Thursday, July 30, 2015

What Are Your Braces?

I grew up poor, the third of six children to uneducated parents that divorced when I was eight. My father wasn't participating in the raising of children when they were married, and he didn't change anything when they split. We did better without him, and he never paid a dime of child support. Lots of people claim poor. What I grew up in can only be described as poverty.

I know- we're off to a very big start on this, but there is no point in hiding who we are...I've learned not to be ashamed of other people's decisions. I have stories to tell, and this is only one of them, so let's get moving.

My mother worked very, very hard. Harder than I have ever worked for anything in my life. She worked two and three jobs to keep a roof over our heads, because she had no education or formal training to trade for more money. All she had was the fire at her back, the risk of losing the electricity and a nest full of hungry mouths to think about.

She had no role models on which to base her decisions. She found out that she could get a job working as a nursing assistant and make more than the terrible minimum wage, so she took the exam and went about breaking her back for the next couple of decades. We had no family to turn to for help. There were no living grandparents, she had no siblings, no one was coming to save the day.

Most times we didn't have health insurance and somehow we got by without public assistance, though surely she would have qualified. She went without to give us food and when she could afford it- clothing, school supplies and whatever she could save up for Christmas. There were no vacations or nice clothes. We were just getting from one day to the next.

One thing my mother was able to do for us, which is nearly unthinkable given the circumstances, is that 4 of her surviving 5 children needed braces, and we each got them.

There are so many things I can look back on in my life and attempt to place blame on for my failings as an adult; I didn't have a stable home life. We moved a lot. I was not well supervised. There was never enough of anything. I didn't have anyone to take an interest when I was in high school and mentor me. No one helped me to apply for scholarships that would have sent me to college for free and I wouldn't be paying off loans now. I could do that all day, but I'd still be sitting right here.

For years now, I have reflected on what made my siblings and I turn out the way we did, though. Despite the hardships in our youth, we have all gone on to attend college and/or find valuable work, becoming productive members of society despite the roads we could have taken. No one is a drug addict or abuses alcohol. No one is (or has been) in jail. We are a statistical anomaly.

My younger brother and I had a conversation years ago, where we talked about this. We all knew how tenuous the situation was growing up. We were well aware of how thin the line was that kept us together and not split up into foster homes. We kept track of each other and we didn't want to put any more stress on our mother than she already had.

When thinking about how we became the people we are, I related that I felt that our braces were the greatest gift our mother gave us in those dark times. So many things change in your life, and therefore shape who you become. Braces made a huge change, and much like the very forces that make them work, we just couldn't see the results until later.

The reality is, that with straight teeth- we could pretend. We could join the ranks of people whose lives weren't a total shit show. We were able to play a role until it became our reality. Braces made it possible for us to outlive our situation and see what it would be like for people to accept us as one of them. 

Orthodontics were truly life changing for my siblings and I. Not only for the enormous sacrifice they required, nor the way they affected how others saw us, but mostly for the way they changed how we saw ourselves. Braces increased my sense of self worth, and my belief in my own abilities. I believed that I deserved a college education and that I could do what it took to get it. We were given a gift that was much more valuable than we ever could have appreciated. We were given the chance to be judged on our own merit, the effort we were willing to put forth.

Having braces didn't make me who I am, but they definitely gave me the self confidence I didn't even know I would have lacked. The world is a difficult place, and you never know what tools you will need until you are already in the fight. I needed to be taken seriously for the words I have inside of me. I need to be heard in a way that will give someone else what they need for their own fight. I needed braces for so much more than to correct crooked teeth. In time, they helped me to see that I was more than my struggle. So are you.

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