Rites of Passage: The Dental Nurse

Mrs Marsh (RIP) used to scare the living bejesus out of us with her tooth horrors.

Back in 1981 the dental nurse was on-site at most primary and intermediate schools throughout New Zealand.

We had one at Owairoa Primary School. The nurse had a tight ringlet perm and she played rock music on her wireless. Around the clinic were posters of rotten gums, but it was okay.

Once a year you could enter a competition where you decorated a toothbrush and made it into a character. You won a place, first, second or third.

We called it the Murderhouse but it was part of school life and hardly any fillings were actually needed. Mrs Marsh was breaking chalk on Television One and there was no way we wanted that to happen to our developing teeth.

Nowadays, the dental clinics are off-site, the posters have changed and the messages about teeth are vastly different.

I was in one last week with my five year old. Let it be known that overall, she is an emotionally transparent girl. No emotion is unexpressed. No situation is taken quietly. She is full of lifeforce, and she lets it be known to all.

She needed a filling.

As a mother, once you’ve whipped yourself 100 times, Opus Dei-styles, for allowing things to get to cavity-level, you suck one down and front. This is about you, not your child.

Nothing you can say can prepare your child for the dental nurse. You can’t even bribe them with sweets. All you can do is offer them an extra hour on the iPad as you pledge to redesign the dietary intake of your entire household so you never have to go through this again.

Your child is positioned on the chair, the chair that used to be the cool rocket ship ride of yore, is now an instrument of utter terror, and your child, so rigid with fear that you could snap them in half, begins to loudly complain.


It’s very loud, and the other rooms, populated with calm children, go utterly silent.

Sadly, the dental nurse, with years of experience in treating small children, has never encountered this kind of thing apparently. You defensively shrug and just pray that the ground will open up and swallow you whole.

On top of this the dental nurse, for the next half an hour tries to calm the child down—loudly in an octave above what would be considered a natural voice—by explaining every single process in lengthy detail, including the composition of the filling, right through to how the suction hose works on other parts of the body.

By the time the water jet/suction hose combo hit your child’s mouth, the gurgling/screaming sound is something that someone should really record for a horror movie about a person who gets sucked into a dysfunctional spa pool.

By this stage you’re mentally planning which Chardonnay to buy on your way home, and whether you could mainline it for quicker effect, but you soldier on, your hands now crushed into a bloody pulp by the Amazonian strength of your five year old.

It’s over, the chair is lowered, and your child, now glowing bright red jumps into your arms, and actually you feel so proud of her.

You realise that your child is never going to suffer fools, dental nurses, pain or anything else, in silence.

You flash back to how much you held in over your life yourself, and you vow to allow your children to really let it rip when they need to, despite the social niceties of decorum and sanity. Not as brats, but as small humans who will lose the chance to scream a dental clinic down once they reach adulthood.


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