Friday, February 10, 2006

The Toothpaste Lesson

I have a little story to tell about something that happened many years ago when I was married to my first wife.
We were at our annual family get together at her sister Sue’s house. It was a big backyard barbeque with about 20 people in attendance. Sue and Don were talking and mixing with their guests, when suddenly their young son Mike blurted out something decidedly unflattering that Sue and Don had said in private the day before about someone there at the party. It was one of those ones that start, "Oh, well my Mom and Dad said that he....." And out it came in all it's honest unwashed ugliness, and in full volume so that EVERYONE heard it.

It was terribly embarrassing, and Sue and Don were absolutely mortified. They immediately started emphatically apologizing and denying and turned every shade of red a human face could manage without using paint. There was a big upset and their relationship was damaged irreparably that day.

I decided that this was a good opportunity for me to be a good uncle and teach the boy a lesson that might just stay with him for a long time.

So, in the midst of all the fussing and chaos of the moment, I stepped over to Mike and said quietly, “Follow me, Mike. I want to show you something.”
Glad to be taken away from all the mess he had created, he was only too happy to follow me inside the house. I led him through the kitchen, down the hall where the bedrooms were, and into the small bathroom at the end of the hall.
I opened the medicine cabinet and looked through the contents. Then I saw a small sample tube of Colgate toothpaste. The kind they sell for 50 cents or so for traveling.
“Step over to the sink here, Mike” I said. “Here, hold this…”. And I handed him the toothpaste and closed the cabinet door.
“Now, Mike, I’m going to show you something here that I want you to remember for as long as you live, okay? “ “Okay” he shrugged.
I pointed at the tube in his hands. “I want you to squeeze all the toothpaste out of that tube into the sink here.”
Without questioning, and curious to see the trick, he did as I said. He squeezed the toothpaste out into a little white pile in the sink. “Okay. Done.” He said and looked at me as if to say “What Next?”
“Are you sure it’s all out?” I said, “Really squeeze that tube. Flatten it completely and roll it up and make sure you squeeze every last bit of toothpaste out.”
He set to it again. This time he was very diligent. He squeezed and pressed his thumbs down on the sink and rolled it up tight as it would go. Finally, after inspecting closely, he looked up and said, “Okay – that’s it for sure now. Nothing left.“ “You’re sure? Totally empty?” “Yep – totally!”

“Okay then. Here’s what you do next…..” I whispered to him conspiratorily. He looked at me eagerly, waiting for the next step in the 'trick'
So I pointed at the toothpaste, “Now I want you to put the toothpaste BACK in the tube.”

He looked puzzled. As if he didn’t understand me. Then he looked at the flattened little tube, and looked at me again. “Go on” I said. “You got it out, now put it back in…” He tried scooping it back in the open end but of course he couldn’t do it, so he stopped and looked up and said, “It’s impossible. You can’t put it back the way it was.”

“Exactly, Mike.” I said. “That is the lesson. Sometimes we do things that cannot be undone. Sometimes we say things we cannot un-say. Like what you said outside a few minutes ago. That’s why it always pays to think before you act. Whenever you feel you are about to say or do something you cannot undo later, remember back to this day. Remember the toothpaste lesson. Okay?” He nodded.

I hope he did remember.


At 2/11/2006 5:36 PM, Blogger Ptelea said...

Interesting - I don't think I would have attempted to reason with a young child. But this technique would definitely plant an idea (visual image)in their mind. I wonder how you came up with this idea.

I think I could stand to learn this lesson a little better sometimes!

At 2/11/2006 6:55 PM, Blogger Val Serrie said...

Mike was perhaps 10 at the time, I think. He was certainly old enough to understand the lesson. (but apparently not quite old enough to have learned it on his own)
Not that it's relevent, but he eventually became a Porsche mechanic.

As for thinking of the idea, I just came up with a metaphor for a non-undoable thing, and then literalized it.


At 8/24/2011 10:33 AM, Anonymous Fred Collinsworth said...

The uncle must have taken the inspiration from the lesson on rumors, where the boy was made to put back all the feathers from a pillow. It was a bit of a waste of toothpaste but it did drive home the point.


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