In School With the Posture Police

In my elementary school days, I went to a one room country schoolhouse where Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn would have felt at home. It’s an historical landmark now—you can Google it: Papoose Creek School. And yes, one couldn’t possibly give that name to a school these days.

Not actually Papoose Creek School--but a reasonable likeness.
Not actually Papoose Creek School–but a reasonable likeness.

Papoose Creek School was one modest room, not counting a cloak room where a boy could also put his fishing rod or .22 rifle or 20 gauge shotgun if he happened to bring them to school. Look, the namesake of the school—Papoose Creek—did have trout after all, and the woods across the road had rabbit and squirrels. What else was a kid to do after school but fish and hunt?

This was a school with one very stern disciplinarian of a teacher and 32 pupils, give or take, grades one through eight.

Mrs. Torkleson ruled the place with an extra thick hickory stick and she wasn’t shy about whacking any of us across the back or shoulders with it either. Hey, teacher, just try that in any American school today. You’d wind up in jail but only after making the front page of the New York Times. But she was effective. All of us were so quiet, so well-behaved, that most of the time you could hear a pin drop in that rustic little room and I mean that literally not figuratively.

Now that leads me to posture. Mrs. Torkleson had the temerity to actually shout out, “Class, feet flat on the floor! Hands on your desks! Sit up straight!” multiple times each school day. I must have heard her repeat that four or five times a day for five or six years. Not counting summer vacation, of course. But then she was known to make house calls on occasional hot August afternoons.

Our teacher never did this. But if she had thought of it, well maybe…
Our teacher never did this. But if she had thought of it, well maybe…

And then there was the posture march. Once a week Mrs. Torkleson would order us to stand. “Each of you, place a school book on your head,” she’d say, and once we all had books balanced on our heads, she would give the marching order and all 32 of us would circle the room a few times, looking as though our heads were held aloft with twine suspended from unseen dirigibles, shoulders back, walking tall. And you couldn’t let a book fall without risking the wrath of Mrs. Torkelson and her hickory stick.

People say I have good posture now. Really? I never even think about it. I’m sure I sat and stood with correct posture from 1st grade onward. All of us at that little one room schoolhouse on the banks of a nice trout stream did. Kids attending military academies were never as well trained.

Now, I don’t have statistical proof of this, but I doubt there are very many chiropractic patients among survivors of that old school. Among relatives who attended the place all those years ago, there are none complaining of neck or back problems; none making weekly trips to physical therapy.

Could it be that attending school with the Posture Polizei was a good thing?

Fast forward a few years and I’m visiting my son’s senior English class at his high school in El Cajon, California. I see legs splayed into the aisles and all manner of slumps, slouches, awkwardly bent necks and backs. If his class is at all typical then I have advice for young people puzzling over what career or vocation to pursue. Chiropractors and physical therapists are bound to have thriving successful practices for decades to come. The chiropractic patients of the future are even now creating a boundless enterprise.

Ask a physical therapist or chiropractor about the posture of their patients or clients and the answer will always be the same: forward head posture, slumped back and shoulders rolled forward.

And among my TMJ patients, forward head posture, neck pain, shoulder pain, even foot pain are all so common as to be almost universal.

This is how your neck muscles react to forward head posture.
This is how your neck muscles react to forward head posture.

It is an accepted fact that internal derangements of the TMJ and forward head posture are inter-related. But why and how are still being debated. I actually co-authored a study with Dr. Steven Olmos that seemed to prove that posterior displacement of the mandibular condyle could cause forward head posture (The effect of Condyle Fossa Relationships on Head Posture, Cranio, Jan. 2005). And yet, I have to wonder how often the effect goes the other way, i.e. how often sloppy posture leads to neck and shoulder pain, and then to a TMJ displacement.

Tension headaches? Migraines? Research is showing that it’s not psychological stress as much as forward head posture putting pressure on nerves in the occipital region of the head. Oh well, there’s a pill for that, isn’t there?

Occasionally I’ll run across a patient with absolutely no neck or back pain. “I’m just curious,” I’ll say. “Most of my patients have some significant neck problems. Why are you different?” And I’ll get one of two answers. Either they attended parochial schools and the good Sisters would tolerate no slouching, or they had overbearing and harping parents who demanded attention to their posture. “I thought it was awful back then,” one eighty year old man told me, “but I’ve been grateful for some time now. I sure get around better than most of my friends.”

If you do a Google search on posture, you’ll find a thousand opinions. It does not matter, some sources tell you. Once you have bad posture, it cannot be unlearned, certainly not by conscious effort another expert says.

But I asked a prominent Southern California chiropractor his thoughts on posture just last week. Of course it’s important, he told me. Not just standing or seated posture either. Perhaps even more important is posture in movement—gait posture (with that I remembered the books on the head drill from my school days). And posture training is always appropriate, he told me. At any age.

So parents, teach your children. Don’t let them grow up to be perpetual chiropractic patients—and that’s where they’re headed if you let them slouch! That is their future if they walk with head down and shoulders slumped.

There’s even research implicating posture for mental depression. Walk like a depressed person and you might become one.

And adults who have no chance of looking like a gymnast on a balance beam, it may not be too late. You can’t change your posture with conscious effort, some say. But pay attention and maybe you can.

This is how Papoose Creek School looked when it was actually open.
This is how Papoose Creek School looked when it was actually open.

Papoose Creek School is an historical landmark. Our days there were long, difficult, and politically incorrect in almost every way by today’s standards. But I think much of what went on there was of life long benefit. Our training there—including posture training– would be illegal today. And isn’t that a darned shame?

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William Halligan

William F. Halligan is a 1972 graduate of the University of Southern California’s School of Dentistry. He practiced general dentistry during most of his career with an emphasis on restorative dentistry. He is a member of the American Academy of Craniofacial Pain and a founding member of the Academy of Clinical Sleep Disorders Dentistry. Dr. Halligan’s practice is located in San Diego and is focused on treating TMJ disorders.

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