27 October 2017

Wisdom Teeth: How I learned to take time off

It was after school, and I suddenly felt little pieces of bone? tooth? on my tongue. I moved my tongue around, and felt still more pieces. I spit them out.

Tooth. Tiny shards of tooth.

I didn't even have a toothache!

To this day, the worst nightmare I have is when my teeth start falling out. I used to get it when I didn't do my lesson plans or my grades weren't on time--quite frequently my first few years teaching, actually. It wasn't just the horrifically realistic wiggle of permanent teeth I felt, or the panic at wondering how many people would actually notice the resulting gaps, but it was the sheer GUILT at knowing that I had known exactly how to prevent those teeth falling out, the SHAME at knowing that now everyone would know I hadn't prevented it. I think the worst part of the dreams--as when I get a ticket or make some other avoidable mistake--is imagining my mother's reaction and coming up with a plan to cope with it.

So you would think that tooth shards would be a huge wake-up call.

Nope. I got what remained of that first wisdom tooth popped out, and went back to work the next day without so much as scheduling a cleaning. I didn't have the whole chipmunk effect I saw with my students who had the wisdom to, you know, get them removed before tooth shards happened.

A few years passed, and after giving birth to two kids, I slowly started to realize that Real Life was more than work. Apparently keeping your wisdom teeth delays wisdom. After Lena was born, I started to get actual pain on the other side, along with sensitivity that made it difficult to even eat. I found another dentist who agreed to pop that one out, fill a few cavities that had accrued in the intervening years, and even schedule a consultation with an orthodontic surgeon for those last two stubborn wisdom teeth.

Yeah, dental insurance was still sort of a dream at that point, so I figured I'd just wait until those teeth became a problem and maybe sign up for some insurance in the meantime.

Meanwhile, Lena's about to turn six--I do have dental insurance--and I end up in the emergency room when I can't stop crying long enough to explain the pain stabbing my face at urgent care.

I tell you about this teeth not to confess my failings at oral hygiene, but to illustrate what can happen when teachers don't take care of themselves, when they save up all of those sick days for retirement or for the kids. The truth is that I only went to urgent care that day because I had already taken a sick day because my husband was supposed to have surgery and needed a ride. I had already zombie walked through almost the exact same level of pain the Friday before at school.

I wrote about the tyranny of sick days almost two years ago, and how my colleagues basically had to shove me out of my own classroom. I talk a good game about prioritizing health to other people, but if I'm perfectly honest, the urgent care tears were as much from pain as from a sort of shame that I was claiming that I even deserved medical attention.

That is a feeling I would call stupid if I heard someone I loved describing it. I know it's a feeling, and I would want them to know that they are allowed to have that feeling, but that they didn't deserve that feeling. I would want them to know that it is not only valid, but essential to take care of problems before you physically can't handle them.

Rewind to February this year, when I "won" without "Winning." I took my first personal day, I think ever in my 15-year teaching career. And I went to Disney World with my kids--for the first time ever. I figured you only have a shot at regional teacher of the year once, and I'd have an excuse to celebrate or to force my family to have fun and distract me. With all of the conferences last year, I had gotten pretty good at traveling, too, including scheduling subs and avoiding invasive coulda/shoulda/woulda thoughts about what was going on in my classroom that moment.

In truth, it wasn't the unbearable face pain that opened the door. Accepting that life at home was as important as work was a step in the right direction that got me to obsess over planning and grading less, but that personal day started the slow dawn of the realization that for all I preach about school being real life for students, it was for me too. I only got the one chance at ToY, but I only get the one chance at LIFE too! If my pain is making this one life miserable, I can take the time to schedule an appointment. If it means I have to make two trips to the doctor that can only be scheduled during that problem class first period, so be it. If I have to stay out for a week with chipmunk cheeks and a really strong prescription, well, that might be what has to happen too.

As it happens, I was able to schedule the last two extractions either after school hours or during Thanksgiving break (mashed potatoes will be excellent recovery food!) And I got the initial consult on a workday. But if Ibuprofen hadn't handled the extraction aftermath, I was ready to accept that my students might have to work on portfolios or Duolingo or Sr. Wooly one more day--or two--without me. And if I have to put students out of my mind a few days to do something about my migraines, I'll do that too.

The truth is, some things that don't seem necessary still have to be done. I needed that Disney trip. I needed the appointment to get my tooth out. Could I have powered through without them? Probably. But at what cost? What cost to my health and mental acuity? What cost to my ability to actually be a teacher and wife and mother and HUMAN?

Shame on the media for sensationalizing teachers taking time off. My experience suggest chronic absenteeism is a result of A) active participation in the larger educational community or B) actually fixing the problems I tried to deny for too long. Or both!

The smile might not be the same in these photos (to be fair, one involved a lot of gauze and anesthetic), but these signs--more than the one tooth that's coming out in November--are the true signs of wisdom creeping into my life.

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