Saturday, August 8, 2015

In the Days of Corporal Punishment

Occasionally, I hear someone insist that we must bring back corporal punishment to our schools. I could write an entire chapter on that subject. 

The capsule version would be: I can’t agree.

Early in my career, I did swat, as most teachers did. One day, I gave a young man what I thought was a fairly ordinary swat. But he ended up bruising badly. In days and weeks to follow I heard from other students that other teachers had bruised them, too. I heard from parents that they’d been swatted as kids, bruised, but learned to behave accordingly.

In my case, I had bruised the boy badly. His mother was furious and filed a criminal complaint. I never blamed her for being angry; but I was charged with a felony assault and had to head for court. Lose that case, in 1982, and my teaching career is over. (Some might have said, “And justly so.”)

Someday, I may take the time to tell this story in detail. For now, let’s just say I was found innocent. 

I still don’t blame the mother.

I still understand why mom was angry—and still think I gave the boy only a normal swat. But one detail still amazes me and may prove revelatory to those who don’t know the full story. When the case was decided in my favor I returned to school the next day. My career could continue! That afternoon, Ed Lenney, our wonderful principal, called me into his office during my conference period. He said I had better sit down.

“John,” he explained, “Mrs. ----- [the mother who filed charges] just called.”

My immediate thought was: “She’s going to file a civil complaint [for damages]. I’ll have to go to court and defend myself all over again.”

“You can handle this however you want,” Ed continued, “but she wanted to know if you’d take Carl [the boy; using, here, a fictitious name] back in class.”

(Carl had been removed from my American history class, of course, once charges were filed.)

“WHAT!” I exclaimed. (I don’t recall if I added an expletive. I think I was too surprised.) “WHY?”

“Mrs. ---- says she thinks you’re a good teacher.”

Of all the developments in the story, this was the only one that really surprised me. I thought about it a moment, because I liked almost every kid I ever met, and never had any bad feelings for the boy or his mother. He did bruise badly, after all. That wasn’t a hallucination. Still, I quickly decided that it would be better for all if Carl continued to learn his lessons from another teacher.

I almost never swatted another student again—except in one or two cases where parents actually asked for their child to be given corporal punishment. (Usually, this was chosen in lieu of some kind of suspension.)

And I can assure you that in my experience swatting teens was never enjoyable. You can make the argument, however, that it beats arresting them, which is what schools started doing in the 1980s, and still do today, when school resource officers began to be needed to roam the halls. I am also fully aware that the word “beats” in the previous sentence is loaded with all kinds of different meanings.

(I should also note that today there are 17,000 school resource officers, or cops, to put the matter bluntly, roaming the halls of American schools.


Regardless, the argument against corporal punishment is effectively settled in the negative. I never missed using the paddle, myself, and instituted a regimen of Marine Corps pushups as my last line of defense when young men acted up in class. (I explain that whole approach in my book if you’re interested.)

So, on a lighter note, let me share one funny story from the Dark Ages, as some might call it, of corporal punishment. The rule in my class, when I was first teaching, was simple. Skip an after school detention and you earned a swat the next day. 

(Most kids who had detention after school had failed to complete several assignments and I preferred to keep them after rather than give them zeroes and let them waste their talents.) 

Beyond question, the award for creativity in such a situation goes to a young man named Ken 

Ken was a good-old-fashioned boy at a time when Loveland was a country district, not the affluent suburban community it would later become. Ken’s only problem stemmed from lack of motivation. He didn’t complete his work and earned a detention. Unfortunately, he failed to make his cameo appearance. 

As expected, Ken entered Room 207, at the start of sixth bell the next afternoon. “You know the rule, Ken,” I said almost immediately. I put the rest of the class to work and told him to step out in the hall.

He looked worried but made no excuse for skipping.

I asked another teacher to witness, as required, and when Ken bent over as ordered I gave him a moment to collect his thoughts. Then I gave him a swat. 

Normally, a swat made a cracking sound. This time it was more of a thump. Something was wrong.

“Ken, what are you wearing?” I inquired.

He looked embarrassed. But he was quick to admit the truth. “Eleven pairs of underwear, four pairs of gym shorts, two pairs of shorts, and sweat pants,” he explained sheepishly. 

I had to laugh. “Well,” I explained, “you out-foxed me this time. Just don’t skip detention again.”

Ken went back into my room and I followed, tossing my paddle on my desk with a clatter. Then it was back to teaching.

There are other ways to discipline children. This one: for arguing siblings.

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