Note: Sorry no drawing this time. Kept meaning to but had too many other projects.
Sitting in terror, looking at the wooden paddle hung on the wall, I pondered how little power I had actually had over the situation I found myself in. It was the spring. I can’t recall if it was ’82 or ’83. And we were living in Florida. The Assistant Principal in the Junior High I attended still used corporal punishment as a consequence and deterrent for the poor choices of the pre-adolescents in his care. The wooden paddle just for this purpose hung on the wall of his office and had holes of various sizes drilled in it. I’d heard that those made it hurt more.
Developed over years as a babysitter and then a parent, I currently have some very specific rules about spanking. My training as a psychologist has provided insight into this but my childhood was the beginning. Punishment isn’t the best way to change behaviors. However, people need consequences when they violate social norms. Spankings can get the point across if used very sparingly, explained clearly to the child in terms they understand, and if they make a logical point.
In our household, I used spankings for one specific type of action. If one of my daughters did something that physically threatened her, but escaped the situation with no damage, she got a spanking. After I calmed down.
It made no sense to spank her to alleviate my anger. The literature on violence is pretty clear. Children raised with anger and beatings tend to be more violent. Plus, it missed the whole point.
I wanted to raise my children with consequences which were logical for the situation. Running across a busy parking lot (one daughter – age 4) is dangerous. Chewing the cord of a plugged in iron (the other daughter – age 3). You could be killed or seriously injured. These each justified a spanking. I explained it, sent the child to wait while I calmed down, got out the wooden spoon, talked to the child once more to make sure she understood, administered a brief spanking, and was done.
Spankings were rare for my children.
My dad though used spankings for every infraction big or small. I usually got them for back-talking. As far as I was able to tell that meant asking any questions or pointing out inconsistencies in my father’s logic when told to do something. I also got them when my brother did something wrong because I was the oldest, when I disobeyed a standing rule, or when I did something and “should have known better.”
But this time, there I was in the Assistant Principal’s office. Uncharted territory for me. I didn’t like being in trouble and usually did very well in school, so I didn’t know what to expect.
Two weeks previously, my dad had told me to inform my teachers that I’d be missing school for the shuttle launch.
This was in the early years of the shuttle program. It may have been Challenger’s first launch during my 8th grade year. It meant getting up really early to drive to Cape Canaveral. But still – to see the shuttle lift off and head into space! So cool!
All of my teachers were enthusiastic, supporting this one day adventure with alternate assignments. Except my math teacher.
Whether it was 7th or 8th, pre-algebra or algebra, I can’t be positive. Too many years have passed. I like to think it was 8th, because that makes it Challenger’s first trip, and that makes it even more special. How many people can say that?
Either way… my math teacher refused to give permission. He had a test scheduled that day. If I skipped class, I’d get a zero. This ridiculous trip was a waste of time and there was no relevance between the subject of the trip and his class. That’s what he said.
I just stared at him. Dumbstruck.
At home I told my dad I couldn’t go. “How could math not be relevant to the space program?” He asked, echoing my thoughts. I was going. That was final. My teacher was an idiot. “But Dad my grade” got met with “no back talking.” The subject was closed.
We went. Bundled up in blankets in lawn chairs and drinking something warm out of a thermos we peered through the pre-dawn gray at the shuttle far away from us through a chain link fence. We got to get close-up looks at the people scurrying about, and the shuttle itself nested in its gantry, with binoculars and Dad’s spotting scope. It was incredible.
The fire underneath when it finally rose into the air was thrilling and amazing. Visible to the naked eye even over at the distant fenceline where we hovered with the other onlookers.
My brother and I slept most of the way home. When we got back I probably had time to make it to after-school band practice, but I don’t recall whether or not I went. Most likely. I was a high achiever and very driven to do my best.
Of course the next day, everyone wanted to know about The Launch. I got to be the center of attention for a few minutes each period, describing how it looked and felt.
Until math. He sent me to the office, with a reprimand. I peeked. For skipping class! Which is how I ended up sitting in That chair, staring at That paddle. Terrified. With a horrific sense of the world’s injustice.
And that was the moment I swore that anytime I had power over a child what I would do would make sense. I didn’t know the words or terms yet. I’d never heard of positive reinforcement, logical consequences, social norms, or any of the many other things I learned in my bachelor’s degree in developmental psychology. But I knew somehow in my own childish way that both rightness and fairness were violated when two adults could trap me like this.
Oddly enough that is where my memory ends. I know that I didn’t get a spanking. I would like to think that the administrator heard me out and made the teacher give me the test anyway. But I suspect that he did exactly nothing, and sent me back to class, or I would remember more.
That memory of sitting there staring at the paddle has stuck with me though. I’ve learned to explain that equal and fair are not the same thing. And I’ve tried to find ways to creatively help children through a problem rather than punishing them for what someone else has done. Problem solving, whether it is about logical consequences or some other issue means seeing the person for who they truly are. That requires us to pay attention.
Once I sat enthralled at a fence early on a Spring morning in Florida waiting for something marvelous to happen. But it also taught me a good lesson about the use of authority that all teachers and parents should consider carefully. Our words and actions shape lives.