My school classroom is a constant trauma zone of ear-pulling, head-knocking, hand-strapping discipline. I am a mere passive spectator surrounded and entertained by the suffering of my classmates. As a good boy, I can easily avoid being involved, but I cannot hide from three painful and unavoidable screaming horrors that happen outside of the classroom: a visit to the orthopaedic shoe shop, a visit to the barber, and a visit to our sadistic dentist.
I have flat feet — no arch at all, the full soles of each foot from toe to heel fully touching the ground, my sister making duck quack sounds at the shape of my wet footprints.
Throughout my childhood, I am forced to wear high-arched stiff black orthopaedic Oxford shoes, supposedly to give me an arch. Even my runners have painfully-high arch-supports, which make me run funny. This is the only reason I never receive any ParticipACTION award patches, not even bronze.
Every July and August I am continuously shoeless: running around barefoot, my soles becoming hard as leather, no foot problems in any way. Then September arrives, and the dreaded trip to my arch-villain (Yvette’s term.) It is not until the 1970s when forcing flat-footed children to wear corrective shoes is considered a useless, for-profit scam.
A visit to the barber should not be traumatic, but when your mom is on welfare and needs to save money, she sends you to a barber school — literally a school for people learning to be barbers with low-income people as their living mannequins.
At age five or six, there is no dread of an unstylish haircut: only the fear of bleeding ears and bloody gouges everywhere on your head.
“Stay still, kid!” the teacher supervising the student barber would yell as I lose another chunk of skin.
Our “welfare” dentist, Dr. M, is a cruel man without empathy, pulling teeth and filling cavities as fast as he can. Mom often forces us to see him as my sister dubs our family’s teeth as “perfectly straight, perfectly rotten.” Behind our chicklet smiles are pounds of fillings. We have more lead in our mouths than enamel, with me having the worst of it.
I miss a day of school to be sent by bus by myself downtown to the Mental Dental Building on Rose and 11th. I delay my entrance into hell, looking up seven storeys from the sidewalk to admire this beautiful stone and brick skyscraper, with its cool long-neck gargoyle eavestroughs peering over the top floor.
My next, and last treat before I am filled with pain, is the elevator ride with the little man cheerfully opening and closing the metal scissor-gate and yelling out each floor number. I want to tell him that I promise to give all of my toys to the starving children in China if only I can spend the day going up and down in the elevator with him.
I am pushed out with the rush of parents and screaming children, all being dragged to their own evil doctor or dentist.
“Don’t you brush your teeth, kid? You got terrible teeth. Which one hurts?” Dr. M is in my face, his furry ungloved hands wrenching open my mouth, my jawbone nearly getting unhinged.
“I see three fillings, one pull.” He leans to the side to pick up a huge metal and glass needle, and shoves it down my throat. I jump as it pierces and penetrates. I feel liquid dripping down my windpipe and I try to cough, struggling to move but he has my arms pinned. Tears are flowing. I’m gagging. “Oh c’mon, boy, you got diapers in those pants?!”
My eyes roll back in my head and my mind thankfully shuts out the shrill drills, sharp scraping, endless ache and pain and drool.
In a haze, I hear a woman’s voice from faraway, “You want to keep your tooth?”
I slowly open my eyes and am so happy to find myself on the sidewalk out front again. My whole head is throbbing and when I put my hands on my puffy face I realize I won’t be able to fit through the bus doors. I start to walk the thirty blocks home, squeezing the bloody tooth in my hand.