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The Sunday EssayYesterday at 5.00am

The Sunday Essay: 27 Teeth

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Some people grow too many teeth. Jackie Lee Morrison grew 27 too many.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand

Original illustration by Kyle Boonzaier.


I was born more teeth than girl.

I was 11 months old when my mother took me to the orthodontist for the first time. She carried me in her arms, the dental students giggling and pointing.

“She doesn’t have any teeth yet,” they said.

I didn’t, but my parents had noticed that I was doing something odd, pushing my lower jaw forward and gurning. The orthodontist who saw me suggested two routes: break my jaw and reset it or wait until I was older and go through NHS-paid-for braces.

My parents looked at me, the gurgling toothless babe in my mother’s arms, and decided that breaking my jaw was too cruel.

 

It was nine years before I found myself lying in a chair at the children’s orthodontics department at the hospital. I had been pulled out of school especially for the appointment in a large room filled with dental chairs, each separated by flimsy temporary walls, the cartoon stickers on them faded and peeling. I stared at the pock-marked ceiling, counting the dots in each square. It was an exercise I’d repeat monthly for the next few years. 

My orthodontist, Professor Meikle, was a giant of a man with grey hair, bushy eyebrows, and purple-tinged lips, his eyes obscured behind large glasses. I could taste rubber in my mouth as he poked and prodded, cold metal instruments feeling their way around my mouth. He gave me a little white plastic cup of pink liquid, which I swirled around my mouth and spat into the sink – it had a strange almost sweetness to it.

When they led me away for x-rays, Professor Meikle and his assistants put on lead aprons and stepped behind a screen, leaving me exposed in my flimsy school uniform. They told me to bite down on the plastic bit in front of me. There was a humming and loud thunk, and then they led me back to my chair. When the images came back, they were clipped to a light box in front of me and my mother.

Little white shadows in my head, far more than there should’ve been, crowding every available nook and cranny. Professor Meikle held his hands up and the dental assistant removed his gloves for him. He discarded his mask.

His finger landed on the x-ray. “These are Jackie’s permanent teeth.” Another stab. “And these are her extra teeth.”

Extra teeth? I wondered, head turned sideways on the dental chair, neck craning. There was one on the top and one on the bottom, two fuzzy white blobs which shouldn’t have existed.

“Surgery would be best,” he told my mother. “There are too many teeth. We’ll remove some of the baby ones to make room for later, and the two extras. She’ll have to go under.”

Go under? Go under what?

“Later on, we’ll look at braces. But we’ll have to make some room first.”

It’s a strangely intimate relationship, the one between you and your orthodontist. They have access to one of the most disgusting parts of your body, and you just lie there, let them root around in your mouth, and trust that everything will work out. Of course, at my age, I was just a body – a body with too many teeth – so there I lay, being talked over the top of, my mother nodding and making “mhm” and “hmm” noises. It felt like it was my fault that I was born with too many teeth; like I was inconveniencing everyone.

The surgery was booked. Dressed in a hospital gown, I lay on a cold bed under bright, white lights. Four heads hovered above me, only their eyes visible beneath their scrubs and masks.

“Just a little pinch,” said the nurse, as she put the line into my wrist and taped it down. “Count backwards from ten for me.”

I didn’t make it past eight.

“She’ll feel better once she starts walking around,” I heard a voice say, reaching through my dream. “Best to get her up and about.”

“It’s time to get up,” my father said, shaking me. I groggily opened my eyes, blinking. Everything was numb, the world a haze. A small plastic bag with four bloody teeth was thrust in front of me.

“Look, Jackie,” my mother said. “Look at all these teeth they took out of you.”

 

After I’d healed from the surgery, we went back to Professor Meikle. There were still too many teeth. Another two operations were needed but this time just under local anaesthetic. I was to be a guinea pig, to prove that not all children’s surgeries required general anaesthetic. We were a medical family – my father was a doctor at the same hospital.

“We should accommodate and support medical training wherever we can,” he told my mother, signing the consent forms.

This surgeon was thin and lanky. At the first appointment, he took out seven teeth, my mother watching over me. I twitched just once.

At the second appointment, he took me away from my mother and put me on an upright surgical bed, strapped in like a patient at an asylum. I could see everything this time. The needle he used to inject the anaesthetic into my gums was long and large. There was a moment’s pain, pressure, and then a metallic taste in my mouth.

“OK, we’re going to get started,” he said, and drew back a curtain, revealing a crowd of dental students in white coats. They were holding clipboards and staring at my mouth.

He spoke about me like I wasn’t there, addressing the students with the bored tone of a lecturer who had done this a thousand times before. I was the patient with too many teeth, he told them. It would be a simple extraction today. They were lucky to witness this. The students nodded and made notes.

“Come on, don’t be shy,” said the surgeon. “Feel free to come closer and have a look.”

One by one, the students peered into my mouth. I closed my eyes and wondered if this was all some terrible nightmare.

“The key with these sorts of things,” said the surgeon, “is to make the patient feel like they’re part of the procedure.” He turned to face me, clamping a metal tool around one of my top incisors. “OK, Jackie,” he said, his tone falsely cheery. “Would you like to pull out your own tooth?”

“No, thank you,” I tried to say, but my numb mouth and the metal clamp in it were obstructing my speech.

The surgeon smiled, taking my hand and placing it on the clamp. “Here we go – one, two, three.” 

He pulled down on my hand and out came my tooth. It was easier than I’d expected, like unplugging a bath. I stared in horror at the tooth in my grasp. The students applauded.

By the time I was a teenager, I was 13 for 13 – one tooth for every year. My new collection of little bags of teeth were kept in a box. Teeth which my mother scrubbed with a toothbrush and toothpaste in the kitchen sink. After each surgery, the tooth fairy left me a crisp £10 note – I was rolling in teeth money.

Why, I wondered, did I have so many teeth? At every appointment with Professor Meikle, he seemed disappointed – there were too many teeth. My mouth was too small for the number of teeth. We needed to make more room for the teeth. I closed my eyes and saw the x-ray from that first appointment, white shadows all over my head. Why did my body think it needed so many more teeth than the average person?

“Maybe,” a friend said, “you absorbed your twin in the womb and all that’s left of them are the teeth. That happens, sometimes.”

“Don’t be daft,” my mother said. “You just have too many teeth.”

For the next few years, I suffered through braces: rubber bands that pinged off my teeth, sharp metal that cut my lip, wires that stabbed the inside of my cheeks, wax pressed onto the front of the braces which fell off in clumps in my mouth.

Once, my mother stuck a pair of pliers into my mouth, clipping the edges of the wires – it tasted dirty and cold, pressed against the side of my tongue.

“Don’t move, just in case I get you,” she said. 

A metal bridge was fixed to the roof of my mouth, a key supplied which needed to be inserted and given a quarter turn every few nights. It was to make more room for all of the teeth yet to appear, pulling the existing ones apart. I sobbed into my pillow as my mother leaned into my mouth, turning the key millimetre by millimetre.

Headgear came next: a blue elasticated band which wrapped around the back of my head and slotted into two bands attached to my top molars, worn only at night. I slept fitfully, waking every morning with dried drool on my cheeks and pillow.

To add insult to injury, I was prescribed glasses. Now I was a metal-mouth and a four-eyes. I wept and stared at myself in the mirror – truly an ugly duckling. At my all-girls’ school, I was assigned the role of The Handsome Prince in a class play and my classmates laughed hysterically.

One day, Professor Meikle looked in my mouth and said, “I think we’re done.”

It had taken five years, five expensive gift baskets every Christmas, and 23 teeth, but we were at the end of the road. He clipped the braces off, polishing my teeth. I ran my tongue over them – they felt naked, strange and slimy, but my bite was finally perfect.

“Thank you,” I said, shaking his hand. 

He smiled, purple-tinged lips spreading across his face, large teeth grinning. “I hope I don’t see you again.”

As my mother and I got into the elevator she sighed. “I bet he’ll miss those gift baskets.”

 

At 23, my dentist, Mr. Marsden, looked at my x-rays and switched off the overhead lamp, manoeuvring my chair back upright. He’d been my dentist since I was a little girl. I only really knew him by his eyes and slight Northern accent and was always surprised when he pulled down his mask to reveal a beard, a little greyer every year.

“OK, so you see these teeth here?” He pointed at my four wisdom teeth, only two of which had broken through. “You see how the root is curving down like that? They shouldn’t be doing that. I recommend having them taken out.”

I laughed. One last surgery. “Right. Of course.”

He looked at me and pushed his chair back, pulling his mask down. He crossed his arms. “This is going to sound kind of weird,” he said, “but when you have them out… may I have them? I’m doing a study on impacting teeth, you see.”

I shrugged. “Yeah, why not.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it,” he said, grinning. He had nice teeth. I wondered how many he’d had taken out over the years.

The surgery was booked, the surgeon this time a short, jovial man with wild hair. He rubbed his hands together as he talked, no doubt excited by a chance to remove more of my never-ending teeth.

“Just a little pinch,” said the nurse, inserting the line into my wrist. They asked me to count backwards from ten. I counted and waited, but nothing happened. I laughed and said it didn’t seem to be doing anything. Nobody engaged in conversation with me.

“You apparently wouldn’t shut up,” my mother told me afterwards. “They were just waiting for you to go to sleep so they could start. Here, these are yours.” She gave me one final bag of four bloody teeth.

A couple of days later I walked into my dentist’s office, clutching the bag. “Mr. Marsden wanted these,” I told the receptionist.

She held it away from herself between forefinger and thumb. “Oh. Thanks.”

*

Sometimes I wonder if I’m written about in dental journals, a footnote credit as The Girl with Too Many Teeth. I’ve never looked myself up, though I’m sure I’m in there. These days, I forget to tell new dentists about my multiple surgeries, until they ask in confusion if I don’t have as many teeth as I should.

“Oh, right – I’ve had 27 teeth removed,” I say.

“Oh! That’s a lot. But you have such nice teeth.”

I smile, straight pearly whites. “I do now.”

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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