A Source Of Self-Esteem, Discovered Over Lunch
Jim was a rough kid. Everyone would tell you it.
They may have had their words like “troubled” or “delinquent” or “rough”, but the words all added up the same thing. Jim was no good.
The small town of Westville, Mississippi had its “good kids”; its “fine young men” and “nice young ladies.” But Jim wasn’t one of them.
Jim’s mother was the local librarian. Jim’s father worked at a bank.
Jim didn’t grow up on the “wrong side of the tracks” or anything like that. He gradually found his way there, not in physical reality, but in people’s minds.
Jim’s biggest mistake in his fellow high school students eyes was his love of books.
He always had a book on him. It was almost never a fiction book. It was a book about world history, or politics, or sociology.
His second mistake was that despite all the reading he did, he got poor grades.
The small town gossipers, with not much to do would whisper among themselves. “That Jim must very lazy. He reads book all day long, yet he doesn’t get good grades at all. He just doesn’t carry. He’s got no morals.”
Jim’s third, most damning mistake was his questioning. Despite getting bad grades, Jim was excited and engaged. In his English classes, his history classes, and even in his science classes he would ask questions. He would ask questions that weren’t on the test, but that he wanted to know.
Jim would not just ask questions but sometimes he would disagree or debate.
It was 1972, but in Mississippi there were no “love-ins”. The hippies of Berkeley, Greenwich Village, and Portland seemed a distant glimmer just occasionally appearing on TV.
Until the first day of school in 1972, Jim had been target of the most mockery, harassment, and gossip. Rumors went around that Jim was a “dope fiend” or worse yet, a “sex fiend”, the worst kind of “fiend” known to his small town southern classmates.
As he walked through the hallway, athletes would push him over.
A few times Jim had been called to the principals office to discuss his “attitude”. He had once been told that he wasn’t enthusiastic about sports, and his lack of energy was bringing the whole schools spirits down. Another time he had been told that his refusal to participate in extra-curricular activities, i.e. sports, there was nothing else, was “disrespectful” and showed that he didn’t value the “Westville spirit of community”.
Another time someone had looked through one his books while he showered before gym class. The book was “Ulysees” by James Joyce. When he classmates found the section about “he went off in his pants”, Jim was ordered out of the shower.
After drying off, he was sent to the principals office and warned that if he ever brought “dirty books” to school again, he would feel the paddle on his bare rump, and then be given a “ten day vacation” to “spend standing up”.
Yes, until the first day of school in 1972, Jim had clearly been the most unwanted, non-conforming, and undesired person inside the walls of Westville High School at that time.
But that all changed.
Ms. Butler walked in the doors of Westville knowing what was ahead of her would not be easy. She wasn’t doing it because she wanted to, she kept reminding herself. She was doing it to make a point, and maybe open some minds along the way.
The Principal & School Board had been hushed about the decision to hire her, as they knew they would receive grief about it for months on end.
Ms. Butler had graduated from a high ranking “historically Black University.” She had promised herself, in the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement and the drive for integration, that she would teach a few years in an all white rural school. Rumors about the violence erupting as “busing” was implemented in school districts even in the north pushed her onward.
When Ms. Butler walked in the door, there were whispers. They were loud, southern whispers, that only a deaf person couldn’t hear.
“Why is there a N****r here at this school?”
Someone approached her, hopefully pointing her toward the new janitors closet, only to be disappointed as she said “I’m a teacher.”
Ms. Butler was the new English teacher. The news spread through the town like wildfire.
“Who does she think she is teaching our kids?”
“Blacks don’t even speak proper English! How can we let them teach it!”
“We just taught them darkies how to read, and now they want to give our kids a lecture about integration!”
The Principal, despite acting on the orders of the state superintendent of schools, and being a staunch racist, was getting endless phone calls that first week. Older women who did not even have children in school called up demanding to know whether the principal was “a secret member of the Communist Party” pushing a hidden agenda of “integrationalism” and “Black supremacy”.
Needless to say, Ms. Butler was not wanted and that was clear.
Jim was relieved the first few week, as it seemed the target of the “good kids” rage was turned on someone else. He didn’t not have Ms. Butler as an English teacher. Though his parents were racists who were clearly upset like the entire town, Jim didn’t really care about whether a black teacher had been hired.
He wished he could take her class. Maybe she would be wrong, but at least what she would say would be interesting by comparison to the normal dullness.
On the first day, Jim discovered a new problem. As before there had been “open lunch” and the students were free to walk home to their southern housewife mothers for a fresh cooked meal, the policy had changed.
Students were now not only given the option but required to eat in the school cafeteria, either bringing a lunch with them or purchasing a school meal.
Jim, like the rest of his fellow students, found himself in the cafeteria.
The students could sit wherever they wanted. This, Jim knew, meant one thing especially, not with him.
He would sit near one group of students, and they would stare at him with silent disdainful looks. He would move away.
Soon, Jim realized that he would be sitting in a corner, alone. It was humiliating and degrading. So, he hid in the hallway. He ate his packed lunch in a corner, behind a stack of boxes in case this was a violation of the rules. He consumed his apples and packed, crushed sandwich in silence.
He kept the silence by doing his best to cry as quietly as possible.
Eventually, Jim realized it was far from against the rules to eat alone in the hallway. In fact, as long as he didn’t leave the building where a few aides were posted, he could go wherever he liked. He could roam the halls.
The teachers were eating together their lounge.
Jim gradually started rotating through the empty classrooms, using each of them as his makeshift palace dining room, where he was the king. Soon his tears were gone, and he looked forward to lunch. It was his hour of peace and rest, when the stress of dealing with the abuse of other students wasn’t present.
He rotated from classroom to classroom until the day he strolled into Ms. Butler’s room.
When he saw she was in the room, he started to dash out, panicking, thinking he might be in trouble for not being the cafeteria.
“Stay!” Ms. Butler called out.
Jim froze, and turned around.
“You want to eat lunch with me, Jim?” she asked.
Jim started to stutter, never having spoken to a woman of color before, and unsure if he was to be in trouble for leaving the cafeteria to avoid humiliation and loneliness.
“How do you know my name?” he asked.
“I hear the whispers in my classes,” she said. “You’re about as popular around here as I am.”
Jim laughed, because it was true. A bond suddenly grew between the two of them.
Ms. Butler told Jim all about herself. She told him about her “historically Black college” and her father, a well known Black minister in the AME church.
Jim told her about his favorite books, and his desire to be a writer someday.
“Come in and eat with me every day, Jim,” she said.
“Are you sure that’s alright ma’am?” Jim asked.
“My name is Barbara,” Ms. Butler replied. “And yes. It’s better than us eating alone. We can be lonely together.”
So, Jim did. The relationship grew and grew. Each day during lunch, the exclusive clique of Jim and Ms. Butler, i.e. Barbara, had an exclusive meeting, with no one but the founding members present.
They talked about books, politics, history, and such.
“If only were as smart as you when I was your age, Jim, I’d be a genius now,” Ms. Butler laughed one day, as Jim was telling her about how he made his way through Plato “Republic” after seeing on PBS TV special that it had influence the Italian fascists.
Jim and Ms. Butler never broached the topic of race or racial unrest. Both were to afraid. If Jim had been a racist, this would ruin things for Ms. Butler. If Ms. Butler had been a civil rights activist or a Black Nationalist Jim would never be permitted to speak to an “uppity N****r” by his father, and the relationship would end.
For the security of their relationship, they talked about politics, history, and stress. Ms. Butler talked about her need to find a husband. Jim talked about his loneliness, and how he hated to be picked on.
Ms. Butler began to grow worried about Jim as their friendship grew. She saw he was miserable.
She then remembered something that had happened to her once. She knew just knew for some reason that it was exactly what Jim needed.
On one particular day, Jim was very upset. More harassment had gone his way.
Ms. Butler knew that Jim must be feeling the way she had felt when she found a noose on her car windshield on Friday of the first week.
Jim was sad. She knew he would not cry in front of her, but inside he was livid.
In the classroom, they sat opposite one another. Jim with his short cut blonde hair, at a small student desk turned around to face Ms. Butler’s teacher sized desk.
“Jim…” she said, assuming a very firm voice not normal for their fun, relaxing conversations.
Jim grew nervous, hearing her tone. He hoped she wasn’t angry with him. He couldn’t stand to lose his only friend.
“You need to stop letting these stupid redneck fools get to you. You’re a brilliant young man. You have a lot to offer the world.”
Jim smiled, hearing her words.
“Me telling you this is not enough,” she said. “When I was your age, the other kids would pick on me because my daddy was a preacher. My daddy told me not to let it get to me. He told me loved me to much. He said just like God wants us to keep our bodies healthy, we should keep our minds healthy as well. He said that if we let our minds get corrupted by self-hatred, we are sinning. He then did what was done in our house if we sinned…”
Jim looked confused.
“My Daddy took his strap to my behind. Afterwards he held me, and told me he only did it because he was not going to let me hurt myself with these bad thoughts.”
Jim grew nervous, suddenly.
“Jim, I know I’m your friend, and I’m a colored woman, but I’m still your teacher. Because I have found your behavior not conducive to the learning environment, I am going to administer corporal punishment.”
“That’s a fancy way of saying I’m going to give you a good whoopin’ for hating yourself.”
Jim gulped again, having not been paddled in school, miraculously since 3rd grade.
“Jim, stand up, and bend over my desk. Pull your pants down first along with your underwear. Remember, I’m not angry with you. I’m just going to help you.”
Jim obeyed. His fingers shook with fear as he trembled with his belt, his jeans, and short underwear.
“If I ever catch you hating yourself, or believing what these stupid, racist jack-offs think, this is what is gonna happen,” she said.
Then there was dead silence and a pause.
Jim stared down at the metallic top of the desk.
He could hear Ms. Butler fidgeting around with something she hadn’t used yet, knowing full well it was a risk to use it on a white child.
“Fifty licks,” she said. Jim gulped.
Fifty licks, with a school paddle would be horrendous.
Ms. Butler however, knew that she couldn’t just give Jim a few warning taps. In order for him to really know he was loved and cared for, this would have to be the spanking of his life.
She was happy to see that the teacher before her had drilled a nice row of holes down the middle of the blade of the beautiful paddle.
She smiled. She saw Jim trembling, and knew of course that he was terrified. She had been terrified when her father whooped her for the same thing.
But now Ms. Butler knew why her father had always smiled when he spanked her. It wasn’t, as she had thought, a gleeful pleasure in her pain. Rather it was knowing that he was able to help her, in a special, intimate way.
She was now able to help Jim. She could now teach him a lesson.
She pulled back, and smacked the board into his bare bottom. Jim yelled. But there were 49 more to go, and soon he would out of breath, defeated, and feeling more pain than ever thought imaginable.
When Jim arose, he again was crying.
“Expect a good spanking from now on if you don’t stop hating yourself,” Ms. Butler said.
Jim hugged her. She had given him what he needed more than ever.
The spanking had not been like a belt whipping from his father, or the paddling in third grade. This was not an act of rage or mechanical discipline, but an act of love. Ms. Butler, unlike his own mother and father, loved him.
She was the only person in the world who saw him as special and meaningful. He loved her. As he sobbed, with his head in her chest, and she rubbed his bared bottom, Ms. Butler loved him back.
Needless to say, Jim had numerous other “whoopins” from Ms. Butler. She spanked him for all kinds of infractions. But she also bought him birthday presents, and sometimes went on after-school walks with him.
She would occasionally give him a lift in her car home.
No one ever knew about the spankings Jim got from Ms. Butler, but many suspected they were having a sexual affair or something.
Both were so hated, this didn’t seem to matter. It just made the gossip more interesting.
Before Jim left for college, he gave Ms. Butler, Barbara, or “Momma” as he began calling her, a nice new paddle. It had holes on it, and was perfectly varnished.
It also had words on it. It didn’t have a corny nickname like “ol’ spanky”, or a folksy pun like “board of education” or “give to a deer with a bear butte.” Rather, it said “for helping self-esteem” on it.
As Jim and his temporary Momma hugged a last time, they both knew this gift would be used on Jim before he headed out into the world, with a confidence gained through his “seat of learning” where he had learned something more important than ever.