The Bully and the Believer

By the time my daughter discovered her first wiggly tooth, she had doubts about the tooth fairy. It was the end of her first-grade year. She was the only child in her class, the only child she knew, the only child in existence who hadn’t lost a tooth. That loose chunk of enamel was a ticket to being like everyone else. A ticket to no longer being left behind.

“Preston says there’s no such thing as the tooth fairy,” she said, watching for a reaction.

Would I flinch?

I would not.

“Why did Preston say that?” I asked.

“He saw his mom. With his own eyes!” she said indignantly. Apparently, he’d been awake when his mom slipped a twenty under his pillow.

“I can’t speak for Preston’s house,” I said. “But I heard the tooth fairy only visits children who believe in her.”

My daughter stared at me with diminishing triumph. Had I scared her into believing in the tooth fairy? Or confused her? Bad parenting as it seemed, I knew my goal and I had succeeded. I’d propped open a door in her mind for a sprite visitor.

In my defense, I had a lot to lose. The tooth fairy is an emissary of the impossible. A guidepost in a child’s imagination, she invites the intermingling of wonder, curiosity, and belief, indulging a brand of creativity and speculative thinking that thrives in childhood alone. What is this creature who offers gifts for the pain and suffering of lost teeth? She’s a living fable disguised as a pixie with a lesson in resilience and reward.

Although I was no parenting noob, a word I would learn from my son, two years younger than his sister, I was nervous. One misstep with my daughter could banish the tooth fairy from our address for good without a single delivery. If my daughter didn’t believe in her, there’s no way my son would.

Because we are Jewish, the tooth fairy is the only magical creature available to us. No Easter Bunny hides eggs in our yard. Santa Claus is a glutinous marvel who shimmies down chimneys to drop off packages for other kids, never mine. Every December, when we passed houses decorated with flashing red and green bulbs, dripping with iridescent, fluorescent icicles, and bobbing Rudolphs, my children asked why we couldn’t have these for our house.

“Christmas isn’t our holiday. We aren’t Christian,” I said.

“What’s Christmas again?” asked my son.

“It’s Santa Claus bringing presents to the good kids,” his sister said. “At night. While you sleep. He sneaks into your house.”

“My house?” he asked.

“Not our house,” I said. “Because we have Hanukkah.” Then I explained in the petty logic my parents used on me why Hanukkah is better than Christmas.

“Eight nights of presents is better than just one,” my daughter agreed. “But how does Santa know he shouldn’t come to our house?”

“Does he think we aren’t good enough for presents?” asked my son.

“Does he think Jewish kids are bad?” asked my daughter.

How could I explain Santa Claus in a way that didn’t make my kids feel excluded from the best party all year? I’d already forbidden all festive outdoor decorations, even lights in blue and gold designed for Jews and purchased by other Jews because they felt like a blinking form of assimilation, an abandonment of my Jewishness. If I weren’t careful, the next time we watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” my kids would begin to see his side of things. So I revealed my trump card.

I told them Santa is a Christian symbol that honors generosity, connectivity, and kindness. Parents bring him to life by sharing his story and giving gifts in his spirit.

“He’s not real,” my daughter said.

I looked each of my kids in the face, and like any schoolyard bully, I made them swear to secrecy. I was not raising a Santa snitch – what every Jewish parent fears – so I protected him the best way I could, with an ominous threat of danger. “You can’t tell anyone–ever,” I said, sharply.

Unlike Santa, the tooth fairy is a magical figure for everyone who can afford her trinket gifts. My parents, who had been too poor as kids for birthday presents, weren’t introduced to her until they moved to the middle-class town where they raised me. Did her rituals help them fit in?

The tooth fairy is a global phenomenon. She goes by different names in different countries and her customs vary with geography and language, but she’s an internationally recognized characteristic of the universal predicament of being a child. I didn’t want my kids to miss out on her, especially not before I’d had at least one opportunity to strap on my wings.

When my daughter’s tooth was tethered by a thread, flopping outside her smile, I stole out to the craft store and tore through the aisles, looking for items to illuminate a fairy world. Which nick-nacks suggested the supernatural? Which confirmed a reality conceived by the imagination? I loaded up my cart, committed to solidifying my daughter’s ability to believe.

The next morning, she and her brother ran into our bedroom. “You’re never going to believe what’s in my room!” She dragged my husband and me to her bedroom where a fairy door stood underneath her window. “What is it?”

“It’s small enough for a fairy,” I said.

“A tooth fairy?” she said. “No one at school said anything about a door.”

“She gives different things to each kid, right?” I said. “Maybe she enters every house a different way.”

The next night, a miniature well with a working crank for lowering a bucket appeared near the door. “What’s that for?” my daughter asked.

“Maybe the tooth goes in the bucket?” I said, like a scientist of the supernatural. “Maybe it’s easier to find it there than under your pillow?”

Her tooth hung on for a few more days, finally falling out at school. She carried it home in a Ziploc sandwich bag from the nurse.

That night, she wrote a note to the tooth fairy, asking if it was okay for her to keep this tooth because it was the first she’d lost. The tooth fairy left the tooth along with $5 and a small orange figure.

The tooth-for-toy exchange broadened over time to incorporate letters of interview-style questions brainstormed by my daughter and her brother. Where did the tooth fairy live? How old was she? What did she do with the teeth? How big was she? The tooth fairy ignored all questions but those she could answer with a sparkling gold or silver “y” or “n,” except for the time they asked about her size.

“M & M?” read my daughter. “Like the candy? If she’s so small, how does she get the door open?”

“Fairy dust?” I suggested, pointing to the floor around the well splashed with glitter and sparkling pom poms.

She didn’t respond to letters unless they were left with teeth. “Maybe the tooth fairy isn’t real,” said my son. “Maybe it’s just mom bringing us things.” But my daughter assured him otherwise. Until she didn’t.

She was in third grade when she approached me in earnest. “I want to know the truth about the tooth fairy.”

She’d lost eight teeth by then, including one that made a bloody mess in my car and another that ruined two cloth napkins at a fancy Mexican restaurant in Florida during a vacation to see grandparents.

Her experiences taught her that the tooth fairy is a fluttering miracle that lets discomfort and joy coincide. She arrives when duty calls, which is after a loss of enamel, sometimes of blood, often with pain. Unlike Santa who doles out requested presents on a schedule to the children he deems deserving, the promise of the tooth fairy ushers children through a difficulty without judgment. She gathers tooth fragments, the evidence of hurt, and marks the triumph over it with a token of delight. Soon a new, more capable tooth emerges. She must have been invented to demonstrate this lesson.

There were other times when my daughter had asked about the tooth fairy, but this time felt different. Diverting her as I’d always done would have felt like a lie, like I was excluding her from information that was rightfully hers. She’d be justified in feeling betrayed if I did.

“You can’t tell your brother,” I said.

Soon I’d let her wear lip gloss to her cousin’s bat mitzvah. A year after that, she’d begin studying for her own. Her child-like innocence was dimming. With her question she stepped squarely into the adult world she was headed toward. I gave the answer I owed to the person she was becoming.

“I’m the tooth fairy.”

Her eyes bulged. “For everyone?” she asked, agape.

“No,” I said quickly. Had I made a mistake? Could I have squeezed out a few more years, a few more teeth? “Just for you and your brother. I take your teeth and leave you presents.”

I told her how I snuck about and where I bought gifts. As she grew more giddy with each practical detail of my deception, I realized that I had been wrong. I had thought the truth would extinguish the mystery and magic of the tooth fairy. Instead, I had given the tooth fairy a body and a concrete story. She hadn’t become human; I’d become part fairy. Ordinary old me brushed with fairy dust. I was a living miracle. I didn’t orchestrate the impossible, I embodied it.

I was reminded of how I’d felt in high school physics class when I learned the reason my body had swung thrillingly outward as a kid on a merry-go-round. Science explained invisible forces. Science was magic and magic was everywhere.

“But you can’t tell anyone, okay?” I said threateningly, the bully again. “Especially not someone younger than you, even if they pretend like they already know.”

She nodded.

“They might be testing you. You can’t know for sure, so play dumb, okay? You can’t take the tooth fairy away from anyone. Ever.”

“Okay,” she said, interrupting me. “But mom, will I be the tooth fairy, too, someday?” she asked.

“You can be,” I said.

I had thought being the tooth fairy gave me a role that let me belong in her world as it had for my parents and me. I was wrong. Instead, it made a space for her to imagine what it felt like to belong in mine where grownups are the keepers of magic.


Image: photo by RDNE Stock project on Pexels, licensed under CC 2.0.

Jenn Scheck-Kahn
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