By Emma Bernstein
Second grade was the year of lost teeth.
A few early bloomers began losing them in kindergarten or first, but second grade was when the avalanche really began. By winter, a new kid was spitting a bloody tooth into their cupped hand each week and we all had gummy gaps in our smiles. Surrounded by this endless barrage of lost teeth, we debated one question on playdates, at recess, and over tubs of glue during papier-mâché: Is the tooth fairy real?
My answer was always a staunch and automatic “of course she is!” I would then launch into a long-winded account of the evidence that I had so far collected: the notes left under my pillow with a few dollar bills, the little bit of glitter on my bedside table, the time I woke up to a cold breeze through my open window even though I could have sworn that I had shut it before falling asleep. If the tooth fairy was a belief system, I was her best missionary, telling anyone who would listen that her existence was an indisputable fact.
Buried under my proclamations of faith, however, was a simple truth: I knew fully well that the bills under my pillow came from my dad’s wallet, that he wrote the congratulatory notes himself, and that the glitter likely came from any one of my many craft projects. It wasn’t that I’d ever caught my dad in the act, but instead that as a Jewish child, both surrounded by and separate from Christian holiday traditions, I learned early that Santa and the Easter Bunny were lies parents told their children. It was impossible not to make the mental leap that the tooth fairy fell into the same category. Then there was the fact that the notes I received were in my dad’s messy left-handed scrawl and only appeared after I made him read to me from a book I checked out from the library about a girl who received similarly friendly notes congratulating her on each lost tooth.
My desire for faith was not limited to the tooth fairy. Despite a fairly religious upbringing, I’ve had a natural skepticism towards god for as long as I could remember, perhaps fostered by my passionately atheistic older brother. However, each time my Hebrew school teacher told us to pray silently during the Amidah, I would dutifully think over things that I wanted (usually, a puppy) and things that I was sorry for and I would try as hard as I could to believe that somebody was listening. While my brother took pride in questioning everything and would announce each year that although he had no choice but to go synagogue on Yom Kippur, he would be thinking about baseball the entire time, I felt a gnawing guilt at my inability to believe wholeheartedly the way I thought I should.
As I grew up, I haven’t shed either my skepticism or my desire for faith. I may know full well that the stars don’t have anything to do with the kind of person I am or the things I experience in my daily life, but I still check my horoscope and tell anyone who wonders what I think of astrology that I’m not sure, but that I do know that I am such a libra.
It isn’t that I want my life to be defined by stars or planets or feel like I particularly need a higher power to justify the things that go wrong, just like it wasn’t so much that I wanted the tooth fairy to be real, although she seemed like a nice idea. Instead, I think I am a naturally slightly cynical person who wants badly to be the kind of person who believes in things. My first instinct is to question people’s motives, collect evidence, and consider alternate possibilities, but my second instinct, the one I try to follow, is one of elective gullibility—the child in me still wanting to take magic at face value.
Maybe there is a middle ground, though, between skepticism and feigned belief—one where I don’t need a myth to find joy in the things that happen to me. Astrology is fun, and trying to pray as a child was an early step in a long process of self reflection whether or not anybody was listening. And even though I would have liked to have a guardian fairy at seven years old, there is something even lovelier in the reality: that I had a dad who faithfully performed the rituals of preserving innocence, who read to me from the books I checked out from the library, who wrote notes congratulating me on growing up because he wanted me to maintain my faith a little longer. I can and will continue to love both the feeling of belief and of nurturing a sense of doubt, but I am realizing more and more that there is another kind of optimism available to me—one that may not believe in magic as a force exerted on the world, but instead sees the magic in ordinary acts of trust and kindness.