Now that Labor Day is over, the last of the students are now back in the classroom. Fortunately, I am long past those days, and so are my own children. But time marches on, and every year brings a new crop of kids heading off to school. I was having a discussion with some family recently, and the topic turned to how differently schools handle discipline issues than was the case in years past.
I started Kindergarten in the fall of 1964. I have never forgotten that first day. Of course, everything was new and a bit intimidating. As the oldest of two children who had a pretty easy time of controlling my three year old sister, the prospect of being thrown in with 25 or 30 other kids my own age (hey, it was the Baby Boom) was a little daunting. But I soon got over that after seeing Mr. Lesh.
The teacher was getting us settled in when a terrible ruckus started up in the other Kindergarten room. Soon, all eyes were on the large bald man striding down the hall. To my young eyes, he looked like the kind of guy who had almost certainly wiped out an entire enemy battalion on some bloody hill during World War II.
It wasn’t his businesslike gaze or his short sleeved white dress shirt and thin black tie that got my attention, though. It was the Kindergartner whom he slung over his right shoulder like a sack of potatoes who was in the center of my focus. That kid kicked and flailed and wriggled and screamed like he was about to be boiled for dinner. I sort of assumed that he was fighting so hard because he knew what was in store. “That’s Mr. Lesh” said our teacher as the show went by the door. “He’s the principal.” That did it. From that first day, I resolved that I was never, ever going to do anything that was going to get me sent there.
By the time I was in the upper grades, I was at a new school that had a Vice Principal named Mr. Karanovich. Mr. Karanovich was a big and imposing man who was reputed to wield a mean paddle. A man with a paddle who had the physique to put some real torque into his swing was not a man to be trifled with. I had extensive experience with the paddle wielded by my petite mother, and had no desire to experience the upgrade. I later learned that he was a serious book collector who went on to a long and distinguished career as an educator, but to 7th grade me in 1972-73, the lesson was that it was best to not mess with the big guy whose last name ended in “vich”.
As we swapped stories of school discipline of days gone by, the phrase used over and over was that “anyone who tried that today would be in jail.” I am certainly not one to advocate child abuse, but I am glad that I grew up in the years before Self Esteem became the guiding principle of elementary education. There were surely gentler and more nurturing ways for Miss Rhodes to have taught me that there was no such thing as a “bigger half” than making me sit in the “thinking chair” at the front of my first grade classroom. But as embarrassing as it was for the twenty minutes or so that I sat on display for my ill-considered answer to her question, I certainly learned the correct answer that day. And was never thereafter confused about it even a little.
To the extent that there is a point here, it seems to me that legitimate authority needs to be backstopped by the likelihood of consequences when some basic rules are not followed. It certainly worked that way at my house, and I knew for a fact that the other houses up and down my street lived under the same set of expectations. Corrections and punishments that were quick, unpleasant but not dangerous, and over immediately without the need for a bunch of effort in follow-up would seem to be a good thing to me. At least it worked out for my mother.
But perhaps this is what it is like to get old, when the commonly-used gauges and measurements undergo a subtle shift so that the standards and expectations of one generation are not necessarily those of the next. So I suppose it will be a good thing that I am not around to listen to my childrens’ children reminisce about the old days. “Boy, when I would misbehave, you should have heard the way my Dad talked to me. He made me feel so special.” Somehow, I can’t imagine that the reaction will be the same as when people my age recall a time when one of the elders reached for the paddle.