Better, Not Wrong

Yesterday for the first time in a few years (it's embarrassing, I know), I went to the dentist. I grew up getting my teeth cleaned routinely, enduring the shame of continual lectures about better flossing and brushing. As it had been a several year long hiatus since the last time I went, I expected the lecture to be prolonged (although I do brush my teeth regularly, and I even floss sometimes).

Instead of a lecture, they brought me back to the inner sanctum of cleaning rooms and gray chairs (which, incidentally, have always held a certain sort of awe for me), and treated me like an honored guest.

No one lectured me about my teeth.

No one told me I was doing anything wrong.

No one chastised me for being irresponsible or lazy in regards to my mouth.

Instead, the kind dental hygienist who cleaned my teeth told me they were nice, that they looked good, and to make sure I paid attention to the gums around my molars.

She showed me into another room to wait for the dentist, and there another woman offered me a bottle of ice cold water.

I met the Dentist (even though 'dentist' is a common noun, he was tall and had a red beard and red hair and shook my hand like a lumberjack would—he deserves an uppercase.), who showed me x-rays of my teeth and said they looked great. He asked me how my experience had been and if there was anything he could do for me, and promised to give a gift card to the person who had recommended me. He looked me in the eye, told me exactly what he was doing while he examined my mouth, and answered every question I asked quickly but clearly.

As I was leaving, the young ladies working the front desk were kind and cheerful, chatty but noncommittal. There was even a huge bowl (we're talking the circumference of a medium or large pizza from Papa Johns) filled with sticks of Orbit gum on the front desk, and there was coffee by the door.

I walked out, and to my surprise realized I wouldn't mind going back (which is good, because while I was there they scheduled my appointment for June. Who knows where I'll be in life in 6 months... But at least I'll have a sparkling smile.).

I used to spend days dreading the dentist; but not because I had bad teeth or lots of cavities or didn't like the taste of fluoride (although it's not my favorite). It wasn't for any reason besides that it was unpleasant, and I always got lectured or scolded or told I wasn't "taking good enough care of your mouth," and "teeth don't grow back when you mistreat them." I remember wincing in pain as the hygienist nicked my tender little gums with her tools, and I can still see the blurry ceiling through my teary eyes as I bore what felt like a dozen metal instruments in my mouth, all pricking and poking and jabbing. 

While my memories may be exaggerated by my youthful distate for the whole experience, I still carried some dentist-fear deep in my heart.

Until yesterday. 

I spent a lot of time thinking this week about how I like to be "handled," so to speak. Not physically, but in relation to my skills and talents and responsibilities, as a student. If every person is unique, each person has a different way they like to be taught. Most schools use the simple teacher/student method, because even if it's not the best for everyone, it's the most effective method to mass produce education.

In this method, teachers don't have a lot of time to devote to individuals, but often when they do it's for blunt correction and hasty set-straights.

In such cases as math and science and driving a car and playing the piano, perfect practice makes perfect. Letting someone practice wrong is doing nothing for anyone.

But in creative exercises, like writing and painting and photography and making pretty things, it's a more detrimental style of teaching. Bluntly telling someone that they've done badly at creating is as good as telling them not to try again.

In creating, I want to be told how to do better, not what I'm doing wrong.

Maybe it (the painting, the picture, the poem) is awful, not fit for human sight or consumption. But rather than a straight knock-over gale force wind, there's always room for the gentle breeze. 

Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, wrote, 

You don’t always have to chop with the sword of truth. You can point with it too.

Yes, if I'm making an egregious error, I do need to be told. Please don't let me drive off a cliff because you don't want to tell me I'm holding the steering wheel wrong.

But if my work needs whittling and reform, plain and simple editing, I want you to tell me what makes a good writer and give me time to try again. And maybe fail again, but to keep trying until I've succeeded. It might take a little longer, but in the long run I'll own the lesson and the skill.

It's harder for the student, because it takes more work, frustration, and determination. It's harder for the teacher, because if you know something it's extremely difficult to hold your tongue.

But in the long run, the lessons that are worth learning are the ones you had to work for.

Like writing well, or being a better ball player. Or brushing your teeth.

PS. You should definitely ALWAYS brush your teeth. It is not a creative exercise—it is your only mouth. I am telling you to.