The Age of Wisdom
A bored mother tells you more than you ever wanted to know about impacted teeth and English novelists.
Wisdom teeth are vestigial third molars, a leftover from our Neanderthal days when we had larger jaws and needed extra molars to chew plants and such. Once we discovered fire and fine-tuned our taste for roasted animals, we no longer needed big jaws for munching only foliage. But, consistent with other vestigial features, we continued to grow third molars even after we found ourselves classified as homosapiens.
Wisdom teeth tend to develop between the ages of 17 and 25. And because our jaws are smaller than our prehistoric ancestors, our mouths don’t have enough room for the additional choppers. Thus, oral surgeons make a good living extracting these molars from young adults. Just one more expense for already broke parents, incurred about five minutes before the kid is completely independent and responsible for his or her own dental bills.
The term “wisdom teeth” stems from the notion that the molars don’t emerge until after we are wiser than children. Supposedly, young adults between the ages of 17 and 25 have entered the “Age of Wisdom.” That the person who suggested this did not have teenagers would come as no surprise.
So what is the nature of this wisdom acquired in youth?
English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray wrote a poem in the 1800’s titled The Age of Wisdom. He pretty much lambasted curly locked, barely-bearded boys, bitterly stating that they lack the real wisdom and clear thinking of 40-year old men who have known the true worth and love of a woman.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…”
Dickens’ novel contains many themes, including his advocacy for social justice. The opening words of his 1859 novel mirror well the juxtapositions in contemporary society and our own struggles with social justice. Do our favored youth, as they sprout their third molars, grasp these societal contrasts? I worry that they too often resemble Thackeray’s lads, cooing and sighing and singing of foolishness as they spend with abandon their parents’ dwindling dollars.
I don’t know why these thoughts invaded my way-over-40-year-old brain, but I do know how it happened. My interest in the mysterious third molars peaked while I recently sat in the oral surgeon’s office. My 19-year old Little Prince was having four impacted wisdom teeth extracted, and I was tired of reading the offices’ back issues of Bowhunter magazine. One can quickly tire of articles about blood trailing wounded elk and field dressing big game. Maybe it’s just me. Anyway, I used my new Nook to learn in 60 minutes all I could about wisdom teeth. Thackeray and Dickens were mere tangents chased by a curious mind still foolishly seeking wisdom after wasting away for too many years in academia.
Two of my very own wisdom teeth were pulled one summer in the mid-1970s while visiting my father, who lived in Trinidad while I was in college. I lounged poolside all day, sipping rum punches and dreading the dental pliers awaiting me later that afternoon. My mind’s image of the experience displays in black and white, sort of like a John Huston film noir set in the tropics. If I recalled that day in Technicolor, I would need Valium to offset the severe trembling.
The dentist was a very nice Pakistani man with an established practice. But this was a Caribbean island that gained independence from the British Empire less than 15 years before my arrival as a dental patient. Trinidad was a wonderful place in those years, but it was an island of practical people who eschewed the typical frills demanded by spoiled American youth.
Picture me as I assumed my position in an antiquated dental chair. Above my head, metal fan blades rotated slowly. Open jalousie windows banked three sides of the room. There may have been screens. The dentist strapped me into the chair. I swear on the graves of all English novelists, the man strapped me in at the waist. He impatiently shot my lower jaw full of Novocain, then, after a few minutes, moved toward me with the pliers. My loving stepmother, a native Trinidadian, recognized the fear and anguish in my face. She spotted the nervous sweat streaming down my body and heard my convulsive breathing as the dentist began to tug at the first of my emerging wisdom teeth. She calmly grasped my forehead and held it tight against the back of the chair, whispering soothing words.
In a few minutes, it was over. Two teeth extracted. In truth, the experience was really not that bad. The problem was that it happened so fast and I had no idea what to expect. But I was poolside again in about 24 hours, rum punch in hand for faster healing. Wisdom gained? I waited a year to get the other two teeth pulled – this time in the university town from which I had just graduated - and I told the dentist he’d better use laughing gas or his hand would exit my mouth missing a couple of fingers.
The Little Prince’s experience was quite different. It began with a Wednesday consultation to meet the oral surgeon. (When did dentists stop pulling teeth?) We got a colorful packet and brochures and stuff. Then we arrived this morning for the procedure and were shown a commercially-produced DVD explaining the process, post-operative treatment, risks, and precautions. We were given so much information that I felt obligated to take copious notes. We were also given written instructions, which I committed to memory while in the waiting room before losing myself in the Bowhunter articles.
The Little Prince was given an IV that pretty much knocked him out for the procedure. Once completed, I was escorted to the recovery room to rub his feet and offer a mother’s comfort as he came to. His first words to me? "I'm high as a kite." Or more like "Ahm hai azza kaeit."
I drove Prince Loopy home and got him settled on the den couch. He spoke in tongues for about an hour, and then the pain set in. Thankfully, the pain pill did its work quickly and he passed out before I had to hear more unintelligible whining and complaining.
The cost of his extractions? The last of his weary parents' savings.
Post-operative prescriptions and supplies? More than a dinner for two at Tuscany Italian Grill.
Being given one more chance to be needed as a mommy as my son enters the Age of Wisdom? Don’t even try to put a price on it.