Traumatic Memories from Elementary School
Entering my elementary school’s main hallway on a morning in 1955, I spotted some nurses in their white uniforms at the far end of the hall, lining up syringes on several tables arranged end-to-end. I shuttered at the sight. We would be getting vaccinated for polio, given as an injection, not orally as today.
I dreaded shots, as did most of my fellow students. Getting vaccinated at school rather than at a clinic or doctor’s office made the fear contagious. I still vividly recall that traumatic day over 60 years ago.
Anxiety had been building since Mr. Jamison, the school’s principal, announced the date polio vaccinations would begin and they sent home notes to our parents. Some of my friends showed their nervousness by talking and trying to joke about it, although their voices sounded somewhat strained and their laughs forced. The class braggart and tough guy, Billy Bonnet, claimed, “I’m going to watch them stick the needle in my arm, and I dare you to do it too.” Others like myself, just tried not to talk or think about it.
Parents must have felt enormous relief though, when in 1953 Dr. Jonas Salk announced development of a vaccine that protected against poliomyelitis. The most famous victim of the disease was President Franklin Roosevelt. The year 1952 saw an epidemic with 58,000 new polio cases and 3,000 deaths in the U.S. The illness usually struck the young. Public swimming pools closed and parents became afraid of letting their children outside to play that summer. Sobering pictures of children in “iron lungs”, big artificial breathing contraptions, were shown in magazine and television ads for the “March of Dimes.”
I was in Mrs. Burnette’s third grade class when the Salk vaccine first became widely available. After we said the pledge of allegiance, with a loud squelch of the PA system the first students got summoned to be vaccinated. They called us down by classroom. I don’t remember if the order went from lowest to highest grade, or the reverse. If you had designed a a scheme to create foreboding, I’m not sure you could devise a better approach.
Mrs. Burnette tried to keep us busy working on cursive writing and then math that morning. I couldn’t concentrate though, and doubt other students could either. Mrs. Brunette started to quiz us on the multiplication table. Suddenly I heard her call my name, “Alex, can you tell us what 7x8 is?”, but math wasn’t what was on my mind.
I sat mute for several seconds, which Mrs. Burnette followed by saying, “Alex, I’m sure you know the answer.” When I finally blurted out, “Can you repeat the question,” I heard someone sitting behind me murmur, “Knucklehead”.
Then the PA system squawked, “Mrs. Burnette’s third grade class your turn is next.” Now, Mrs. Burnette was no newbie teacher, but a battle-hardened veteran. She directed, “Line up the way we do for fire drills. No talking, understood.”
We headed out of the classroom in a single file towards our doom. Mrs. Brunette and her eagle eyes walked right behind us. As the previous grade who’d just gotten their shots past us going back to their classroom, one student whispered, “Someone fainted in our class.” Mrs Burnette snapped, “Quiet, no talking.”
As we rounded the corner to the main hallway, the first nurse commanded, “Roll up your right sleeves as high as you can.” I leaned my head out of line and glimpsed the tables with the syringes. They looked huge! Enormous! (Needles are smaller and sharper today.) The closer I got to the front of the queue, the more the tension mounted. You heard a few kids cry. “Ouch.” Someone added, “Damn, that hurts.”
The students who’d gotten their shots filed by silently, looking downcast. Some were rubbing their right arms gingerly. A few of girls’ eyes glistened with tears, and so did a couple of the guys’. Billy Bonnet was in front of me and I can tell you he sure didn’t watch like he’d bragged. He also looked somewhat queasy and pale faced as he walked past me afterward.
As I reached the front of the line, the first attendant used a cotton ball to rub alcohol on my upper arm. She added, “Keep moving.” I shuffled forward, looked away and thought. This is the last place I want to be right now. What would happen if I quick run the other way?
And then the nurse stabbed me. It hurt! My arm and shoulder muscles were as tight as a stretched rubber band, which amplified the pain. She turned me around and said, “You’re finished.” As we walked back to our classroom, there wasn’t a sound, but shoes squeaking on the linoleum floor.
The next day a few of the smart-aleck boys went around during recess, trying to punch other guys in the arm. This stunt almost caused a couple of fights. Shoulder punching was a dumb game that some boys occasionally played, including myself, when bored. You’d take turns hitting each other in the shoulder, increasingly hard, until someone yelled “uncle” and gave up.
The dread wasn’t over for us though, since the Salk vaccination required three shots. Some wild rumors spread around school. An older student came up to myself and some friends, and declared, “Did you hear about the kid who had the needle break off in his arm. They had to ask the janitor to get a pair of his pliers to pull it out.” I replied, “That’s nuts, you’re making that up,” as he walked off. One of the other guys with me commented, “Yeah, but maybe it’s true.”
A few years later, Dr. Albert Sabin announced that he had developed a polio vaccine that provided lifelong immunity. Better yet, from the perspective of kids, it was given in a sugar cube. In my case, I was well into adulthood before I overcame my needle phobia.