We showered and walked over to the class building. MJ said her neck hurt and she just wanted to leave. Instead, she finished out the afternoon before we walked home together. Near as I can recall, it was about six blocks from school to the corner of W. Maryland and Third, where our families lived just across the street from one another. There wasn’t a lot of conversation between us; MJ was really in pain. She held her neck quite rigid and her voice sounded like it was hard for her to talk. We pretty much just walked, quietly, in our own thoughts. I’m not sure if MJ’s mother was a nurse or not, but I had the impression that MJ would be okay once she got home because her mother would know what to do to help her.
The next day I had to leave for school earlier than MJ so didn’t know until later that she would not be in class that day. In fact, MJ would not be in class again for quite a number of days; she had broken her neck.
The pain of the injury did not compare to the humiliation of the long treatment, in my adolescent opinion anyway. In those days they did not have the metal halo rings to immobilize the neck. Rather, they put the patient in a cast from about mid-torso to the top of the head, leaving the face and ears exposed, as well as an area of hair sticking out the top of the white plaster. My friend had beautiful, bright red hair so you can imagine how that might have looked coming straight out of the cast, right? Woody Woodpecker. I felt so sorry for MJ. Besides school, I think the only place she went out of the house all of those long weeks in that tortuous cast, was one Saturday afternoon movie we saw together. She was just too embarrassed to be seen in public. I didn’t blame her; folks always laughed at the site of her cast and red hair. It was an absolutely miserable thing for an adolescent to have to endure.
MJ recovered and, as you might imagine, was excused from tumbling classes for the rest of her academic years in that school system. The things that law suits are made of, for sure, though I doubt that her folks brought legal action; people just didn’t do it all that often in those days. The Physical Education teacher was not really the monster this one account makes her out to be. In fact, she was the mother of two students in that school, a boy one year older and a girl one year younger than our class. I am sure she felt terrible about what happened to MJ. Trying to get a room full of adolescent girls to do something none of them wanted to do was not an easy job for any teacher. Asserting one’s authority sometimes looked a bit “over the top” and, clearly, sometimes it was! The student’s fear factor, coupled with the coordination challenge, should not have been overlooked.
The thing that this traumatic episode in my friend’s life did for me was inject a huge reality check into how I viewed teachers. Somehow, as a young person struggling to emerge from that cocoon of childhood into that butterfly state called “adult,” it had never before occurred to me that obeying a teacher could get your neck broken. How could we not obey a teacher? Shouldn’t obeying a teacher keep us safe? Teachers were “just humans”; but, as students, we were rather programmed to believe that they were infallible. Obviously, they were not. It was a troubling revelation.
If you missed the earlier posting with MJ, here’s the link to the 50-mile hike
****Lessons Off the Court: Junior High Trauma, Reflections… Coming Tomorrow