School Days Remembered

A letter from Wendy

Our third grade teacher had a bad temper sometimes. One time, she took a boy out in the hall and paddled him for something - I wasn't sure what for. He walked back to his desk muttering that it didn't really hurt, apparently trying to salvage some dignity. Some of the kids who heard him told the teacher and she said, "Let's try it again." So she took him back out and hit him so hard we could hear the blows from inside the classroom. When he came back in, he was crying. It was horrible. I wondered if the kids who told had gotten what they wanted.

And there was Sue. She and I were friends, drawn together perhaps because we were both outsiders, each in our own way. She was poor and her clothes weren't as nice as the other girls', and sometimes she didn't smell very good. As an eight-year-old, I wondered if her family couldn't afford soap, but it didn't seem like a good idea to ask. And I was the clever kid in the class, the one who questioned everything, the smartaleck. So we had a thing together, Sue and I.

Sue had already gotten paddled once, and seeing her coming back into class crying made my own butt almost hurt. One day close to Christmas vacation, she came wearing a long dress, actually looking nicer than usual. I'd gotten my work done early and the teacher was in a good mood so she gave me some yarn, wooden sticks, and instructions for a project. It was easy, but the finished product was unimpressive, even to a third-grader, and I immediately lost interest in it. Later, when I asked the teacher if she know where it was, she made a beeline over to Sue's desk. Apparently, Sue had picked up my project and the teacher had seen her do it. Maybe the teacher was waiting for the opportunity to spring into action. Unfortunately, I gave her that opportunity. She grabbed Sue and lead her out into the hall, paddle in hand.

That really sucked. The project was just a piece of junk, and I really didn't care about it. The worst thing, I guess, was my own inability to protect my friend. When they came back in the classroom, Sue was crying, and I felt too ashamed to look at her.

One day, about a year later, I'd starting fidgeting conspicuously in class and for that I got to take my own walk down to the stairwell and face the paddle. I can remember shaking with fear and backing against the wall. My former third grade teacher was also there, the one who had hit Sue, and I remember asking why she had to be there, and my teacher said that state law required a witness. Each teacher grabbed one of my hands and pulled me forward. I got hit three times, each time harder than the last. It made me feel like vomiting, but I managed to not cry. Tears seemed like the ultimate defeat, a forced admission of how much someone had actually been able to hurt you.

Walking back into the classroom afterwards with the teacher, I felt overwhelmed and couldn't look at the faces that stared at us as we entered the room. At home that night, I couldn't get the events of the day off my mind. My mother asked why I wasn't eating and I told her I just wasn't hungry.

Another time, two boys got in a fight at recess, and when we came back to class, the teacher took them to the stairwell and used "Big Bertha" on them, which appeared to be about two and a half feet long, and an inch thick, with holes drilled in it. They were both crying when they walked back into the classroom. I realized that the teacher could make anyone cry if she wanted to.

School could be dull and I tended to finish everything in the reading book early in the year, so I looked for other, more interesting stuff. Tolkein's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings actually took me a long time to read, not like the books they gave us in school, but they were excellent. Eowyn, the valiant female warrior, was my favorite character. Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins and Little Women made me learn a lot of new words, and the characters in her books could actually resolve problems without hitting each other. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson got part of its title from C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, which was also really good. Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time made me think about math in a new way. My tendency to read all the time must have irritated my teacher, though, because once after I'd been sent out in the hall, she told me that if she caught me doing any more unauthorized reading, I'd get paddled again. I remembered the two boys and realized that if we took a second walk to the stairwell, I'd probably be crying when we walked back into the room too.

One day in third grade, the teacher told me that I was going to have a "sore bottom" if I didn't finish something by the end of the day, and I wondered if she thought it was only about what happened to you outside, if she couldn't understand what being hit did to you inside.

It bothers me a lot when people talk about bringing back corporal punishment. Don't they remember what the "good old days" were really like? If they want to be nostalgic, would they bring back lead-based paint too? When I see little kids, even those that I don't know, the idea of them being hit like that makes me wonder if there's anything I can do to stop it.

Actually, it appalls me that so many states still allow this crap to go on. Is there anything I can do to help?


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