By Lisa Brunette
I first heard about making homemade toothpaste back in high school, from a science teacher named John McCullough. “Commercial toothpaste is a scam,” he declared, and then he broke down the science behind why you could get at least the same or maybe even better results if you simply took hydrogen peroxide and baking soda, mixed them together into a paste, and used that to brush your teeth instead. He assigned this little craft experiment to all of us enrolled in his freshman Introduction to Physical Science class, as homework.
This was about 1985 or ‘86. You did your homework in those days, no questions asked and no back-talk. So, yeah, I made the toothpaste. We all did.
It tasted horrible.
And of course there was a stir in class the next day. Gone was the talk about the latest heavy metal album or which “soc” had been given a car for her sweet sixteenth. Everyone was squawking about homemade toothpaste.
As with all great teachers—and Mr. McCullough was one of the best—he’d already succeeded at the hardest thing any teacher must do: Make his subject relevant.
Obedient consumers in Reagan’s America, we were collectively, to a teen, grossed out by his homemade toothpaste. None of us could believe Mr. McCullough brushed with that stuff. It wasn’t even minty!
But I suspect that at least secretly, we all agreed with our teacher. He made us see the scam for what it was—a couple of common, cheap household ingredients dressed up in fake glitz. He proved that science could give you the very thing you’re beginning to sense is out there when you’re on the threshold of adulthood: the real truth.
My high school required only one year of science from me in order to graduate, but I took four, and Mr. McCullough deserves part of the credit for that decision. He cemented a crush on science first sparked by Carl Sagan, my parents’ subscriptions to Omni Magazine, and too many hours at the mall arcade.
On the first day of that freshman class, McCullough walked in, dragging an electrostatic generator that would make your hair stand on end. His volunteer had too much of that 80s gel weighing down his locks, so Mr. McCullough stepped up, placed his hand on the ball, shook his hair as if he were in a shampoo commercial and said, “Here, you have to be a real flake like me.”
As a youth I entertained vague dreams of becoming an astronaut, like Sally Ride, or maybe a chemist, like Marie Curie. So it was disappointing when Mr. McCullough didn’t think I could do it.
My first and only high school boyfriend was Andy, the boy sitting next to me in that freshman science class. Andy completed all of his science homework on graph paper, using a mechanical pencil, rendering magnificently precise drawings with directional arrows and relevant equations in the margins. Andy had his own room at home, too, with a desk. At my house, my sister and I did our homework on the floor of our shared bedroom, or propped up in bed. The dining table was too distracting, as there was always a TV blaring from atop the only desk in the house, tucked into the end of that room.
Andy and I found a desk in the abandoned bedroom of an older sibling who’d already moved out, and we dragged it into his room, near his own desk. We did our homework together. He shared his graph paper and mechanical pencils.
But the work was entirely mine.
Mr. McCullough didn’t trust that the sudden change in my homework’s quality and appearance was due to access and influence, not too much “help,” and it wasn’t until I proved myself on a test that he could be convinced. These days, I suppose the man’s suspicions about my abilities would be the source of a great uproar, and his eventual cancellation. And what a shame that would be, as I would have missed out on the second class of his I took, senior Physics.
That one was a delicious challenge, and a hoot. Mr. McCullough wrote out problems on the board, spun around on his booted feet, and yelled, “Go!” It was a race to get the answer, all of us tapping furiously at our scientific calculators.
One day I walked in wearing a Washington University sweatshirt. Mr. McCullough expressed surprise to see it, commenting that it was a very, very tough school to get into (just under Ivy league), and his implication was pretty clear: It wasn’t for me.
So that’s the second disappointment.
Maybe Mr. McCullough was right, as I didn’t go to Washington University, and I never became a scientist. It was Andy, not I, who went to engineering school and later secured a job at Boeing.
But this teacher’s blind spot didn’t reflect the facts on the ground.
Andy and I both took the ACT in high school, and I scored two points higher than he did. This upset Andy so much, he demanded that we both take the ACT over again. I agreed, and both our scores improved; mine was still two points higher.
Though I never applied to Washington University, I was accepted into New York University. I would have gone if I could’ve afforded it, but I funded my college education entirely myself, and that one was out of reach.
While my science dreams were vague and ill-formed, my literary ambitions were always clear. I chose a career as a writer instead of engineer, and I’ve enjoyed many a byline, won awards, supported myself admirably, lead teams of writers to great success, and so on.
Should Mr. McCullough’s name be scrubbed from my memory? Should I have censored myself from sharing these stories about him? Does he not deserve credit for inspiring me—if not to become a scientist myself, then to pursue a lifelong interest in science?
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It’s become fashionable these days to change the names of schools, organizations, and even whole cities because we look back at our forebears and find their beliefs distasteful—here from our lofty, more enlightened vantage point. In this mindset, no one is allowed to ever make mistakes, to possess a blind spot or two, or to simply hold the same values as the culture in which one exists. I’m pretty sure the phrase “blind spot” has now been stricken in certain circles, and I’ll be condemned for its use by next week.
But what a favor Mr. McCullough did for me, in more ways than one. Besides the two years of hard science he taught me, he also showed me that human beings are flawed, that they don’t always understand or see the truth, even if they’re exceptionally good otherwise at seeing through scams.
I’m made of strong stuff. If I’d passionately wanted to pursue a career as a scientist, I would have done that. His little lapses in encouragement wouldn’t have kept me away. My experiences include far more egregious behavior from professors—and fellow authors—in the writing world, and none of them kept me from reaching for that brass ring.
Besides, you don’t have to be a scientist to appreciate science. My first job as a writer, in fact, was at the St. Louis Science Center.
I like to think Mr. McCullough would be proud of what I’ve become. I know he’d be thrilled to hear that I’m a volunteer citizen scientist who conducts bee studies in her own backyard—going on four years now.
Undoubtedly, he’d love the fact that I now make my own toothpaste. And I’ve even found a way to flavor it minty, without selling out simplicity.
I’ll share that in an upcoming Brunette Gardens post.
Yes, folks, she really does make her own toothpaste.
Cancel culture sucks. We're not even allowed to be human any more.