We sought the motive of our first-grade teacher at River Valley Elementary, who paid us to pull out our teeth. She told the students many times, “first and foremost, I am a teacher,” but the jars of our teeth unearthed from her basement claim otherwise. Granted, she had somewhat of an expertise as a part-time dental hygienist. Still, it does not answer for the number of teeth she accumulated during her thirty-three years as an educator.
From the evidence we gathered, the teacher performed her first in-school dental extraction at River Valley Elementary around the spring of ‘92. We recognize that the scene we pieced together from witnesses could contain details from more than one incident. As it is all we have, we approach the evidence with a collective understanding.
The scenery through the plexiglass windows was undoubtedly bleak, as the early months in Michigan display a haphazard blend of snow, dirt, and premature greenery. The former students could not recall what the day’s lesson involved but remembered watching many video lessons on phonetics: one for each letter of the alphabet.
In the center of the classroom, a male student mindlessly flicked a dangling front tooth with his tongue like a bored débutante picking the petals off roses. The act itself did not warrant the teacher’s attention; she only took notice after a neighboring student expressed their disgust vocally. Witnesses do not remember the other student’s exact reaction but, considering our experience with our children, we conjecture it was along the lines of “Gross!” or “Stop it!” However, the pleas encouraged the male student to continue with greater theatrics. He taunted her with a wide grin and mocking tilt of the head side to side.
As would be expected, the neighbor eventually turned to the teacher for assistance. The other student received one or more verbal warnings; giggling and commentary from the rest of the class most most certainly ensued. If we had to guess, the teacher took action out of exasperation.
According to the former student’s testimony, the teacher tugged him out of the classroom by the hand and escorted him to the closest bathroom. He recalled a single stall with a heavy door. “The one used for tornado drills,” he said.
The teacher snapped on a pair of purple latex gloves and kneeled to his level. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m a dental hygienist.”
“It was in a tone I wouldn’t have dared to defy,” he said.
Without warning, she ripped out his tooth with her index finger and thumb. He re-entered the classroom with his tooth brazenly on display. “I actually cried in the bathroom,” he said. As the teacher held wadded tissue paper to his bleeding gums, she had told him to “stop making such a fuss.”
We have yet to find the evidence for another incident that school year. However, we have reason to believe that the teacher’s maniacal activity increased the following fall. At the beginning of the school year, she brought in large molds of teeth, and the children practiced proper cleaning: brush for two minutes, don’t press too hard (but not too soft, either), and reach the molars.
Following the success of the lesson, the teacher changed several details of the year’s teaching plan. We know this because there are records of her lesson proposal, including the changes, all of which she classified as life sciences.
According to the transcription of several board meetings, the school board initially resisted the changes. Overall, however, the teacher’s students were performing well. Above-average, in fact. In her school district, where the graduation rate was not far from the state’s lowest for ten consecutive years, successful performance was the key for funding. She was quick to counter the board’s hesitancy with this information, and they eventually agreed to her requests.
From the report of former students, we also know she arranged a play dentistry set in the toy area around the same time. With their interest in dentistry piqued, the students flocked to the new item. There were frequent quarrels over the toy, which consisted of realistic plastic tools, a lab coat, and a small patient chair. Of the dozens of people interviewed, eighty-four percent remembered the toy set.
The teacher’s next endeavor gives us reason to believe that she deployed the aforementioned events with sinister reasoning. Just before Christmas break, the front of the classroom featured a clinical dental chair. From the order archives, we can confirm the chair was delivered to the school, signed for by the teacher, and carted in by the delivery driver.
From experience, we know that childrens’ eyes light up upon discovering something unfamiliar. Even in the faded photograph, the grey tones of the dental chair were misfitted among the bold primary colors of the classroom decor. One by one, they surely approached the teacher with questions such as: Could they sit in the chair? Where did it come from? How long would it be here? Her exploitation of childhood curiosity is chilling to us now.
When her students settled, the teacher asked for a volunteer. We imagine a calm, if not calculated, tone. An unassuming child advanced boldly to the front of the class; he, too, was a witness of ours. She guided him onto the chair and used the pneumatic controls to lift the base of the chair up and the back of the chair down, as all dentist chairs do. The teacher examined the student’s mouth for a moment, but surely she knew all her young students had teeth ripe for the picking. Satisfied with her volunteer, she asked the class, “Who wants to see a live dental extraction?”
Hands shot into the air without thought. The student in the chair began to squirm, which she must have expected. She pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of her pocket. “This is yours for the tooth,” she allegedly said to him. “More than the tooth fairy would pay,” she said so the class could hear. She displayed the bill to the classroom like a game show host; they gasped unanimously.
After then, students began to approach the teacher for money in exchange for a tooth. She was right, of course. Twenty dollars was much more than the students would receive at home. Many reported spending the money at the cafeteria; however, several have recounted that they used the money for necessities not provided by their parents or guardians. An after school dentistry club formed around the same time, although we never spoke to anyone who could recall what actually occurred during the meet ups.
In the years that followed, the teacher cemented her legacy as the school’s resident tooth fairy. Every Halloween, she dressed in a pink tulle tutu and a crown with paper teeth. With her delicate strides and wide, vacant eyes, she gave the appearance of a sprite even out of costume. Students gifted her figurines of the fictional character for holidays and at the end of the year. Among the dozens of trinkets, she owned a tooth fairy in a modern lab coat, on a tropical vacation, and perched suggestively on a rock. She displayed many of the gifts in the classroom; through the decades, she curated quite an impressive collection.
The approximate time when the teacher began filling “the jar” evaded us for many years. However, many have corroborated its story, even some in our group. On her desk, she filled a large glass jar with the teeth she pulled at school. Strapped to the front was a kitschy sign that read something along the lines of “teeth of misbehaved students.” The display was grotesque, and many reported their distaste, but it remained on her desk all the same.
The principal who held office for the majority of the teacher’s tenure was dead, but we were able to track down several of the teacher’s colleagues. Their recollections of her were similar. Her actions were strange, yes, but she appeared otherwise normal. No one could remember much else about her. During a final round of interviews, however, one colleague (who requested anonymity) cited the incident in ‘95 as to why the teacher was able to continue her deranged pursuits.
On October 6, 1995, one of the second-grade students of River Valley was reported missing. The police had reason to believe the child’s grandfather smuggled her across state lines. In response, the teacher handed a small collection of teeth over to the authorities. Although the sorting of the teeth took several months, and the child was quickly reported as deceased, authorities eventually identified the body with one of the teeth the teacher pulled. Both the child’s family and the police department praised her assistance. She kept her plaque of recognition on her desk beside one of the jars the police returned to her.
The teacher used the child’s death to her advantage. Any less-than-positive commentary regarding her classroom was countered with the story of her assistance in the missing child’s case. “If the police are okay with it,” she allegedly said, “you should be too.”
Upon the teacher’s death, her family found several other jars of teeth at her residence. They reported the findings to the police a year after. Authorities collected the teeth evidence and processed the DNA over a decade. The five-hundred plus teeth removed from the home did not link the teacher to any criminal activity, although the police were able to arrest several former students of crimes with the newly founded DNA. As such, the police found no reason to open an investigation into the teacher’s collection, although, admittedly, they found the discovery odd.
The conclusion of the investigation was the catalyst to our meeting. The news of the jars of teeth spread via social media and several former students put together a task force to assemble the missing details. What we wanted to know was, why? What was her motive for keeping our teeth? We were suspended in our discomfort without answers.
The police department has not acknowledged our work but eventually released the teeth to our care. Another twelve years passed before the majority of the teeth were returned to their respective owners. We hand-delivered the teeth ourselves when possible, which provided us with the opportunity to probe for more information. Most of the former students responded in a bemused, albeit pleasant, manner. As expected, some of the students were untraceable or had passed. In which case, we donated the teeth for research.
The city demolished the elementary school after budget cuts in the early 2000s. A large grocery store now stands in its place; the company vehemently denied our request to dig for evidence.
Even after we dispersed the teeth and probed the witnesses, we were no closer to understanding. Further, our investment was morphing into an obsession. Some of us wondered if we’d exacerbated our fear. Perhaps we would’ve been better off if we’d mimicked our other classmates who posted a status or two and never returned to the topic again.
Eventually, and after many years of persistence, the family handed over several journals and a written record of the hundreds of teeth pulled, including dates and names. We scoured the journals for more information, desperate for a conclusion. The journals, however, were monotonous, premeditated. Her recollection of the day-to-day set us on edge; by the end, we had an immense desire to light the journals aflame.
When all hope was lost, the team disbanded without a logical, or even sinister, reason for the events we had been subject to. Our minds were left to conjecture. Perhaps she was a witch or a sadist; did she get off on our pain or desperation for money? Our questions resurfaced often, like a pimple coming to the surface in the same place underneath our nose.
Even today, the recollection of these events is unavoidable. It occurs when our bite slips while eating a grisly piece of meat, and our teeth scrape violently against one another, or when our car hits a concealed pothole and our jaw slams to the roof of our mouth. Suspended again into the discomfort of the unknown, we have no reasonable explanation for our dread. We must wade in our fear until the day-to-day returns to the foreground, over and over again.
Cherie Stoll is a Michigan-based writer.