The following is all true. These events took place in the mid-1970s. When I was a first-year teacher of students in 8th-12th grades at Williamsburg High School, I was called in by my principal, Harold Dilbone, to discuss the case of an 8th-grade girl student whom we will call Sharon. Sharon came from a troubled home and often “acted out” in class. She was known for being irreverent and disrespectful, by talking back when she was reprimanded and ignoring pleas for her to be quiet and studious. She often didn’t do her homework and she struggled to achieve passing grades. In this school, corporal punishment was a common means of providing discipline to students. Mr. Dilbone and other administrators all felt that if detention or calls home did not alter a student’s inappropriate behavior then a “paddling” was in order. I had parents on back-to-school night encourage me to paddle their children if they disobeyed. This was a Bible-Belt community that believed if you “spared the rod, you spoiled the child.”
Paddling involved taking a student into the hallway and administering up to three “swats” on the child’s backside with a long wooden paddle. While there was occasional abuse, most teachers followed the school code. The rules required that the teacher giving the “swats” must be observed by a colleague to make sure the punishment wasn’t given “in anger.” Girls must be asked if “it was their time of the month” and could postpone the punishment by up to a week. Boys had to be positioned so that, when they bent over, the paddle would not strike their genitalia. The paddling teacher could not raise his arm on the upswing above his shoulder. Sadly, some teachers even put notches on their paddles for each student they punished. Others drilled holes in their paddles so that you could hear the whoosh of the wind whistling on the paddle's downswing.
Occasionally, during class, everyone would hear a child’s scream or crying out in the hall, as he or she was “swatted.” The class would grow deathly silent and all the students would look at each other and wonder who the victim was. My students in New Jersey almost didn't believe that hitting students was ever a thing, but back in 1977 I think only eight states had proscribed corporal punishment--New York and New Jersey being two of them. In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled in Ingraham vs. Wright that it was constitutional for public school employees to hit students in grades Pre-K to 12. The Texas Education Code defines permissible corporal punishment as, “…the deliberate infliction of physical pain by hitting, paddling, spanking, slapping, or any other physical force used as a means of discipline.” Nineteen states currently sanction corporal punishment, but 80% of all recorded incidents of physically punishing students come from only seven states, primarily in the South. Many students suffer long-term and even permanent injuries from paddling, or from trying to block hits. Teachers have even paddled pregnant high school girls. There are many videos posted online of students complaining about the marks, scars, and residual effects of paddling.
One of the most difficult moments I experienced as a young teacher occurred one day when I was teaching an American History class. A math teacher poked his head into the doorway at the back of my room and asked if he could see me for a second. I left my lectern and stepped out into the hallway where I saw him standing next to a senior who was known for getting into trouble. The teacher was a big, burly fellow, and I could see that he had his paddle in his hand. "I'd like you to be my witness," he said. He proceeded to bend the student over at the waist so that he could have easy access to the young man's posterior. He then hit the student three times with such force that I knew that I would have had tears streaming down my face had I been the student. But this student hadn't made a single sound. No tears. Even though the pain must have been intolerable. Instead, the student stood up, pushed his face up to the teacher's face, and gave a wide s___-eating grin, as if nothing had happened. I grew cold at the thought of how much physical pain this student must have endured throughout his youth to have become so inured to it. I couldn't help but imagine the newspaper accounts about this student a decade later when he would inevitably snap and return to the school to murder innocent children with an automatic weapon.
Mr. Dilbone and colleagues called me in because I had yet to swat Sharon, even though she had been sent to the Dean of Students on multiple occasions for bad behavior in my classroom. I told the school administrators that I did not believe in physically striking students. Mr. Dilbone insisted that this was common practice and that every other one of Sharon’s teachers had swatted her more than once. He implied that I would be perceived as weak by the student body if I did not act in the same manner as the other teachers. Word would get out that I was a pushover. My masculinity would be questioned. I was often perceived as a "neophyte upstart" from the East anyway, and when I asked the group how successful “swatting” had been as a means of deterrence if Sharon was still acting out all the time, my tone was perceived as troubling. To be fair, it may have come out something like "Well, how's that been working for you?" The administrators took this as a rebuke of their educational beliefs and thought of me as derelict in my duties. Finally, Mr. Dilbone told me that if I did not “swat” Sharon the very next day, I would lose my job. I tossed and turned that night. Hitting Sharon would violate my most basic beliefs. Paddling was, however, perfectly legal and common practice, encouraged by many parents and expected by many students. I was newly married, there was double-digit inflation, and jobs were hard to come by.
I tried to rationalize giving in. I feared being so gentle in the application of the swats that Sharon would laugh at me. I knew that if I did hit Sharon my standing within the school would improve. I found literally no other teacher who felt as I did about this issue. And I can't say I grew up with no knowledge of these actions. After all, I had attended Catholic school in New York, so the nuns used corporal punishment religiously. My brother had been a victim. I knew how great a role corporal punishment played in much of the literature I had read, especially in the "pandy-bat" scenes in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It was quite common in schools in the 19th and 20th Centuries to hit students with rulers, hard rubber straps, or rattan canes. More serious crimes led to flogging, sometimes with trousers down. Here are the lines from Joyce:
The door opened quietly and closed. A quick whisper ran through the class: the prefect of studies. There was an instant of dead silence and then the loud crack of a pandybat on the last desk. Stephen's heart leapt up in fear.
— Any boys want flogging here, Father Arnall? cried the prefect of studies. Any lazy idle loafers that want flogging in this class?
And then there is the scene from the 1968 movie If... by Lindsay Anderson, starring Malcolm McDowell. It's a horrifying scene to watch because no one thinks it's barbaric. It's so commonplace that McDowell's character knows by rote that he is expected to thank his prefects after they have whipped him. Alfred Hitchcock once talked about British students being punished when he was a child. Corporal punishment was an integral element in the British school system. Hitchcock said the teacher used a thick strap made of gutta-percha, like a hardened rubber strap. He said there was no point in hitting a student's palms and fingers more than three times each because the hands would be numb after that, so the maximum penalty that Joyce describes ("Twice Nine") would be redundant.
My story had a surprise ending. When I arrived at school, Sharon was out that day. The next day was a snow day and school was closed. Followed by a weekend and then four more snow days. Then Christmas break. The new year began with a series of snow days. In fact, much of Ohio experienced the coldest and snowiest winters back-to-back. The state legislature was compelled to pass a ruling that the first fifteen snow days in both years didn't have to be made up. Our school lost 33 days to the weather in those two years. We had to make up three of them! Because little Williamsburg was a farm community and had dirt roads and no plows, it was nearly a month before Sharon and I were in school at the same time! By then, all was forgotten. I did not have my contract renewed, so I started job hunting, but a teacher became pregnant, so I was asked back! After three years, I returned to New Jersey and I have assiduously restrained myself from walloping any students, although a few made me reconsider my stance over the years!