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“You learn something new
every day, Norman Wong.”
This is a line my mother is still fond of repeating. My sisters and I all say it, too. It dates to my mother’s years as a high school Spanish teacher. She spent her entire career teaching at Lowell High School in San Francisco, a public high school for the academically inclined, a school whose population was, during her tenure as during my sisters and my years as students there, predominantly Chinese-American. Which explains the Norman Wong of the quote. Norman was an actual student in one of her classes.
He was lucky. My mother’s class was all about learning something new every day, not just in or about Spanish, but about life itself. I was a student in her AP Spanish class and remember marveling at how good she was it, at how it truly was her vocation to stand before a room of nerdy naïve youngsters and show them how it’s done.
This was her true gift as a teacher, really. You thought she was teaching you the subjunctive, but really she was teaching thinking, self-reliance, self-discipline, enthusiasm – she taught life itself. I still meet people, native San Franciscans, who recognize me by my last name as my mother’s daughter and regale me with stories of how much she influenced them.
As her kids, my sisters and I were raised on this notion of learning something new every day. It’s a big deal in my family, and explains why after my parents retired from teaching, they immediately enrolled as graduate students in Italian. They’re constantly learning something – tango, Italian, Portuguese -- or going to the opera, reading, seeing films. Always learning, still growing.
I was thinking earlier today about this penchant to look at each experience as an opportunity to learn something. It can take the heat or terror or humiliation out of almost anything that happens. No matter what, you’ll learn something. You don’t always know what, but something will come of it that increases your store of accumulated wisdom, that expands your perspective and ability to understand the world around you.
Even something as simple as having my teeth cleaned can send me down this path. That’s where I was earlier today when I remembered Norman Wong and my mother’s manifesto.
I was sitting in the chair while a new hygienist worked on my plaque-y teeth. I suppose I’d never visited this dentist on a Monday so never had the benefit of this particular hygienist. She wasn’t new, really, just new to me.
She was different from the rest of the staff there, older. What I like about my dentist and the other women at this clinic is that they’re all young and they have small hands. In my childhood, I spent what seemed like an inordinate amount of time at the dentist. The dentist was always male, and I remember the tremendous pressure of those big hands on my little jaws. These new young ladies with their small hands and their super degree of empathy, always pre-apologizing in case of possible pain, delight me. The thing I realized today is that they don’t necessarily have the amount of accumulated wisdom that Jean, the Monday hygienist, has.
What’s incredible to me is that today, sitting in that chair for an hour, I learned things about my teeth and my mouth and my sleep and my breathing that no one, certainly not a Registered Dental Assistant, has ever told me before. Keep in mind that I get my teeth cleaned a lot, every three months or they're out of control. And do I have to remind you that I've had these teeth one hell of a long time.
Anyway, this woman Jean blew my mind. It was hard to make out her words sometimes, over the sucking of the tube in my mouth, the whine of the scaler, the muffling effect of her facemask. But when she asked me whether I was right or left-handed, that got my attention. When she told me that I am a mouth-breather when I sleep, I paid more attention. She has been doing this so long, she said, that she can tell everything about people from the condition of their teeth.
Me? She had me pegged. Allergies and a runny nose mean I generally breathe through my mouth when sleeping. She asked me if the first thing I do when I wake up is blow my nose. Why yes, indeed, ma’am, how did you know? Also asked me if I run or do aerobic exercise. All that breathing dries out the mouth, causing one to salivate more, leading to more plaque build-up.
Hearing her talk I was visualizing my mouth as never before, as a coral reef constantly growing itself. It wasn’t anymore about my failures to floss (I’m diligent!). It was to do with my genes, with my breathing, even with my handed-ness – although there I defy the odds as most right-handed people have cleaner teeth on the left side of their mouths since they typically start brushing there. Me, the right side’s cleaner even though I’m right handed. But I think it’s because I generally sleep on my left side. I’m surprised she didn’t ask me this.
I suppose I could regard the whole experience of cleanings four times a year as a chore, as something unpleasant and uncomfortable. Certainly it isn’t altogether pleasant, and generally not comfortable -- sometimes there are stabs or zings of pain. It’s not my favorite thing in the whole world, but I have to say that, coming from where I come from, it’s amazing what you can learn, sitting in that chair, when someone with years of accumulated wisdom sits there with her eyes and tools and tells you what your teeth say you’re about.
As I was leaving with my fantastically clean teeth and all this new insight about them, I stopped to make my next appointment. I made it for a Monday, so that Jean could regale me with more of her expertise as she scours the coral reef of my mouth three months from now.
It’s really true that you can learn something new every day. Even the smallest experience, the most mundane, the least dramatic, can unfold whole vistas right before your eyes. But Norman Wong, you knew that already, right? You learned that a long time ago.