At night, when the world was sleeping, I would don an orange mask and take a shortcut to St. Matthew School. I’d quietly slide a heavy metal grate from one of the storm drains and, nunchuks in hand, leap into the darkness. The battle for my school was about to begin again.
When I was in first grade, I thought that I was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle – a crooked-smiled, cowabunga-shouting Michelangelo, to be exact. It’s not that I dreamed of being a Turtle – I was a Turtle who, by day, took the form of Eric Immel. As a Turtle, I felt the real threat of the Foot Clan and the Shredder who sought to destroy the place I loved most. I took the council of Master Splinter, heeding sage words and making them my mantras. I moved in the shadows, three thick green fingers gripping the rough-hewn handle of an ancient ninjitsu weapon. I kept our school safe. And I told everyone as such.
At recess one day, I was regaling my classmates with tales from the previous night’s tangle. Two boys – John and Mike – called out my deception. “You’re definitely NOT a Ninja Turtle,” they said. We argued back and forth for a moment. What about the nunchuks? A cheap, plastic set my mom bought me at Toys-R-Us. My orange mask? A bandana with two janky eye-holes. My three-fingered turtle-hands? Five-fingered, like everyone else I knew.
Until that moment, I thought I had everyone convinced. I had convinced myself. But in an instant, I realized that my whole life was a lie.
I haven’t been to the dentist in three years. And, I don’t really floss. And, on some Saturday mornings, if I don’t have much going on, I’ll drink three cups of coffee, eat breakfast, go to church, and go to the gym before I brush my teeth. At the risk of making myself seem like a failed member of the hygienic community, I should tell you what I see in the mirror.
I see teeth that are white enough and clean enough. I see a bright and ready smile. I see a man who is busy with work and prayer and all the other things Jesuits are busy with. I see someone who thinks, almost daily, that he should make an appointment to go see the dentist. I see someone who disappoints Dr. Martin and Sandy, my childhood dentist and hygienist. I see someone who is afraid to fail people, and who fears being found out for my three-year hiatus. And then, I see someone who has, in his mind, actually gone to the dentist.
When I stop staring at myself in the mirror and the topic of dentists comes up, I gloss over my failure to floss and act like everyone else who visits the dentist every six months.
Almost as soon as these fictions fabricate themselves, they become a sort of truth – a truth that isn’t true at all.
If someone asked me in first grade whether I was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, I would have said yes. If someone asks me tomorrow whether I’d been to the dentist recently, I’d say yes. I’m convinced that I should, so I say I do. But eventually I’d get caught, and the truth would come out.
What else have I convinced myself of? What lies do I continue to tell myself? I’m no ninja, and I’m certainly not on top of taking care of my teeth. Do I simply say that I want to eradicate racism, or do I actually work to eradicate racism? Do I want people to know I stand with DACA recipients, or do I actually stand with DACA recipients?
When I was in first grade, I thought people needed me to be a hero. I wanted to be a hero. And so, I fashioned myself into one, even though my pretending made me something of the opposite. Adults go to the dentist, and so I “go to the dentist,” even though I don’t go to the dentist.
I spend a lot of time guessing at who I think others want me to be – others who I want to impress or attract, who have what I don’t have, who are something I’m not. If I become what I think others want me to be, I’ll be right with the world. An advocate for justice, a writer, a ninja, a committed patient of dentistry.
But then it becomes clear that if these things are not truly who I am, then this effort is nothing more than a subtle and toxic way of telling myself I’m not good enough. If the world doesn’t know I feel that way about myself, I can keep up the lie. As Master Splinter says: “The path that leads to what we truly desire is long and difficult.” The harder way – the right way – is to become who I am called to be – a person who is nothing more than himself.
And, a person who makes a dentist appointment as soon as I finish typing these words.