Spare the rod? Not here, most agree
By Aimee Edmondson
The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN) , June 3, 2001

Second-graders Constance and Adrian hunker down in Cherokee Elementary's cafeteria to polish off their sloppy joes and milk.

The place is loud, so it's easy to lose yourself and bellow across a few tables to your pals.

You get caught, there's hell to pay.

A teaching assistant will send you and your tray to the front, where the other students will watch you finish your food standing up. Then they will watch you get a paddling.

It's hard to swallow when you know the paddle's coming, says Adrian. "It stings."

Of her own whippings at home, another student says "But it doesn't feel like an extension cord."

Most any day, a few students get caught yelling or throwing food and find themselves in a line with their trays in front of the cafeteria's stage waiting for one lick from administrative assistant Gary Bolton.

"It's embarrassing," Constance says.

But it's necessary, insist Bolton and many Cherokee teachers.

Corporal punishment is a hotly debated issue here and across the country, but many Cherokee parents and teachers line up on the same side: paddle. Memphis City Schools allows it under specific guidelines.

While some Cherokee teachers don't need to paddle and haven't for years, it's how many others maintain control.

Bolton, whom everybody calls "Coach," carries his foot-long wooden paddle wrapped in duct tape in his back pocket and his spankings are uniform, resulting in one resounding pop. Children look like they're grimacing from dread and shame more than pain.

Many Cherokee parents adamantly tell teachers to spank their children if they misbehave.

"They need it," says parent Bobby Taylor, whose A-student daughter Brittney is a fifth-grader.

Photographs by A.J. Wolfe

Administrative assistant Gary Bolton, known at Cherokee as "Coach," paddles a student in the cafeteria. Most any day, a few students get caught misbehaving and find themselves in a line waiting for one lick from Coach, who is loved by the students despite his paddle.

"They took (religion) out of the schools and then look what happened," says Taylor, a soft-spoken deputy jailer.

Some teachers say they just can't reach a child by talking. They say if they don't spank, the child feels like he got away with something and the behavior worsens.

And children expect to be paddled because that's what happens at home, they say.

Between bites of canned pears, Constance talks about getting slapped at home for writing on the wall.

"I can't help it. I don't have no paper. And I be wanting to write so bad."

Tom Emens's room

Fifth-grade teacher Tom Emens stepped into the hall after class on a particularly trying day, a look of hopelessness briefly replacing his usually eager expression.

"I didn't come here to fight with kids," said the first-year teacher and former juvenile court probation officer.

Sick of seeing the same youths in and out of court, he became a teacher.

"I wanted to get to them young enough to make a difference," said Emens, 35, a burly man with a boyish face.

Some days he wonders if he's doing any good.

"There are a lot of things I haven't been able to do because the kids haven't been able to control themselves," said Emens, a U.S. Army artillery officer until 1992.

After he stalks up and down the hall for a minute, he gets enthusiastic again.

He's learned so much this first year, he can't wait to come back in the fall and correct some of the mistakes he knows he made, especially when it comes to discipline.

The tone a teacher sets at the beginning makes all the difference, he knows.

The first week of school, Emens had jury duty. Then, nervous and feeling behind, he came in smiling and too lenient. He told the class that he'd respect them if they respected him. Not good enough.

He has studied what other teachers do, and he'll do it next year.

Students get one verbal warning free of charge. The second time they get a mark by their names on the board. After the third, Emens calls the parents. If there's a fourth warning, he calls Coach.

Emens wants paddling to be rare, if ever. Right now, it's not working, he said. The fear of it is gone.

"Even a paddling just gets you the afternoon or the next day. You paddle, hoping for a lull," he said.

After seeing many of the same kids being sent to Coach, the discipline committee, a group of Cherokee teachers who meet on discipline-related issues, plan to talk about strategies to cut down on the frequency of paddling for next year.

Bolton said he paddles as many as seven or eight kids a day. It's impossible to know how that compares with other schools since records on such aren't kept school or districtwide.

Gloria Berman's room

Second-grade teacher Gloria Berman will tell you that she is not a disciplinarian.

Her classroom is chaos.

Her high-pitched voice resonates down the hall as she tries in vain to control her 18 second-graders.

As she yells at her children, they shut her out more and more.

"You're going to sit there and get a big fat zero."

"How many times do I have to tell you not to talk out?"

"Sit down."

"If you don't stop tapping that pencil, I'll tap you."

The worried school nurse once took Berman's blood pressure after class and it was soaring.

Students get up from their seats to borrow pens from each other when they feel like it, often oblivious to Berman's screeching. Half of them are turned around visiting with the person in the desk behind them while she is trying to teach a lesson. One girl is cleaning out her purse.

After class, Berman says she appreciates the advice other teachers and administrators have given her. But nothing will work.

"This isn't the situation I wanted to be in. Discipline is not my strong suit. I know it's not."

Second-grade teacher Gloria Berman gets into a student's face for a discipline problem during her class. The student wasn't paying attention. "Discipline is not my strong suit," Berman said.

Berman, who is finishing her second year at Cherokee, said she has five repeaters and estimates that only two or three in her class are working at grade level.

She also figures she will promote them all.

Berman, who is kind and helpful to visitors at the school, says she's supposed to be teaching gifted students. She wants to pass along her love of English and drama. Instead, she doubts if she's teaching them much, if anything.

"I don't think their reading has progressed at all," she says in frustration.

Berman was worried during the third week in April, as Cherokee's five-year accreditation neared and inspectors would be touring the building.

"I am just a wreck. I hope they don't walk by my room."

Angela Adkins's room

From students to parents to teachers, you just can't generalize when you're talking about Cherokee.

Take Angela Adkins's room.

It's a model of orderliness, and her third-graders are attentive and quiet.

When Adkins, a Cherokee teacher for 17 years, turns her back to the class to help a student with a math problem, students keep working as if they're still under her watchful eye.

If she steps out of the room, they whisper quietly.

If somebody forgets and gets up without permission, Adkins says sternly but quietly: "Thank you for sitting down."

She focuses on positive reinforcement, like handing out a "Ticket to Success," a tiny sheet of paper with an apple that has a smiley face and big feet, when a child is behaving appropriately. At the end of the day, the students with tickets get Tootsie Rolls.

In most classrooms, students are recognized for misbehaving when the teacher corrects them. Adkins does the opposite.

It sounds incredibly simple. Maybe that's why it works, muses Adkins, 42, dressed in a tailored pantsuit and flat shoes with tens of braids pulled back into a pony tail.

"Being positive brings out the good in them," she says. "I just bathe them in it."

Adkins also has the children repeat their "Affirmation," which they memorized early in the year. It reminds them to stay on task everyday:

If it is to be, it is up to me.

I can fly. I can fly. I can fly.

I can be anything I want to be.

I can do anything I decide to do.

I can do anything I want to.

As long as I listen to people who care about me. If you are weak, you are beat.

If you are wise, you will survive.

I will prepare myself for that when the doors of opportunity open,

I can just walk right in.

I can, I will, I believe, it is done.

Adkins hasn't paddled a child in more than a decade.

Kelly Wise's room

Second-grade teacher Kelly Wise is mean.

Her glare is staggering and her scold pierces the soul.

The seven-year Cherokee veteran throws great parties at Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

On Valentine's Day, she joined up with another second-grade teacher, Lou Ellen Valentine, and while they loaded down plates with hotdogs and chips for the kids, the students focused on word games with flash cards, competing for speed.

But not everybody was allowed to play.

About 10 students from the two classes had misbehaved and, consequently, were left out of the fun. They lined up in the back of the room, facing the lockers, in trouble for misbehaving or not doing their homework.

"You have to pay the price for something you have done. You have to suffer," Wise said ruthlessly to the excluded group. "You could be up here with us, but you made a choice."

Though not all teachers do, Wise and Valentine are quick to correct students' grammar.

"Don't got no juice?" Valentine asked sternly after a student had spoken the words.

When the child said, "Don't have any juice," Valentine gave her a cup of bubbly purple soda.

Passing out Valentine's Day cards, the two teachers were already talking about the next party, reminding them how much fun they'll have and how tragic it would be to miss out for misbehaving between now and then.

Wise and Valentine rarely have to call Coach.

"It doesn't do any good," says Valentine, 38, a Cherokee teacher for three years.

When faced with being left out on party days, Eric Nelson decided he'd follow Wise's rules sometime between Halloween and Christmas. Eric, who transferred to Cherokee in early October, used to have to sit out for misbehaving, for being disrespectful. That stopped in Wise's class.

"I'll miss out on all the fun and not have any friends," said Eric, who's D's and F's turned into A's and B's by the fourth six weeks.

Eric had settled in nicely, learned the rules and made some friends.

Then in late April, Eric had to change schools again. He has been to eight schools since kindergarten, and now he has to start over somewhere else.

Eric cried when he told Wise.

"I miss his insights," said Wise, 31, who's never met Eric's mom. "I miss a lot about him."

Coach Bolton, 54, Cherokee's chief disciplinarian, is also its hero.

Most kids don't know about the shocking accident in 1991 when a speeding van killed two students.

They'd just been dismissed for Christmas break and carried gifts and goodies from class Christmas parties when they got the OK from the crossing guard to cross the street.

Bolton pushed several kids out of the way before the van ran a red light and plowed into him.

Hailed as a hero for an act he remembers little about, he was out for months with internal injuries and broken bones. Now he stalks the halls and is the go-to guy if a teacher needs help with a discipline case.

You'd think children would despise him. Instead, they hug him in the hallways.

Children know when they are loved, teachers say.

Ask any child.

"He's our father," says Adrian with a big grin.

"He's funny. He's our daddy."

That last remark came from a second-grade girl named Justice.

-Aimee Edmondson: 529-2773

Copyright, 2001, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN. Used here with permission. No additional reproduction or distribution of this material in any form is permitted without the written approval of The Commercial Appeal (

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