I pictured the little brochures or whatever that you saw in church, the ones with the broken rainbows and sad-faced children. Sure, I got it. Divorce sucked. Especially for kids. But what right did that give them to be buttheads? You see, I didn’t get it. And the fact that I have two parents who still love each other means that I never really will get it, at least not entirely. Thank goodness for that, but a little tolerance and understanding was long overdue by the time I got into junior high high school college and realized that maybe not everything was so black and white.
There’s a scene in the movie Grosse Pointe Blank where John Cusak (one of my all-time favourite actors…of all time…) is walking into the gym or whatever venue the high school reunion is being held in. And there’s this guy there who looks so lonely who’s just kind of standing there (maybe talking to people, maybe not-I don’t quite remember, but he’s there looking pitiful, for lack of a better word). Several years ago I was watching this movie, and when that scene came on I cried my eyes out. I literally wept. I saw in this fictional character the soul of a kid I had known all throughout grade school, and although I wasn’t especially mean to him, I certainly got some verbal hits in. And here was this grown man, in a flippin’ movie, for cryin’ out loud, that shoved this kid back in my face and made me feel like a supreme asshole. I couldn’t even pause the movie, I was so undone. I just let it run while I did that slow, sideways collapse onto the couch that people do when they simply give out. I felt so bad for everything I had ever said to this kid, and even for the things I hadn’t said but had just thought. And today, while thinking of my one-sided feud with Andrew Underwood, my mind turned to this other fellow, whose name I won’t mention here.
He was slow. I mean actually slow. He may in fact have had some sort of disability, but the guy was also just physically slower than other kids. He had some kind of weight problem, but he wasn’t really fat. It was more that he had an awkward shape and things just seemed to settle in the wrong places. He also did fairly poorly in school. The first ‘F’ I ever saw was on a paper of his in maybe fifth grade, and the sight of it made me wince. No, I did not wince for his sake. I winced because I wondered how anyone could do that poorly in school. So there I sat, haughty and privileged, thinking that being below average at things was his fault.
It was sung, in those days, that he had ‘the speed of a tree’ and ‘the might of a mushroom’, along with something about his IQ that we all thought was exceptionally clever. I sang that song with the rest of them. Very rarely did I say anything nasty to his face, but occasionally he made me angry. He was a sassy little bugger. He liked to sass people. Sassy people pissed me off unless there was a reason to be sassy, and it never seemed like this kid had any reason that was worthy enough. So I sassed him back. I sassed him back double. A double portion of sass was what he got, and sometimes triple. And my sass was mean. I will say, this kid said hurtful things to people. He made fun of other kids and poked fun at their differences. In my opinion he had no business doing any of this, and turning the cheap shot, obvious flaws that he had back on him was my response. I thought I was standing up for other people or for myself, but really I had no idea what I was doing.
Probably the guy had a pretty tough home life. I don’t know if he came from a ‘broken rainbow’ or anything, but things can’t have been easy for him. With the challenges that he faced physically and his poor grades, he had a lot to deal with already and didn’t need any help from me. I never thought about this. I never once considered that this kid might be lashing out in the only way he knew how, by sassing people when he saw the chance. Even now I might have it all wrong, but the point is that I didn’t really know anything about him. He just annoyed me, and that seemed to give me license to verbally wail on the guy every once in a while or sing the song that everyone sang about him behind his back. Why couldn’t I see that this kid was probably hurting really bad? Why didn’t I listen to my parents when they told me as much? The point is, though, that I didn’t. Grosse Pointe Blank and all of the other John Cusak movies in the world can’t turn back time (although there is Hot Tub Time Machine…), and it’s something that I ultimately have to forgive myself for, which is a pretty tough pill to swallow.
So today, I’m thinking a lot about forgiveness. I forgive Andrew Underwood for throwing that garden supplement at me, and I recognize that I had a hand in getting a face full of whatever-they-actually-put-in-mulch. I also recognize that there are things that I need to apologize and seek forgiveness for. Whether it be a kid I knew in grade school or someone I don’t even realized I wronged, I feel that one of the steps toward learning is realizing that we’ve made mistakes in the first place and being willing to own up to them. So I’m sorry, and I really mean it. I hope that you will forgive me.
Most of all, I see that holding on to feelings of bitterness or antagonism, even if it’s done almost as a joke, is just plain unhealthy. If we knew the whole story, we might look at those moments where we felt justified in tearing someone down (or biting them) and decide that we really should respond with kindness and understanding, even if we don’t see any visible result from it. The result that we can see is never what it’s about, after all. It’s about living in a way that promotes living for everyone else. Ultimately, none of us is really living just for ourselves anyway. If we were, we would be left in the end with nothing to show for our lives but more mulch, and that’s pretty sad.