Notre Dame Vision Mentor-in-Faith 2015
University of Notre Dame, Class of 2016
During the spring of my junior year of high school, a terrible thing happened. I still remember that fateful day. My mom told me she would pick me up after school so we could go prom dress shopping, and I had been looking forward to it since first period biology. But after the final bell rang and I got into my mom’s minivan, I realized we weren’t going to the mall at all. We arrived at our destination and my mom turned to look at me. “Sarah,” she said, and then she spoke the most dreaded three words that any seventeen-year-old could hear: “You’re getting braces.”
A line from Scripture came to mind: “Father, if it is possible, let this suffering pass from me.”
If you search “average age to get braces” on Google, the range is from eight to twelve years old. This means that the mean age is ten. I was seventeen. Prom, graduation, dance recitals, senior pictures… you name it, I had braces for it. And when you’re in high school, the last thing you want to do is stand out.
What was even more unbearable to me than not being able to eat popcorn or candy was that I was totally and utterly embarrassed about how I looked. What I didn’t understand at the time is that beauty does not come from having braces or no braces, crooked teeth or straight teeth. It is intrinsic to who we are as daughters and sons of Christ.
In all seriousness, I told my mom that if I had to get braces then I would not smile with my teeth or let anyone see them until I got them off in eighteen months, a task which was much more difficult than I realized at the time. I recognize now that this frustration and embarrassment came from a desperate place in my heart in search of a love that comes only from God. It was impossible for me to love myself because I did not fully understand how unconditionally He loves me.
My promise to survive without showing my teeth lasted for approximately 48 hours. Although I tried to cover them up as best I could, eventually my lips got sore from curling over the metal in my mouth. Then, two days after getting my braces on, I was teaching a ballet class when a little four year old named Nina pointed to my teeth and said, “That’s so cool! I want some!” She ran off after class and begged her mom to get “twisted paperclips glued to her teeth, just like Ms. Sarah.” That’s the thing about little children—they love every part of you. They think every part is extremely fascinating and beautiful.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us that it is impossible to enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless we adopt this openness and love, becoming like little children. From then on I decided it wasn’t worth the effort to cover up my braces. It was actually a huge relief not to worry about making sure they were hidden, and my lips definitely forgave me once I stopped straining them in an attempt to cover my teeth.
I wish I could say that the reaction I got from allowing my braces to be visible was earth-shattering or extremely dramatic, but it wasn’t. Everyone carried on with their lives, and nobody even said anything about my braces. What I thought would be the single event that ruined my final eighteen months of high school actually had no negative effect.
My struggle to accept myself with braces taught me that in the most important relationship we will ever have, our relationship with Jesus Christ, there is absolutely no point in trying to hide parts of ourselves. It is once we recognize this and let His love overflow in us that we can truly feel the beauty and tenderness of the unending love of the Savior—a Savior who loved you so much He died on a cross to know every single part of you more deeply.
The day before I moved in for my freshman year at Notre Dame, I got my braces off. The funny thing about braces is that when you finally survive their years of torture, you are confronted with perhaps an even more embarrassing task: the retainer. At least with braces you can talk relatively normally, but when you have a retainer in your mouth, forget it. Yet the beauty of having a retainer lies in the fact that if you get off-track and don’t wear it for say, a few months, you can still put it back in and it will eventually realign your teeth. It might hurt and will definitely be challenging, but if you just allow the transformation to happen, it will.
Aside from the disgusting-ness of retainers themselves, they are a pretty beautiful image for how God works in our lives. Even when I mess up, He is there with His arms stretched wide open on the cross, reminding us that it is never too late to realign our will with His will. Even when we turn our backs on Him, He comes running after us…even if we have braces.