Like most kids, I hated brushing my teeth. It seems to be a universal rule. I think it has to do with the act itself which is repetitive, stupid and boring. All you do for thirty seconds is look at your grimacing face in the mirror and watch all this white stuff come bubbling out. And, of course, you are told that brushing your teeth is supposed to be good for you — which is obviously the wrong thing to say to a kid. I think it also has to do with the intention behind the act, which it is preventative and future-orientated as in “if you don’t brush your teeth you’re going to get cavities.”
For me, it was the “you’re going to get cavities” that caused instant resistance, at least for me. What did I care about “going to get”? I was a kid; I lived in the present. I was thinking about my homework, about Renee Rasmussen’s bra, about the Six Million Dollar Man
At bedtime, my sister, who is two and half years younger than I am, always got to use the bathroom first. At twelve years old she took ages: hair brushing, face cleaning, flossing, and god only knows what else (I didn’t want to think about it.)
I would patiently wait my turn in my room. Because I was attuned to the rhythm of the sounds of the bathroom (the water pipes were in the wall adjoining my room), I could accurately anticipate when she would emerge. For the first five to eight minutes of her time I tried not listen. But then came the final backstretch order: double faucet burst followed by a three-minute silence (she was probably daubing around her face with one of those round cotton things). Sound of gurgling drain. Second faucet burst signaling that she was refilling the sink. Thirty second wash with mild exfoliating soap.
Two minute silence as night cream was applied. Three full minutes of final mirror consultation. And then I was good to go.
On this particular evening I was restless and wanted to get in and out of the bathroom as fast as possible. I wanted to get back to the book I was reading. After my sister emerged I darted in and locked the door. I was timing myself, trying to break my own 82 second record. At 63 seconds I was falling behind so I decided to skip the brushing of the teeth.
I unlocked the door and zipped back to my room. I hopped into bed. I slipped under the covers, positioned my pillow, angled my body in just the right way and started reading.
My father would usually poke his head through the door about half an hour later when it was time to say goodnight.
“Brush your teeth?”
My father closed the door. I noticed a slight hesitation. About thirty seconds later he opened it again.
“Anything you want to tell me?”
“Brush your teeth?”
My father was a kind and gentle man. By no stretch was he authoritarian. Which, intentionally or not, had the powerful effect that when he did speak with authority it signaled that something was definitely up.
“I’ll ask you one more time. Did you brush your teeth?”
I paused. I put my book down.
This was a serious dilemma. I could admit to my lie and thereby reveal that I was capable of duplicity. Or I could stick to my guns. Since I was enthralled by the concepts of honor and bravery I chose to stick to my lie.
“Yeah. I brushed my teeth.”
My father didn’t say anything. He signaled that I should get out of bed. I threw back the covers and rose with what I hoped was a swagger. I followed my father into the bathroom. My resolve was starting to crack. My father picked up the toothbrush. He held it out to me. He fanned the bone-dry bristles.
“Now brush your teeth,” he said.
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