The School Nurse from the Black Lagoon
By Mike Thaler
Pictures by Jared Lee
The School Nurse from the Black Lagoon is part of a well-known series of books whose goal is to make kids who are roughly 5-9 years old more comfortable with the idea of moving into elementary school. The books show that the adults the kids will encounter at school are not the ogres they might imagine, but nice people whose job is to help, not terrorize, the kids. Other titles include The Teacher from the Black Lagoon and The Principal from the Black Lagoon.
The nurse book is a first-person narrative by a small boy, never named, who tells and shows readers what he has heard about his school nurse. He explains:
The illustrations show the fearful boy and a scary nurse-monster with a long snout and tail. Here are details about some of this nurse's exploits. Her office is apparently full of grotesque body parts, and the skeleton of a kid who came in with a stomach ache ("She cured it!"). We learn that when a kid got "cut in half using the paper cutter," the nurse "gave him a Band-Aid and sent him home." Another kid, flattened by the VCR cart, is now the rug in the nurse's office. Her thermometer is the size of a flagpole, and her tongue depressors are "as big as surfboards." The nurse's "tests" include stretching short kids on the "RACK." Failed vision tests result in her using "your eyeballs for billiard balls." Her "VACCINATION" needles are so long she can do six kids at once, "sort of like shish kebab." Kids go to the nurse for minor ailments and return permanently damaged. One went to her for a toothache, and "now we call him 'GUMS.'" Another went for a sore throat, and now "his head is attached directly to his shoulders."
After this parade of horribles, you can imagine our poor narrator's distress when he discovers that his arm is "breaking out in blue dots" and he has to actually visit this school nurse. He enters, apprehensive, but discovers that Ms. Hearse actually "looks pretty normal." She wets a paper towel and "gently rubs" the blue dots off his hand. Then she asks for his pen, shows him where it's leaking, smiles--and gives him a new pen! He marvels:
And we are treated to an illustration of Ms. Hearse as an angel, on a cloud. She pats the narrator on the head, and tells him to visit anytime. He returns to class and writes her a thank-you letter "with [his] new pen."
The book is fairly well-written and the illustrations are evocative, though not really grotesque. There's not much to the narrator; he's just a fearful kid who is passing on the imaginative visions of his peers. Most of the attention is lavished on these images, which reflect some impressively twisted ideas about what might happen to slightly injured elementary school kids.
Of course, one might question whether most kids really have such a natural terror of school authority figures. For those who don't, is it really helpful to spend roughly the first three quarters of a book on (admittedly comical) nightmare visions of what school will be like, complete with torture imagery and suggestions that the adult in question has actually murdered children? Roald Dahl's books for children often used unsettling ideas, including violence, death, and evil characters. But Dahl, like J.K. Rowling with the Harry Potter series, was creating longer, more sophisticated works for older readers, with characters and situations that would resonate with those kids' growing sense of human foibles and suggest larger truths about life's tragedies and comedies. The Black Lagoon books are more like haunted house tours in which every monster is the same professional, chosen from the small group of those that young kids will often deal with in daily life. The books only pull back at the end to tell kids that the real professionals are nice.
Leaving aside whether the black lagoon theme is a good one for school authority figures generally, in the nursing context it does call to mind the battleaxe stereotype. The battleaxe is the nasty senior nurse who may actually hurt patients rather than helping them, and that is certainly consistent with the narrator's original vision here. Of course, he is shown to be completely wrong, and Miss Hearse emerges as a kind and presumably competent school nurse. She does not display any advanced skills, apart from her expert diagnosis and treatment of the blue dots. And there is no suggestion that she handles the range of serious conditions that today's school nurses confront, though that may be too much to expect, especially for a book first published in 1995. The one angel image is not so helpful, since that is another nursing stereotype--does Miss Hearse have to exist at one feminine extreme or the other, as in so much traditional nursing imagery? Fortunately, the basic impression at the end of the book is that she is simply a nice, helpful person. We suppose that does point to nurses' psychosocial skills, but then again, all of the subjects in the black lagoon series do something similar in putting the fearful kids at ease.
On the whole, the book's nursing depiction is probably not too damaging, but not all that helpful either.
Read more about the angel and battleaxe images in chapters 7 and 8 respectively in our book Saving Lives: Why the Media's Portrayal of Nurses Puts Us All at Risk.
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