Picket Fence

You never smile, Sung Hee. Even if you’re my daughter, I feel an icy breeze coming from around you. It’s what keeps everyone away. People are repelled by sadness and attracted to happy smiles. I feel like I don’t know you anymore.        

I smile wide. Not the natural smile that reaches your eyes, with your upper lip pulled taut and relaxed over your gums. Nope. I want you to count how many teeth I have. I want you to see how widely I can stretch the corners of my mouth. I’ll show you how many e’s there are in
“cheese”. You got a quarter from the tooth fairy for your last tooth? Well, the tooth fairy paid a twenty for these babies. My stiff smile pushes my cheeks up to the point where I am squinting over my smile. On three! 1…2…Flash.

Seung, Seung-hee. Yebbeun Seung-hee. Seung, Seung-hee. Oo-ree Seung-hee. Seung, Seung-hee. Pretty Seung-hee. Seung, Seung-hee. Our Seung-hee.

            “Hey Sung Hee, why do you have two dots on your front teeth? Haha! Look at Sung Hee with her two dumb brown dots on her two front teeth.” 

Tip-toeing and peering closely at the reflection in my bathroom mirror, I smile. And I see them. The two dumb dots on my two front teeth, interrupting my row of expensive, white squares and sharp triangles. So I let the curtains drop. I can just wait until the tooth fairy comes to pick these up, right? I smile again, with my lips stretching to reach my ears, and my right dimple whispering its way onto my cheek, as I squint into the mirror. But this time, there are only two thin pink lines and no teeth.

Year after year, Lifetouch photographers have the hardest time trying to get me to smile. “Come on, look straight into the camera. Right here! Cheese!”

But I stick religiously to my grim, straight-lipped smile. This time, the photographers can’t see how many e’s.  No one can peer through the clear plastic window of my Lifetouch envelope and giggle at the two brown dots.

            Grinning wears my cheeks out fast though, and one day, I’m not quick enough to catch myself when laughter escapes my lips. I grab at my stomach, bearing all of my teeth. I can’t hide them forever. I smile again with all of my teeth, with my cheeks, and my squinting eyes.

“Agh! Youre teeth are so yellow, they’re blinding!” Meant to be a joke, I haha along with everyone else.

“Youre teeth look like a picket fence!” But this one is new.

Forgetting that picket fences are indeed white and perfectly straight, I gasp.


I suck in my breath. I cut my laugh short. I run my tongue over the edges of my top teeth, and cringe at every gap. As I run my tongue over my bottom teeth, I can almost hear a stick running across a metal fence. Crawling over a jagged row of teeth, with one tooth overlapping the other, my tongue hiccups over one tooth and crash lands on the next. At home, I hesitate to pry my lips apart. Even though the tooth fairy had long ago stopped by with my two, twenty-dollar bills, there seems to be another problem. My two front teeth rebelliously grow in opposite directions, leaving a valley. With an overbite overwhelming my lower teeth, I gingerly lower my jaw. A picket fence.

            In seventh grade, I decide for myself that I need braces. I had read and heard so many bad things about them: you could taste your breakfast. . . at dinner, they hurt, you can’t eat much, no apples, no gum, no caramel, rubber bands are a hassle and so is keeping them clean after a meal.

A special case, I am told that I need a palette expander and that I would have to turn a spoke on the metallic, spider-like contraption glued to the roof of my mouth every night. Viciously eager and feeding off the added pressure, I turn the spoke not the recommended two times, but three and a half times. Days turn into weeks, and the valley between my two front teeth turns into a shelf. My tongue doesn’t hiccup over this shelf, but comfortably settles into it. Haha! Sung Hee the hillbilly! Mortified, I turn the spokes one and a half times every night, and return to smiling, and laughing, with the curtains drawn. Anxiously, I tell myself I’m counting the days until my next dentist appointment. In reality, I contemplate whether my tongue would be strong enough to break free of the metallic spider, or if applying the same pressure while holding my teeth together will close the gaping hole- now big enough to snuggly house another tooth. Hopelessly, with my thumb and forefinger, I pinch my two front teeth. 

Soon enough, I lay across the green and blue death chair, and after an hour of painful drilling, whirring and beeping, I peer into a mirror. My tongue finally sings, sliding along the grooves of not cool slippery metal, but the roof of my mouth. I lift my upper lip and lower my jaw. The zigzagging wire angrily bends across my teeth. A picket fence in repair, I sigh, ignoring the dull pulse of pain in my gums. I smile wide, letting the corners of my lips reach for my earlobes, pulling my lips back as I count each shiny square block, tracing with my squinty eyes the wire that was keeping my picket fence in order.

As weeks turn into months, hiccups turn into speed bumps as my tongue begins to have an easier time making its way around the contours of my teeth. If a grin escapes me, I could go several periods without realizing that a corner of my lip is stuck in one of my brackets. For those several periods, depending on which part of my lip, and which corresponding bracket, I am Snarling, Growling, or Smirking Sung Hee.

Though the boxes of tiny, brightly colored rubber rings fascinate me, I can’t help but think of spinach for green, carrot for orange, pepper flakes for red, or a gaping cavity for black. Imagine having the rubber bands holding your braces together mistaken for lodged food! So I went for the safest option: clear. But with each meal, the clear becomes anything less than clear and after my favorite meal of curry rice, I brush my teeth once, twice, and thrice only to realize that neon yellow was my newly stained rubber band color, and that there are still three weeks until my next appointment.

For two and a half more years, I diligently thread floss once between my braces, and another time between my teeth. For two and a half more years, I live a Juicy-Fruit –less life. For two and a half more years, my lips stay pursed and glued together. I won’t allow anyone to joke about being blinded by the light glinting off my braces, or play “Guess What I Ate For Lunch” using my neon yellow stained rubber bands as clues. I learn to speak, laugh, and smile expertly- hiding my picket fence behind my lips, or in worst-case scenarios, demurely behind one hand. In fact, no one remembers I had braces at all when I finally get them off.

I run my tongue over smooth square teeth, in perfect arches, once over my top teeth, and twice over my bottom teeth, almost disappointed that my tongue hasn’t been cut by a stray wire or bracket in the process. It’s unreal. Smooth and slippery, there is no screeching sound of stick to metal fence; there is no hiccupping, or the lazy feel of speed bumps. I curl my lips back, squish my cheeks up to my eyes and count: 1,2,3,4. .  .

Even now, two years after emancipation (and with a couple more years of education- picket fences are white and uniform), two years after my metal to teeth ratio diminished significantly, an invisible adhesive seems to keep my lips attached to each other. It’s comfortable, and almost convenient.

“You never smile, Sung Hee. Even if you’re my daughter, I feel an icy breeze coming from around you. It’s what keeps everyone away. People are repelled by sadness and attracted to happy smiles. I feel like I don’t know you anymore,” my mom says to me one day before dropping me off. “You have no idea what effect a smile can have on someone. Please just smile.”

So I try. I open my eyes a little wider. I stare intently (or as intently as I can before my eyes naturally drop themselves) for as long as I can. When people approach me, I smile and laugh. Oh, you went to Costa Rica over the summer? Haha! Sounds like fun! I walk past the same security guard that I had silently walked past for the first few weeks while staring at my shoes. You never smile. I look up and decide to cheese my not so pearly whites. Just a brief test run with no words exchanged. Just a test run. The security guard looks up, smiles back and nods. I skip to class that day.

“Hey! How was your summer? Hey Andrew! Nick! Ada!” I smile. I laugh.

“Hey guys! I’m Sung Hee and I’ll be your Big Sib. Feel free to ask me any questions!” I smile. I laugh.

Sung Hee Han
Age 16, Grade 11
Stuyvesant High School
Silver Key

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