THE SOUTHERN RULES OF TEACHING
When ‘Teach for America’ sent me into the schools of Mississippi, I figured it would just be like teaching in any other rural area. I of course suspected southern accents, racism, and all the stuff associated with the south. But I never expected that on the first day I would be presented with a thick wooden paddle.
The principal was a kind of overweight southern gentleman. His family was prominent in the town.
He leaned back in his chair when giving me my new teacher’s gift saying, “Son, I know in them fancy northern colleges they teach you to give detentions, or yell at the kids, or that nonsense. Down here, we don’t have any use for that kind of stuff. Don’t raise your voice or work extra hours with punitive study halls. When a kid messes up, you just give them a good spanking.”
I was taken aback by his words, to say the least.
“You can either use this thing to give them school swats, or if it seems right, you can just put ’em over your lap. Keep their pants up, just to be safe. I’ve never had a complaint about kids getting ‘pants downers’ but in this modern age, you’d better not. Some of the other staff members do, but I always tell them it’s at their own risk.”
The principal leaned back again on this hot summer southern day.
“I know they didn’t spank kids in school, but when I looked at your college transcripts I could tell you were a fine young man. I’m sure you had a father who knew how to discipline you,” he said.
I nodded. But he was wrong. My father and mother had never spanked me.
There was misbehavior in my classroom, no doubt. But I dealt with it. After the first week however, I was called to visit the principal once again.
“We’ve had some complaints from the parents,” he said to me, in hot office once again. “They say you haven’t paddled a single student yet.”
I shrugged. “I didn’t really need to.”
“Now, that’s hogwash, and you know it. Our kids are nice, but they ain’t angels. Most teachers here don’t go a day without paddling a kid or two. What about Jimmy? He didn’t do his homework last night.”
“I warned him,” I said.
“Warned him? It’s your job to make sure these students are learning. If you don’t spank these kids, they won’t learn. Have you ever spanked a kid before? Like a younger brother or sister, or cousin, niece or nephew?” he said.
“No,” I said, surprised that spanking someone other than my own child was an expected experience.
“Son,” said the principal. “Tell me the truth. Have you ever gotten a spanking?”
I froze, but then, realizing I had nothing to lose, I just told the truth, as he requested.
“When I was little my parents swatted me once of twice, but I never really got spanked,” I said. “I’m sorry if that makes you think less of me.”
The principal, with his fat southern face smiled.
“No, son. It impresses me. I know I’d never have been able to get my degree and become a teacher if I hadn’t had discipline. Yet you managed. I’m just very sorry to hear that no one ever cared about you enough to tan your hide. If they had, think of how much more successful you’d be. You’re already a college graduate with a great GPA, getting ready for Grad School. Imagine how much further you’d be if there’d be a pain in your butt chasing after you?”
I shrugged again. I’d never thought of it that way. But I did recall how my successes were largely based on being smart. I slacked off about as much as I could get away with it, using my brains as a cover. If somebody had forced me to live up to my potential, I realized, I’d be some kind of superman, almost.
“Well…” said the Principal, smiling to himself. “We seem have to have reached the root, or the bottom of the problem, so to speak.”
He chuckled to himself.
“Before I can let you teach here, I need to know that you’ll discipline the students properly. And I also need to know that you know what you’ll be dishing out. So, it looks like, I’m going to have give you a spanking.”
I was confused by this.
“You want to spank me?” I said.
“I don’t want to,” he said. “I have to. If you’re gonna be an effective teacher here, you need to know what our primary discipline method is like, from both ends.”
“Okay,” I said. Ironically, though it didn’t seem fun, I wasn’t hostile to the idea. If I was going to get the job done, I needed to know exactly what the job entailed. Letting him spank me would be a painful way of figuring out what would shut these parents up if I did it to one or two slacking kids.
“Son,” he said. “I want you to think of something you did wrong.”
This seemed weird.
“What?” I said.
“Something you did that you feel guilty about. Something you never got punished for. Imagine it, and then I’m gonna take the paddle to you,” he said.
He then pulled his paddle out of the desk. It was just like mine, except warn from use. He had also drilled some holes in it.
I thought back into my past. I recalled going out drinking one night as a teen, and not being caught. I felt very guilty about it. My mother’s father had been an alcoholic. If she knew her son was drinking underage, she’d have cried horrifically.
“Okay,” I said.
“Alright. Bend over!” he said. “Put your hands flat on my desk. Stick your bottom out there. You’re getting ten licks.”
“Alright,” I said. I didn’t expect this to be anything other than a few stinging slaps. Of course, it would be punishment to a third grader, but not to a grown man.
But then the board came down. BAM! It was the worst pain I’d ever felt in my life. Tears came into my eyes. I knew I deserved this. This was what should have happened to me the night I came home. I should have been caught.
BAM! BAM! BAM!
The principal admonished me between swats. “Whatever you did was UNACCEPTABLE BOY! This spanking is long overdue! Next time it’ll be double on your bare butt!”
BAM! BAM! BAM!
He finished the ten, and I was in tears.
“Don’t you see how valuable this is?” he said to me afterwards, not even noticing my tears.
“Yes,” I said.
“Good,” he said. “Now go back to class and give students proper guidance.”
Needless to say, I did.
A girl, who I knew was smart and had great potential, was not following along as we were reading. I saw her blonde-haired head wandering around the room, day dreaming. I remembered being young, and how I did the same thing. But this girl had something I never had, good discipline.
“Miss Parks,” I said, using her last name. She jumped.
“You were not paying attention, were you?” I said sharply.
“No sir,” she said nervously.
“Come here,” I said.
She walked up to the front of the room.
“I want everyone here to watch what’s about to happen to Lucy Parks,” I said. “This is what happens to little boys and girls who do not study hard and put their full effort forward in this class.”
The class gasped a bit. The needed effect, I thought.
I forgot where my paddle was, so I just turned little Lucy Parks across my knee.
“When we act up in school, Miss Parks, we get spanked,” I said. Then I spanked her bottom. Her skirt was on, but it was a thin summer dress for the heat. She cried and screamed as my hand smacked and smacked.
She cried hard, and I continued to spank. Then I ordered to her to sit down.
But before she did, she hugged me.
“Thank you teacher!” she said, still crying. “I really wanted to pay attention and now I know I will.”
I smiled. So did she. So did the class.
It seemed I learned the southern rules of teaching well.