Last Tango in the Superintendent’s Career: My Education in Spanking Errant Children

by guest writer Bill Rich

Ready Billy?” I asked.

“Yup,” he replied.

I swung the paddle and hit him squarely on the buttocks. Billy let out a yelp and exerted all of his strength to jump forward and stand up quickly. Being a tall and strong boy, the force of standing up launched the superintendent over Billy’s head into the air, past me and causing him to collide head first with the wall, and land in a heap on the floor.

Billy turned, now red faced to me and yelled, “Shit, Mr. Rich, That really hurt!”

“I’m sorry Billy,” I said.

Back in 1973, my first teaching job was in a marvelous little private Episcopal school. The principal hired me because of my age (young), interest in learning, world travel, and obvious enthusiasm for working at the school. There was little structure at the church school except that I had the 7th grade of 15 or so students and should teach them math and reading and science and anything else I felt like. So I taught them mainly writing, and spent a lot of time reading and marking up their writing.

As a church school, we started every day with chapel for morning prayer. On the job training was simply working with the principal or other faculty on whatever student problems arose. We also gathered as a faculty to experience more intellectual events such as viewing and discussing a film about the life of Carl Jung. We were asked to understand our students, and see them as bundles of great potential. I had fun every day, laughing with students almost as a peer. The wealthy parents routinely invited teachers to dinner at their homes and gave relatively lavish Christmas presents such as $100 gift certificate to upscale clothing stores. The school also paid my university fees during my second and last year there so I could earn a state teaching credential, and therefore get a job in the public school.

Punishment at the Episcopal school though was always corporal. But students were not paddled nor had their palms slapped. Rather there was a religious point to be made.which was that the body should be punished, and not the spirit.. For this reason, the punishments I administered were often physical such as 25 pushups, running laps, or trash pick-up duty. The idea was that once the trash was picked up it could be thrown away just like the sins that caused one to be in trouble in the first place. Students seemed to appreciate this since after completing the punishment task, they were free to try again with a clean slate. I remember one student urging his argumentative friend to simply get on with the pushups because they couldn’t go to recess until he finished, and he was needed for the baseball game at third base. The boy reluctantly completed his pushups and trotted off to third base.

After two years at the posh Episcopal school, I decided to get real, and with credential in hand, I moved to a rural part of California and took a teaching job in a public school. The children of course were quite different, and so were the parents. No more $100 gift certificates for me! Life for some of the students at the rural public school in 1975 was brutal. These students existed in a grinding generational poverty living in the back of cars. There was lice, scabies, child abuse, incest, parents in prison, hepatitis and a stunning isolation from the nearby town, and the rest of the world.

After teaching for a couple of years, I was in 1977 appointed teaching-principal of a school of 150 students in the same district, which meant I taught a full class all day and served as principal for a 14% salary increase. Again, I took the job without any real experience or any kind of state credential. But in such a place, local culture rules over laws or credentials when a school board selects a school principal. The board usually selected a teacher they knew and trusted from the current faculty over an outsider, that is, a stranger with a fancy resume from far away. I had earned my chops in the district by coaching winning teams and taking on the snobbery of wealthier schools in the league the previous years, and the superintendent assured me he could train me in the job. He also told me I needed to take the Administrative credential exam during the summer and explained to me that the multiple-choice exam was the shortest, easiest path. I talked to other principals and they suggested I always mark the answer that said, “Form a committee.” So I did just that and passed with flying colors.

But the first and most important thing the superintendent told me was not to ever, ever “…lose control of your school. “ This mantra was repeated every time I asked a question.

I first experienced his meaning in a deeper way when a few months later, a disruptive 4th grader, Billy, pretty much demolished one of the classrooms. Billy was tall since he had evidently been flunked in other schools and grades, and was as old as a 6th grader, but much less mature. When he became frustrated he would throw tantrums, and throw things such as books or even chairs and desks. It didn’t help that his teacher appeared to me to be a kind of bitter and frustrated person who used cutting sarcasm with her unlucky students. Anyway, she demanded I do something immediately and told my boss the superintendent as well. The superintendent called me and reminded me not to, “…ever, ever lose control of your school.” He emphasized that this student needed to be brought under control, and told me to come to his office that afternoon so he could teach me how to paddle. He let the teacher know he was training me which made her feel supported. She seemed very happy about this solution when we talked later that day.

Later that day I went to the superintendent’s office where I met with him, another 4th grader from another school named Johnny, and Johnny’s mother. The law in that period gave either teachers or school administrators the authority to paddle students as long as written parental permission was given and another adult was present. Some principals even allowed parents to spank their own children in the office. Johnny’s mother thought paddling might help, since that’s what a caring father would do, she reasoned, assert authority and bring a disobedient child under control. Anyway, she believed that that was what Johnny’s no-good father would have done if he had stuck around.

Paddling 2

Johnny was defiant and disruptive often, and everyone at the school was sick of him. He cursed at teachers and broke rules, and hurt other children. At the pre-paddling conference the superintendent talked with the boy and told him he would be paddled if he continued to misbehave. The boy was unperturbed until the superintendent started rolling up his own pant leg and continued to talk about what was going to happen to Johnny. The superintendent then opened a drawer in his desk and brought out the “Board of Education.”. It was about three feet long with a handle and a broader section that was designed to hit students on the bottom. There were holes in the business end of the paddle to eliminated wind resistance. But the superintendent did not hit the student.

Board of education

He just said, “I’m going to give myself a little smack on the leg so you can see what it looks like.”

With that, he struck his leg and said, “Now watch how the skin turns pink where I hit myself. It hurts, but I didn’t hit myself as hard as I will hit you if you continue to misbehave.”

Johnny’s eyes got wide and he sat in silence. The mother looked serious but also said she was in complete support of spanking if Johnny did not shape up.

The superintendent then showed us how the spanking would be orchestrated. I would stand facing Johnny. Johnny would drop his jeans but leave his underpants on. He would then bend down and place his neck in my armpit so that I could hold him in a headlock. The superintendent would then administer three hard swats, harder than the swat he gave his own leg. The mother signed a permission form allowing the superintendent to paddle Johnny, and mother and son left.

Next, the superintendent re-emphasized that he had called me over to this school so he could demonstrate the pre-paddle conference to me. He said this was a key to successful paddling, because it often resulted in better behavior and eliminated the need for an actual paddling. He also emphasized that if he did paddle this student he would make sure it actually hurt. He told me that threats without follow through make you a liar, and he would not be seen as a liar by students. He would not be seen as a liar by any of the students who attended his schools, because that would mean that he had “lost control of his school.”.

In the few months my school was in session I was involved with the 4th grader Billy numerous times. I liked him and normally he talked freely and openly to me. He was not mean or hurtful to others, he just lost control of himself when he became angry. I also met his mother. She was working at least two jobs as a single parent and didn’t know what to do about Billy. She became angry with him and called him a “ little asshole,” more than once. He was as tall as she so the term ‘little’ was a bit ironic.

Paddling 3

Inevitably it became my turn to hold my first pre-paddle conference with Billy, his mother, and the superintendent. I went over Billy’s offenses: Book and desk throwing, wall and door kicking, etc., and then I rolled up my pants leg. Billy stared in disbelief. When I smacked my own leg, it actually hurt and I said, “Ouch!”

Billy giggled a bit and the superintendent scowled at me. So I added emphasis to the part about I would hit Billy even harder than I hit my own leg.

Billy’s mother signed the permission form for the superintendent or me to paddle Billy along with the requirement that another adult was present. “Maybe he won’t be such an asshole,” she said on the way out.

Inevitably, Billy threw another armful of books across the class a few days later, and his teacher happily informed me I would need to paddle him. Billy was resigned to the punishment and we both sat in the tiny office waiting for the superintendent to arrive. The superintendent strode up the walk looking dapper and in charge in his 1970s style blue polyester leisure suit, with white belt and shoes, all set off by a broad gold tie. When the superintendent entered we set right to the task. Billy stood up and faced the superintendent, unbuckled his belt and dropped his jeans to his knees so he stood there in his underwear. He then bent forward and placed is neck in the superintendent’s armpit. The superintendent got a firm hold on Billy and told him to be sure to keep his hands on his knees. Billy was perfectly compliant.

The superintendent then told me to make sure the paddling hurt enough so that Billy would know who was in charge of the school.

“Ready Billy?” I asked.

“Yup,” he replied.

I swung the paddle and hit him squarely on the buttocks. Billy let out a yelp and exerted all of his strength to jump forward and stand up quickly. Being a tall and strong boy, the force of standing up launched the superintendent over Billy’s head into the air, past me and causing him to collide head first with the wall, and land in a heap on the floor.

Billy turned, now red faced to me and yelled, “Shit, Mr. Rich, That really hurt!”

“I’m sorry Billy,” I said.

The superintendent had collected himself, sitting against the wall, and said, “You have to hit him again, it’s three times.”

I turned to Billy and said, “Sorry Billy, but we have to do this again.”

Reluctantly, Billy agreed and turned around. The superintendent struggled to his feet, dusted off and adjusted his jacket and strode purposefully to his former position in the three-man tango we glumly enacted. Billy placed his neck under the armpit of the superintendent and put his hands on his knees. I drew back and whacked him again.

This time Billy rose up angrily and the superintendent flew even harder and faster than the first time. Billy faced me with tears in his eyes and said, “Shit, Mr. Rich, that really hurt too!”

I said, I’m sorry Billy,” again.

As for the superintendent he again hit the wall, with greater force this time and took longer to collect himself. Looking up from the floor in a kind if disheveled heap, and he said, “Well, I think that about does it.”

I wasn’t going to remind him he had said we were to administer three swats. I handed Billy who was sniffling, some Kleenex and he blew his nose and he pulled up his jeans. The superintendent didn’t give me any more advice. He just straightened his jacket, dusted off his pants, ran his hand over his unruly hair and walked back to his car.

Billy didn’t want to spend the rest of the day back in his classroom so I kept him with me in my class. He didn’t act out but simply observed and completed some of the paper-pencil dittos I gave him. Kids felt sorry for him and some were kind, offering Oreos or some other treat left over from lunch. A few days later, Billy stopped coming to school. He and his mother probably moved to another town or another school. We wouldn’t know until the new school sent for his records by mail.

Such records usually took about 6 months to arrive, so we never actually received records from his previous school, or really knew Billy’s history. I didn’t paddle any more students as a school administrator although for the next ten years, even following the legislation that made paddling illegal, some teachers would send referral notes to the office and state, “Recommend Paddling.” They were usually angry with the student for wrecking their lessons or defying them in some way and paddling was a kind of rough justice they could no longer act out on their own.

 

Bill Rich, is a retired school teacher, principal, and school administrator from Redding, California. He also recently became Professor emeritus upon retirement from California State University, Chico where he served in the School of Education.

Originally Published at Ethnography.com, October 2015

4 thoughts on “Last Tango in the Superintendent’s Career: My Education in Spanking Errant Children

  1. Tony Waters

    This is one of the more guffaw worthy posts we have had recently–be sure to read to the end. This is particularly clever in a post which is really about rural poverty. Thanks Bill for sending it to us!

  2. Bill Rich

    Thanks Tony,
    I think humor is one of the best gateways to enter the world of culture studies and ethnography. It always appears as a kind of palliative perspective when faced with the hardscrabble life of rural poverty. It also keeps one coming back for more. Bill

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