Years ago, when Heidi was getting her doctorate, I was a second grade teacher in a fairly traditional school on the south side of Indianapolis, Indiana. Now, I must admit, here in South Carolina we have our public relations problems. There is our Governor and the Appalacian Trail, our former segregationist senior senator and his illegitimate biracial child. Of course there is Alvin Greene who is running a strong race against Jim DeMint for the US senate.
We have our list of PR problems all right, but Indiana has had some issues of its own. In 1986, the last year I taught in Decatur Township, Indiana, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the high school lawn. Acquaintances of mine (not friends) used the n-word regularly and in the name of racial harmony, African American school children from Kindergarten-age on were bussed one hour each way to and from the north side of Indianapolis to our little district. There were plenty schools in need of integration much closer. Sadly, important decisions about education often fell on the shoulders of people far removed from classrooms and the daily life of students. I guess that still is true.
A strong woman principal hired me at Lynwood Elementary School. She had wonderful educational background and was a graduate student herself at IU. I had heard wonderful things about her and was anxious to begin working at her school.
She and I had issues from the start. For one thing, we carpooled together which led to lots of problems. She shared information about other teachers with me that made me uncomfortable. It made me wonder what kinds of details she shared about me to others. For another thing, she was a heavy smoker. This was back in the early to mid 80’s and smoking was pretty much accepted everywhere. There weren’t any NO SMOKING sections in restaurants and there were no smoking bans in public buildings. People routinely smoked in each other’s houses and cars. Few people ever even thought to ask permission. Since she was my principal, and therefore my boss, I didn’t feel like I had much choice in the matter. I certainly wouldn’t ask her to not smoke in her car and I didn’t feel brave enough for the first year we travelled together to ask her not to smoke in mine.
It became clear the more we got to know each other that we were VERY far apart on important educational issues. While she was well read and had some of my favorite professors on her doctoral committee, it was clear from the start that our ideas about what was in the best interest of children were very different. During that first year, she became very concerned about our test scores. So concerned that she was putting programs before children. She humiliated teachers in public and was seen by many of the teachers as a tyrant. She did have one quality that appealed to many teachers – she paddled. Pretty liberally too. I’m not sure if she saw it as a way to win back some of her dwindling support from the staff, or if she honestly thought that a good swift paddling made a positive impact (pardon the pun) on the lives of students, but she was quick and fierce with a paddle.
While I would not say that parents should never paddle their children (we have managed to never spank our children – and frankly – it is too late now since they could easier paddle us) I feel strongly that paddling should not be a tool in public schools. That should be left up to parents. The more we got to know each other, the more my principal and I disagreed. We rode together for almost an hour about four times each week so we had a lot of time to talk about education and children. And, by the second year that we worked together her smoking in my car was driving me nuts. Every time she lit up in my car I rolled down my window. She never seemed to notice. It may have been immaturity on my part, but I became less and less tolerant of her smoking in my little subcompact car (I rocked a Chevette for many years).
Finally about half way through my second year teaching with her I asked, as politely as I could, if she would stop smoking in my car. I tried to be diplomatic, but to a person who smokes a pack or two each day, an hour, twice a day, is a long time to go without a smoke. If she were going to ride in my car, which she did two or three times every week, she would have to refrain from smoking for those two hours each day.
You can imagine how hard that became. She began criticizing my lesson plans, made more unannounced visits to the classroom and called me out more often in faculty meetings. And the rides in my car… She hated the music I put in the tape player, the radio stations I chose were too mainstream, my car was too small. Looking back, it probably was a dirty trick to ask her to quit smoking in my car. It wasn’t like I was allergic and it was before we knew the dangers of second hand smoke. It was a petty thing on my part but once I asked her to stop I couldn’t bring myself to allow it again. She started driving herself more and more often. Fine by me.
Toward the end of my second year there I had some issues that caught her attention. I had never sent a child to the principal’s office for any reason. If there was a possibility that I could solve discipline or homework issues with the student or with the parents, I did. I never saw a need to get the principal involved. In some ways sending a child to the principal’s office would be giving away my authority, perhaps sending a signal to the child that I wasn’t capable of handling a situation. It was just my style to deal with things on my own.
One day a child in my room, Brandon, came back from related arts and told me that he was paddled for what he had done in PE. He said that it was for laughing and talking out of turn. I was frustrated and sorry for him. I asked if they had called his mom from the office and told her. She was a single parent. He said that she had not been called. So I wrote a brief note home, letting her know what had happened.
The next day my principal came to me in the morning fuming. She had gotten a call from Brandon’s mom about the paddling and was angry with me that I had not checked with her first. As it turned out, Brandon had not been paddled. For some reason, probably just to get attention, he had simply made that story up. She was furious that I had not checked with the office to corroborate his story. I was on her bad list now more than ever! In an effort to make sure that a parent was notified of her child being paddled, a policy I openly disagreed with, I had messed up by not checking to see if that little rascal was lying to me.
I knew I was going to have to pay the price with her. I figured that she would “write me up” and put a letter in my file about insubordination or something. She would probably make me the subject of a faculty meeting. I was worried most about the tongue lashings I would get during the times we would carpool together while she was going through nicotine withdrawal. It wasn’t going to be pretty.
“You know he’ll have to be paddled for this, don’t you?” she said to me with a gleam in her eye. I didn’t follow her reasoning. “We are just going to have to teach him how wrong it is to lie.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I argued. “You are angry because he said he was paddled and he wasn’t? Now you want to paddle him?”
“Not at all,” she said simply, “I am angry because a little second grader pulled the strings of so many adults. He lied to you, he made his mother angry with Craig (the PE teacher) and he made me looked bad. A second grader shouldn’t be able to do that. He needs to be taught a lesson!”
“I am the one you are angry with. It was my mistake for not checking with you," I said in utter disbelief. "I refuse to paddle a second grader just for being dishonest. It isn’t serious enough to justify that kind of punishment!”
“Oh, don’t worry about that.” She said it with the kind of sympathetic patience that one shows to someone who is slow or very young. “I’m going to do the paddling. And you will be the witness. Two whacks should do it.”
I knew what she was doing. It was her way of punishing me for what I had done. I disagreed with her openly about a lot of things. I didn’t teach to the high stakes test, I played with my students at recess and came in all sweaty; I didn’t let her smoke in my car. And, while she was my principal, I never gave her the feeling that she was the boss of me. Now she was getting even. And it was my fault. Brandon was at fault too, he did lie for whatever bizarre reason, but there was no mistake, it was me my principal was really angry with. Brandon was collateral damage.
There is no happy ending to this story. Brandon was just a little boy. He was the smallest child in my class. Brandon got two licks. They were brutal too. She used a hard wooden paddle made for this specific purpose. I signed the witness form and had to watch as she made him bend over and grab the arm of her chair. The first whack was extremely hard. I was shocked. Brandon screamed. I think even my principal was surprised at her own strength with that first lick. He put his hands over his sore butt and cried until he was hoarse, his eyes filled with tears and fear. “Don’t you think that’s enough?” I pleaded softly.
“I said two and it’s going to be two,” she said without emotion. Brandon would not cooperate. “If you don’t move your hands and bend over by the time I count to three it will be two more licks,” she warned him. “You’d better not think I’m kidding.” Terrified, Brandon did bend over and grab the arm of her chair before she counted three. She landed another blow on his bottom – not quite as hard as the first. She looked at me with grim satisfaction as I took Brandon by the hand and we headed back to class. Brandon and I were broken as we walked slowly down the linoleum-tiled hallway. Our heads were down and both of us were crying.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “You did lie, but I got you into this mess.”
“That’s OK, Mr. O,” he said. His voice was still hitching from crying. “It’s not your fault.” He didn’t really understand just how much it was my fault.
During the last year we worked in the same school, my principal and I didn’t ride together very much. She had too many after school duties she said. That was just fine. Heidi and I were broke with her in grad school and me working so far away from where we lived. But I didn’t care about the extra gas. My principal and I never had much to say to each other after that. We had lost each other’s respect and I was counting down the days in that last year until we moved to South Carolina.
When I write memoir I am usually left thinking about the lives of the people in my little stories. This story is no exception. I think of little Brandon from time to time and wonder if he remembers that day which was so traumatic for both of us. I have totally lost track of that principal. I wonder how many children she paddled over the years. I wonder if she thinks that paddling made a positive difference in the lives of those children.