When I was in the third grade, a classmate named Richard shoved past me as we entered the classroom, returning from recess. Being on the weary side of bullying, I went after him and took him down in a classic grade school head lock, asking…or pleading, “Do you give?” until the teacher, with great disappointment directed toward me, broke us up. Richard was the type to be in trouble often. I was not. My teacher made it very clear, in ways I was and am very sensitive to, that she was not happy with me. Her expression, her body language, even the way she was more physical with Richard than me, told me that I, not Richard, had disappointed her and perhaps even ruined her day. I think her name was Mrs. Freeland.
She took us to the Principal’s office, Mr. Williams. Richard went in first while I sat on a bench outside the office. After a few minutes, Richard began to plead loudly, as if begging for his life. This was 1973 and, clearly, Richard was going to get a swat or three. As Richard was pleading and crying and generally, it seemed, making it difficult for Mr. Williams to apply the spanking, my mother appeared, miraculously it seemed. My mom was a PTA volunteer at the school and her duties, whatever they were, brought her into the front office as I sat awaiting my fate.
The principle’s office door opened. Mr. Williams and Richard emerged just as my mom walked up to see what was going on. Richard was crying, like a baby I thought at the time, and still think now. My mom surveyed the situation and looked at Mr. Williams.
I cannot remember what she said, exactly, but it was in the realm of, “What’s going on here?”
And then I had my very first experience of politics. Mr. Williams smiled a very handsome smile, even though he was not a very handsome man, and said something about boys being boys. My mom then said something I can’t remember but which amounted to telling Mr. Williams that she would let him do his job. Then she walked out of the office, which is, of course, exactly what she should have done.
Mr. Williams invited me into his office, where Mrs. Freeland was sitting in a chair looking not at all happy with the events of the day. She was a very kind person and I now suppose she found this all very distressing.
The Principle, holding a paddle in his hand, gave me a short lecture about fighting and provided a even-when-provoked “caveat” that made me realize that my teacher understood what had happened but was obligated to see both parties punished.
It was at that moment I determined that I would not put on any display of regret or plead my case in any way. I would, I decided, take what was coming to me because, not only did I deserve it for physically assaulting a classmate, but I had put my teacher into a state of distress, which was neigh to unforgivable when your teacher was as caring as Mrs. Freeland.
Mr. Williams asked me to bend over, grab my ankles and look at the doorknob on the door to his office. I remember thinking that this was exactly the way swats had been described to me.
But then, Mr. Williams paused. He asked me to removed my wallet from my back pocket.
Here, we must take an aside: My school, Danbrook Elementary, had been plagued by an outbreak of rubber band and paperclip attacks. It seems many student, almost all male, had figured out that they could use a rubber band as a a sling shot and launch paper clips at a variety of targets, inflicting damage and untold irritation. This epidemic had become so widespread that the principled had declared that any student caught with rubber bands or paperclips in their possession would automatically receive a swat, i.e. spanking.
And so we return to what Mr. William’s thought was a wallet in one of my back pockets as he sought to administer a swat. I was actually the number one supplier of rubber bands to the underground third grade rubber band and paperclip combine.
I reached into my back pocket to retrieve what the principle thought was a wallet and removed a handful of rubber bands.
As I placed the pile of unruly rubber bands on Mr. William’s desk, I looked for signs of an increase in my punishment. After all, not only had I been caught fighting, I was a rubber band pusher. And then I received my second lesson in politics. They both smiled and then Mr. Williams proceeded to administer my swat, for fighting. I did not receive any extra punishment for the rubber bands because, as I understood, my value as a “good kid” outweighed the need to punish me for a crime that was, in terms of being caught, unknown outside the room. I had already decided that I would not “plead for my life” as Richard had done. So I took my swat silently and, I think, somewhat stoically. In a fit of over confidence I reached for the pile of rubber bands after receiving my spanking. It took only a small groan for Mr. Williams to halt my reach.
I knew as I left the office and walked back to my classroom that I was supposed to feel shame or regret, but I felt only pride. I was proud that I had not cried or begged. I accepted my punishment and took it like, well, like a 10 year old human who accepted their punishment.
It was the first, but not the last swat I was to receive in the public school system of old, I am somewhat proud to say. The second swat is another story. Although I don’t want anyone spanking my children (and would, without hesitation, spank them back), I can’t say my swats were detrimental or undeserved. Times change. And, to be honest, I don’t think Mr. Williams was swinging very hard.