When it comes to character, you can tell early on the qualities you got and the qualities you don’t got. If the people who had hired me to run shows had been aware of the story I’m about to tell you, they would never have hired me to run shows.
When I was around ten, they discovered the cure for polio, and they started giving out shots at school to prevent you from getting it. The shots, though painful, were better than polio.
The polio shot protocol involved a series of three inoculations, spaced about six weeks apart. You got a shot, there was a six-week gap, you got second shot, there was another six-week gap, then they gave you the third shot. I lasted two shots and that was it.
I hated getting polio shots. They used these enormous needles. And they weren’t that sharp. I think they were made out of wood. I dreaded the injections. I hated the post-shot soreness in my “needle arm.” And the spontaneous screaming in front of my classmates did very little to enhance my popularity.
Our teacher announced that the medical folks would be visiting with our third round of polio shots on Thursday. I immediately decided to be sick on Thursday. My thinking on the matter was spectacularly simple. If you’re not there, they can’t give you the shot.
My mother was no stickler in the “I don’t feel well” department. You told her you were sick, she let you stay home. Still, I didn’t want to take any chances. Wednesday evening, I put on a “show”, acting listless and picking at my food. I voluntarily went to bed early, sacrificing Wednesday Night Hockey on TV (though I caught it on the radio from my “sickbed.”)
Thursday morning, I felt even lousier, or so I reported. I may even have feigned throwing up, or more likely, “I felt like it but nothing came out”, which, in my limited medical wisdom, was worse. Throwing up cleared the books. A false alarm, and there was business yet to do.
Bottom line: I missed the third shot.
Friday morning, I’m miraculously recovered. Twenty-four hour flu. It must have been that. I skip into school, relieved to have dodged a needle-shaped bullet. I commiserate with my classmates, with their throbbing “needle arms” and their tales of woe. Apparently, there’d been a fainting. My empathy is Oscar-worthy.
My teacher tells me the principal wants to see me. Mrs. Snider. I had no idea what it was about, but just hearing her name gave me a chill. Snider wants to see me. It can’t be good.
(I’ll tell you how terror inducing the woman was. When I was in my twenties, Mrs. Snider happened to live in the same apartment building as my grandmother. One time, I’m waiting by the elevator, going up to see my grandmother, and I’m smoking a cigar. I hear the lobby door open, and I reflexively turn to see who it is. It’s Snider. I immediately stick the lit cigar in my pocket.)
“You weren’t in school yesterday,” Mrs. Snider begins, as I’m sitting in her office.
“No, I was sick.”
“You missed your polio shot.”
“That’s a shame.”
“Yes, it is.”
That’s when Mrs. Snider breaks the news. There’s a taxi waiting that will take me to another school – where the medical caravan has moved on. I would receive my missed polio shot there. This was a good thing, Mrs. Snider explained, because you needed all three shots or the protocol doesn’t work and you can get polio. I agreed that that would be bad.
My foolproof plan had failed. I missed school for nothing, and now, I’m getting my shot. I guess I wasn’t that smart.
The taxi delivered me to a pre-school – kids, aged four to six. The building was immaculate. That may have been the name of the place – “The Immaculate School For Little Children.”
The principal is warm and welcoming.
“It’s good to have you here.”
“Thank you.” My voice was calm, but my face said I wasn’t happy. I was about to get less happy.
“I’d like you to do me a little favor,” she began.
“A lot of our children are concerned about getting their polio shots. I’d like you to get your shot first, to show them that there’s nothing to worry about.”
There was stunned silence. Words eluded me. I simply stared.
“Will you do that for me, please? Will you show the children how a “Big Boy” takes his polio shot?”
I considered my options. I didn’t have any.
“Okay,” I heard myself mumble.
“Wonderful,” enthused the principal, oblivious to my jump-started feelings of distress.
We’re in the gymnatorium – it’s a gym with a stage at one end. I’m standing on the stage, with the principal, the nurse, and the infamous “Dr. Needle.”
The children are marched in, one class at a time. The most impressive group of preschoolers you ever saw. Shiny scrubbed faces. Hair arranged neatly in place. I think, maybe uniforms. And not a peep out of them. Silently, they take their pre-assigned positions, six class-segregated cohorts, sitting cross-legged on the floor.
The principal begins to speak.
“Children, we have a special guest with us today. He has come to us from a big children’s school, and he’s going to show us that getting a polio shot is really a ‘snap.’”
I’m standing there, trying not to shake. I’m determined to play my part. I’m the leader. My job is to show that getting a polio shot is really a “snap.” I have to come through. The kiddies are counting on me.
The nurse rolls up the shirtsleeve of my left arm. She moistens a swab of cotton with alcohol. She takes my arm, and begins rubbing the cotton on the appropriate spot.
I immediately start to scream. I know it’s just cotton, but I have a powerful memory. I know what’s coming next.
My scream turns the obedient preschoolers into a terror-stricken mob. There’s chaos in the gymnatorium. Like rats fleeing a rapidly sinking ship, children are scattering in all directions, racing for the exits, scrambling up the walls, their teachers in desperate pursuit, struggling to restore order. The noise is deafening. The medical staff is confused. The principal is really upset.
I get my shot, and I’m back in the taxi, leaving behind the reverberating residue of a preschool in disarray.
Leadership quality? I don’t think so.