“I keep my twisted grill, just to show the kids it’s real.
We ain’t picture perfect but we worth the picture still.”

—J. Cole

My crooked smile crept upon me. Slowly, it began to take hold in ways I was not fully conscious.

Despite routine visits to my dentist’s office, my front left big tooth migrated from its identical twin in a northeasterly direction. It jutted out and up, leaving me with a gap in the middle of my upper grill.

My smile before was always near perfect. Although never pure pearly white, it attracted compliments through the years. No wide spacing. No chips. No gap.

I remember my mother taking me to the dentist as a kid, her instructions to brush well.

OPINION

“Take care of yourself,” I can still hear her saying.

I always knew my mother was talking about more than my smile. But a smile is not a negligible thing. It is connected to the heart. The purest smile knit with the freest soul. Evidence perhaps of whether one is truly broken or indeed whole.

Sometimes the slightest flaws can lead to brokenness. Sometimes hardships, life, sufferings and the death of loved ones can seize upon the body, psyche and soul like cancer. Can make us recoil, retreat. Reduce us to smiling less, or else covering an imperfect smile with a palm.

I didn’t notice the metamorphosis — my own reluctance to flash a toothy grin upon the exchange of simple salutations or when posing for photos. The left hand, raised to my lips, to shade my crooked smile when having a hearty laugh.

I do recall looking in the bathroom mirror one morning about two years ago after Mama died of cancer and seeing the undeniable separation; coming face to face with the kind of change that time, space and circumstance inevitably bring.

I was outed by a first cousin who, after inspecting an image I posted on Facebook, humorously responded (with “lol” at the end, as if that makes whatever we post all right), that I had finally acquired the infamous family gap. I promptly unfriended him. (Now “lol” that, chump!)

He had spoken the truth. Truth stung. Perhaps mostly because my crooked smile was an outward imperfection in a world that sells “perfection.” A world of multi-billion-dollar industries to which we subscribe via makeup, hair and fashion, diets and weight loss programs, plastic surgeries and myriad other products by which we seek to mold ourselves into the image of who “they” tell us we should be.

It stung because I was “broken” in an area in which I had always felt “OK,” and to some degree a victim of circumstances that I didn’t necessarily have power to prevent or immediately remedy. It stung because I know I am much less than perfect, but this outer imperfection was less disguisable.

I know better.

I know how minor scars or bruises, a keloid or a lisp can force one into self-imposed silence and seclusion. How the way we look — whether overweight or skinny, tall or short, freckled or Albino — can become fodder for a teasing bully or a cousin who thinks he’s a comedian. How the messages we feed ourselves — about our own quirks, inadequacies and idiosyncrasies — can slowly arrest the soul, even steal your smile.

It turns out a bacterial infection caused my tooth to shift. My dentist recommended braces. I’m wearing them now, prompted by the words I could hear my mother speaking from heaven: “Son, smile again.”

I’m learning to smile again, even through the shiny metal wire and brackets. Having discovered along this part of my journey that the braces can fix my crooked smile. But a perfect smile has nothing to do with straight teeth.

Email: Author@johnwfountain.com