At a mere 19 years old, tragedy struck. In a dance conditioning class, I tripped and fell during some sprint suicides. I looked to the floor and my teeth were scattered all around. Blood on my hands, shoes and down my body I knew it was bad. I was so in shock I walked up to my professor and asked her if I could go to the office to call an ambulance.
Next thing you know I'm in an ambulance. Everything went to black and I woke up with my grandmother by my side, in a hospital bed with a neck brace already drugged out of my mind. Fading in and out of consciousness throughout the day, I was very unsure of what was going on. A few hours later, a doctor came in to speak to my grandmother. He relayed the information that I had fractured my jaw bone, my teeth were knocked out, and I would have to be transferred to another hospital an hour away so there was an oral surgeon qualified to restructure my mouth.
In the ambulance ride to the next hospital, I was finally conscious enough to look at my mouth and see what was going on. One tooth was chipped almost to my gum, and the other was half way back in the roof of my mouth. The teeth adjacent to my two front teeth were chipped, and my bottom four were broken to showcase a perfect U shape. The other half of my front tooth was stuck in my lip and I knew then and there this was going to be a process.
First photo taken after the incident. I returned to Michigan after my first two surgeries in the Hospital.
By the time I left the second hospital in Indianapolis to return to my parents home in Detroit, I had already undergone two oral surgeries. One to reset my jaw bone, and the other to pull my second front tooth back in line with the other. I remember on the car ride back to Detroit looking at myself through my selfie camera on the phone. Lips like sausages, and my face shape deformed, I remember this thought creeping into my head for the first time: I look so ugly. I look so ugly. I look so ugly. Now, not only was I sobbing from the immense pain I had just been through, but for the first time in my life, my thick skin had disintegrated to a lace sheet. Vulnerable, empty and barren.
Post surgery photo
As a performer, my appearance was something that struck me to my core. Now, toothless, swollen, and disheveled, I didn't know what to do. With two years ahead of surgeries, frustrations and pounds of pain medicine, I couldn't smile without feeling a deep pain of unworthiness. Never in my life had I experienced self consciousness this deeply, and it was a new emotion to process and work through.
I hadn’t realized it at the time until having a conversation with my beautiful friend Jay that he hadn’t seen me smile in weeks. This hit me. I was known for my smile, my optimism, my ability to light up the room and make everyone there feel important and included. I was so struck by this, I even looked through my phone at all of the pictures taken with family and friends over the few months from when I knocked out my teeth. He was right, I hadn’t. Not a single photo, or moment had I smiled, showing anyone this imperfection that was slightly out of my control.
Student bonding exercise during an immersive learning experience at Ball State University
At that moment I had a revelation. My mom's words from childhood ran through my mind: You can allow what happens in your life to define you, or you can use it as something to learn and grow from. I refused to allow something superficial define me. I was more than a pretty face. I was more than a pretty smile. Why should I allow something I can’t control to affect how I experience and live in my life.
My Grandparents and I celebrating my Birthday and Christmas with an "all i want for christmas is my two front teeth cake"
Flash forward to a year later, I had received a flipper. Yes, you read that right, like a toddlers and tiaras fake teeth retainer. Still toothless, and mainly consuming liquids as my diet, the flipper was in and I had felt better. Over the past year, I received countless amounts of judgy looks. People assumed because I didn't have teeth I was addicted to drugs or too far gone to save. They didn't know I tripped and fell into bleachers while sprinting, and they didn't care to learn.
At the time, it baffled me how so many people would treat someone differently for something they couldn’t control. I remember thinking, Why should my appearance affect how people view me in the world? They don’t know how I ended up toothless. Why should they judge me? These thoughts stopped me in my tracks. How many times have I judged someone based on how they looked or how they dressed. I realized the hypocrisy in my life up to this point, and I vowed to change it. No one deserves to be judged on things they can’t control. It deeply saddened me that in my 19 years of life, it took me that long to get to that point.
Grabbing food with my friends and my flipper fell out. My front teeth had been pulled, and you can see the flipper resting over my tongue.
` Around the time I received my flipper, my dance students had their annual christmas recital. There was a young student around 5 or 6 years old, Rose, who had recently lost her two front teeth with her adult teeth barely starting to come in. During the technical rehearsal, she had no problem performing on the stage, smiling without her two front teeth. However, it was time for her to dance on stage in front of a live audience. She was traumatized, crying in the wings, she didn’t want anyone to see her without her teeth.
This five year old was traumatized because she was afraid people would judge her, Afraid people would think she was ugly. She was one of our most confident and talented little dancers, and here she was having a breakdown over how she looked. I knew I had to do something as the adult in the situation. I pulled my student to the side, and took out my flipper. I told her if she was afraid to smile without her teeth, then I was with her, and would be smiling in the wings without my teeth with her as well. I reminded her that she wasn’t alone, and I understood what she was going through and how she was feeling and she was beautiful and fabulous regardless of if she had her teeth or not.
A photo from the recital where little Rosie and I smiled proudly without our teeth.
She walked away now smiling, and stood in her space in the wings, me right behind her. She marched on to that stage with a sense of pride. Occasionally taking glances at me to see if I was toothless with her, she danced her little booty off. Nailing every turn, giving energy and vitality to the stage, little Rose came off of the stage empowered, excited, and had completely forgotten her insecurities from a few minutes before.
I know this experience didn’t mean much, and wasn’t more than a little blip on her radar, but it meant the world to me. Knowing that my experiences and my trauma was more than just an unfortunate experience, but rather something I could use to inspire and empower other people. I was given this experience and message for a reason, and I could use it to inspire and empower others by example and support.
Now, 25 years old, sitting on my laptop typing this blog post, I am revisiting this experience through a different lens. It is hard to remember my mentality before becoming toothless tootsie, but I felt it was important to share. We are more than how we look, we are valued for so much beyond our experiences. We should never look down on or judge anyone for their experiences, self-expression or appearance. I hope above all else, you can remind yourself that you are valuable, you are strong and you are worthy. You can inspire and lead by example by being fearless in your self love and empowerment regardless of the situation. After all, what is pretty anyway?