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Dental Records: Another Re-envisioning of Growth Mindset

Stickers. Pencils. Oversized erasers. A basket full of tiny, plastic toys. Those were the items that punctuated each successful sit in the dentist’s chair, the celebratory end to half an hour staring at a tiger kitten barely hanging onto a tree branch. The anticipation was almost too much, but the exit into the sunny waiting room somehow worth it, somehow self-affirming.

“No cavities.” Success. Perfection, really. Easily measurable every six months.

After I got my first cavity filled, I attempted to buoy myself with the “it’s just one” mentality. "One is not so bad." By the time I was a young adult professional, I had lost count of the cavities. I brushed them off as unimportant, mere speed bumps, misconceptions, ridiculous really, someone else's imagined decay. For the almost ten years I lived in Guatemala, I stopped going to the dentist all together. Nothing hurt. I brushed. I flossed more than I ever had, while I feasted and tasted local foods. Like my job skills, my self-worth, everything was status quo. Everything was fine.

“Do you even bother to floss your back teeth,” was the exasperated implication from the dentist at the end of my most recent regular check-up.

I said nothing. I left the squeaky brown chair and paid at the front. I left without scheduling appointments to fill the identified cavities. The visit had felt like a trick. I had consented to the x-ray and as a result of that extra fee, the dentist proudly informed me of the “cavities we caught early.” I went home to wait. I waited for a job that paid more money, for a job that had insurance, for reassurance that my feeling about my own value was more than my dental records. How had everything gone so wrong?

Dental records, after all, are interesting things. They are one of the most reliable means to identify someone, although usually that information is spent on the dead. Ironically the tooth enamel that allows for my imperfections to be seen is also the hard substance remaining after other parts of the body decay and are no longer identifiable. In fact, a forensic dentist can make a positive identification of an individual with only a few teeth. Dental records archive lives.

“Things about the biter's lifestyle can be determined by the teeth; a constant pipe smoker or a bagpipe player has a distinctive wear pattern. Dressmakers and tailors, who often put pins and needles in their mouths, may have chipped teeth.” (

I suppose dentists always allude to this. “Don’t chew ice. It will break your teeth,” a phrase that translates into, “don’t develop self-damaging habits.” Dentists caution, “Don’t eat too much sugar. Eat a balanced diet.” I didn't listen, much less hear, that during the years in Guatemala my lack of a balanced diet was a too contextualized work environment that prevented the development of marketable skills much like the forced curving and pushing attempted by childhood braces, an unsustainable correction.

I thought I remembered something else about dental records from a crime television series. I searched for more information online. “After all the molars and teeth have their enamel form, if one moves to a different environment, the lead signals present in their teeth will be different than everyone else. . . The researchers feel that such techniques can help better determine how humans migrated across regions in the past.” (

That was interesting, encouraging even. My teeth held more than a history of my mistakes, decay ground away and refilled; my teeth held a history of my signature actions and where I did them. In an attempt to begin my New Year fresh, I made the appointments to fill the identified cavities without the better job, without the insurance.

Again in the chair, I offered an attempt at learning instead of denial. “I don’t understand,” I said. I am taking care of my teeth.”

“Cavities take years to develop. And we begin to outlive our teeth." The dentist returned to the x-ray. "So we have two cavities today and two next time."

“What!?” I cringed in shock. “I thought it was just one and one.”

"This third one." He leaned closer to the screen. "I don't think this is a cavity. This looks like a natural formation on the tooth." He crossed off the other dentist's notes.

I exhaled, relieved that at least not all the irregularities in my mouth were defects.

“Do you want the metal or white filling?”

Mostly dejected I responded. “Metal. It’s the cheapest.”

He paused as if to say I didn’t value all he could give me, but then said, “I’ll give you the white for the price of the metal. I like it better. It makes me feel like I’m reconstructing a tooth, instead of just filling in a hole.”

I wanted to cry when I heard those words. Not because I anticipated the prick of the needle that would numb my gums. Not because of the high pitched grinding noise seething from the drill. Paying the bill for four cavities hurt, but I could manage to forget. I wouldn't forget those words, not those words.

I wanted to look at my x-rays and see a record of who I tried to be, not a record of bad habits nor mistakes nor cracked cavities from far away that needed to be filled yet again. It hadn't been the heat and white lights nor imposed silence I had dreaded at the dentist’s office all along, but its “just hang in there” kitties stronger than I and their required self-reflection.

More than anything, I wanted to see the cavities that way. I wanted to see my dental records, my life, that way. I wanted it recorded as something in constant reconstruction after breaks or slow decomposition, not a series of holes refilled. In all honesty, when I transferred money over to cover the check I wrote, I still didn't feel that. But, I want to, and like the one white cavity, I want that in my dental records.

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