Best I can recall, the Ten Commandments were not posted in any of the schools I attended while growing up.
March 6, 2005
In Nolan Finley's homily on pupil beating he says, "for every stroke you got at school, you got two more at home." If I am correct in assuming he speaks from personal experience, then he has my deepest sympathy. His school life and his home life shared the same serious defect. Therefore, neither could offset the harm caused by the other. The main effect of such early mistreatment is never better behavior, but worse. It may be covert or delayed, turned inward against the self or outward against others, but it is inevitable. Tragically, the process perpetuates from generation to generation as little victims grow into big perpetrators.
Bertrand Russell said, "The reformative effect of punishment is a belief that dies hard, chiefly, I think, because it is so gratifying to our sadistic impulses." Russell was right, but what he probably did not know (because the effect of early trauma on brain development and personality formation was not well understood in his day) is that sadistic impulses are not innate. They are planted early. Garbage in, garbage out.
Jordan Riak, Exec. Dir., Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education (PTAVE), P.O. Box 1033, Alamo, CA 94507-7033. Web site: "Project NoSpank" at www.nospank.net Telephone: (925) 831-1661
But there were paddles hanging from the wall of every classroom -- that I remember very well.
There was no standard-issue model. The paddles reflected the individual tastes of their wielders.
Some were long and skinny, for those who favored velocity over heft. Others were wide, for maximum coverage. Some had holes drilled through the surface to cut down on wind resistance, and many were personalized with war colors or the signatures of their victims.
A few even had notches along the edges.
These were not ceremonial artifacts. They were working tools, kept within easy reach and pulled down with regularity to enforce the only commandment that mattered in our world then: Thou shalt not push the teacher over the edge.
We also knew well the formula for escalating punishment -- for every stroke you got at school, you got two more at home. Nobody filed a lawsuit against a teacher in those days for making a kid mind.
Paddles have long been vanquished from America's classrooms and most homes. Perhaps for the best.
But I suspect that at least some of the decline in our schools can be traced to the inability of teachers to maintain classroom order with a good, strong forehand.
There are some who think the answer to restoring discipline and moral behavior is to display the Ten Commandments in schools and other public spaces.
Advocates went before the U.S. Supreme Court last week to make their case.
It's a waste of effort, even if they prevail. Simply carving words in marble won't guarantee children will read them, or that they'll buy the idea that life should be lived by a specific moral rule set.
They won't get that from words set in stone. For the commandments to have any impact on children, they have to see adults living by them.
In the house I grew up in, a plaque of the Ten Commandments, the words embossed on a gold background, hung in the hallway. There was another one in my grandmother's living room and in the homes of most of my friends and relatives.
But I can't say I ever bothered to read to the bottom of any of those tablets.
I didn't really need to. I was raised by people who knew the commandments by heart and who darn sure wouldn't spare the rod when I got crossways of a few of them.
Maybe everyone, school children included, would act better if everywhere they went they bumped into a list of the "Thou shalts." But I doubt it.
After the first few encounters, the words would blur into the wallpaper. Nobody would notice, let alone stop to read them.
You can't say that about paddles, though.
Hang a paddle on the wall, and it's hard to take your eyes off of it. Take it from someone who remembers the sting of wood hitting the sweet spot.
Maybe there's a better idea here.
Forget the plaques. Carve the Ten Commandments on paddles, and hang those in classrooms.
At least there'd be a passing chance they'll get read.
Nolan Finley is editorial page editor of The News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (313) 222-2064.
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