My homegirl says I barely talk about the days of my schooling. In my head, I’ve told these stories a thousand times. In my head.
My teacher sent Kevin, a black boy, from the room, for an infraction I don’t remember. We were first graders. We were in an evangelical Christian school in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1983. And he had a habit of getting in trouble.
There were always scales. Gold stars, or something like them, taken away or given for the kids who did as the teacher demanded. For good behavior. Kevin never had those stars, that I recall. There were always the ones who did—a line of them next to a name, shiny little badges of honor leading to something. Sweet, maybe? A toy?
Kevin got sent from the room and we knew something was coming. Sometimes that something amounted to a talking to, or a call home to the parents, or a visit to the principal. Always in secret, always a mystery that the teacher kept to herself until the last possible minute. She’d let Kevin, or whoever’s turn it was, wait it out while we got on with the business of being six, and she got on with the business of classroom management.
There were two objects in the desk that she could reach for on a given day, when it was time to mete out punishment: a green bar of soap suitable for washing out mouths, or a dark brown wooden paddle, in the shape of a hand, with a Bible verse printed on the palm. After five minutes or so of making Kevin wait in the hallway, she reached into the desk for the latter. There was weight to it, I could tell. It almost seemed too heavy for this otherwise fragile white woman to carry. But carry it she did. And she would leave the room, leave us by ourselves in this classroom to listen. And on some days you could hear, through the closed door of the classroom, the swat on the backside. Two. Maybe three or four.
On this day, we heard it. We’d heard it and there were reactions to it, from fear to laughter to wow. And we saw Kevin’s face upon re-entering the room. He’d been crying, I thought, but he moved fast to his seat. And on his face, there was something I hadn’t expected to see: a smile.
We went about our business. Whether this teacher addressed what happened or not, I don’t remember now. But there was the smile. I want to think it was a defiant one, but I couldn’t say for sure.
On a whim, I googled Kevin’s name. He died exactly one year ago today.
Physical education was a weird time of the day because some of us would go off to play touch football in the parking lot while others stayed inside. We had no supervision. The only thing we had to do was make sure we were inside by 2:50 so we could be dismissed by 3. Often times, we’d stay on the school bus, which we were able to open with a minimum of fuss, and shoot the shit, or something like it. I was in seventh grade, never the cool kid who was able to maintain conversation with the kids a year above me, who were into their music, who had even formed a band. I didn’t know any mature jokes to make them laugh. I didn’t have their level of maturity, or what I thought was maturity. They cursed with regularity. They talked about girls. They talked about getting together and making art, an activity I had no idea about. But, it beat being in the gym, where grades 7-12 met and had their phys ed classes, often with boys and girls together. And there was also the incident in which an older boy pulled my shorts down in the middle of the gym, during one of those co-ed sessions. So yeah. I was on the bus.
There were four of them. Eighth graders. I don’t remember what was being discussed. I don’t remember what was said or exchanged, what conversation set off what action, or anything except the fact that they were on me, almost in an instant. Trauma is funny like that. I recall punches. Mostly I recall retreating down to the floor, to the space between seats. And I remember one of the boys removing his shorts, revealing his bare ass, and slowly lowering it to my face. He never actually touched me with it, but in the moments I thought he would, my mind went somewhere else entirely. My eyes were closed, but I could see through my eyelids, could see from my mind’s camera, could see my head flailing from side to side, could feel my heart pounding out of my chest, could feel the skin touching the skin.
This was the year I found out that a math teacher could take your attitude into account when determining your grade. The same year I was brought into a room and shown a larger wooden paddle, for the bigger children, and was given a demonstration of what it could do. It was the same year I learned what the tradition of birthday punches were, and because I did not want to participate in my own beating, I told the administrators—who proceeded to lambast the boys in my class as “a bunch of queers” for carrying on the tradition. I want to say I was vocal about what was happening to me, but I also recall a moment in the shower, in which I told myself that I would swallow the violence going on around me, because this was, after all, part of growing up and being a man.
You miss one assignment, you get a warning. You miss two assignments, you get a second warning. You miss three assignments, your last warning. You miss four assignments, you are paddled.
You keep a messy desk, you are paddled.
You backtalk a teacher, you are paddled.
You fail enough tests, you are paddled.
You curse once, you get the soap. You curse twice, you are paddled.
If you are enough of a disturbance in class, you are paddled.
You catch the paddle once and it’s enough to never want to be paddled again. You can still taste it, feel it in your spine, as you grow up. Hell, you’ll be middle aged, or damn near, and school will have never been a safe idea for you, because there is some kind of punishment waiting for you, because you’ll feel it on your body if you fail. You’ll forget your name, who you are, what you represent, because something was taken from you at an early age and you have spent a lot of hours trying to figure out what. You’ll get tired of burdening your family, or your significant other. Maybe some days you’ll feel suicidal. Other days you’ll just not want to move. Or, when you do move, it’s for a little while, and some invisible hand will pull you back to bed. You’ll doubt your friends. You’ll seek to outmaneuver your enemies. And when you tell your friends from school what is going on in your body, the one you never had agency over, they’ll tell you that you’re exaggerating, or that everyone’s experience was different, or they’ll remind that you gave out the same bullying you got. And you’re silent again.
What’s funny now is that I read articles about geniuses and their messy desks, or the unordered workspaces and private life of Albert Einstein. On a day in first grade after Kevin got the paddle, after I’d seen others get it, I was told my desk was in an uproar. The teacher would inspect them periodically, and this day it did not pass muster. Maybe there was a loose piece of paper between books. Something crumpled. What I know is that I was sent from the room, and I could see through the door of the classroom that the teacher had reached for the paddle shaped like a hand.
A time or two previous, I’d said a word, and I was sent from the classroom, and the teacher came and placed a bar of green soap in my mouth. She told me to bite down on it. I did, but it wasn’t deep enough. She told me to leave tooth marks in it. I obeyed. She told me to do it again. I obeyed. I did not know what word I’d said. I still don’t know.
When she came out this time, paddle in hand, I was led away from the classroom, down a corridor with blue carpet, and we stopped in front of a bank of windows that overlooked the gym. She told me exactly what was going to happen, as perhaps she’d been trained to do.
I was made to bend over. No one had ever touched me on my behind before. The paddle brushed me there, as though she were taking aim. The image of a baseball player taking practice swings went through my head. A player aiming for the sweet spot, as it were, a precise place to slam a baseball over a fence.
The first hit came and my eyes went wide. It was the hardest blow to my body that I’d ever felt up til that point, and the fact that it was this tiny woman able to inflict it at once seemed miraculous and dangerous to me. My eyes went wide, and my ears filled with a tinny sound, an echo up and down the corridor that I knew my classmates could hear. My eyes went wide, and I felt the shock wave travel up my back instantly, all heat and electricity. My eyes went wide, but the shock was too great to bear tears in that moment. I don’t know how, but I was able to literally taste wood in my mouth. I still can.
The second hit numbed me. I felt it and didn’t feel it. The tears came. The teacher decided this was a good time to pray together. Lord God, dear Jesus, something something. Please help this moment serve to educate. Amen. I think she hugged me. I think.
In first grade I was hit in school for having a messy desk. In second grade, I raised my hand in Bible class when the teacher asked if I wanted to accept Jesus as my personal savior. In third grade, I learned a few things, and I do remember the teacher was fairly nice. In fourth and fifth grade, I found out you could be beaten for missing deadlines. In sixth grade, a teacher found me disagreeable because I preferred not to be infantilized and sing nursery rhymes in class. In seventh grade, the paddle for the older kids had a name—Big Bertha. It was wrapped in duct tape.
In eighth grade, we started to learn the nature of the universe in science class—namely, that evolution was a lie and that the earth was created in seven literal days and was just over 7000 years old. In ninth grade, I wrote a poem, and one of my teachers was in on a practical joke played by my classmates. I spent most of that year alone because I got those kids in trouble. In tenth grade, my grades began to slip. In eleventh grade, I was told I should be aiming for community college. In twelfth grade, I was expected to experience some kind of nostalgia for my school life, but when the end of June came, all I could feel was relief.
Against my better judgment, I looked up my first grade teacher online. She’s still teaching, presumably in another evangelical environment, maybe practicing corporal punishment on her kids, or maybe feeling nostalgic for the days when she could. I think of Kevin, and I wonder if she knows he’s dead, and I wonder what would come to her mind first if she saw his name pop up. That he was a troublemaker? Would she remember the beatings she dealt out? Does it even bother her now? Does she know what she wrought? Does God really justify what she did?
Because, the thing is, God gave me memory, too. I’m sure there are pleasant moments from my school days, and there are classmates who I keep in contact with. But the overwhelming majority of my heart palpitations come from the violence that was pervasive in my upbringing, and the fact that my parents felt they had no choice but to put me here, because the Paterson school system was not an option.
To avoid violence from classmates, I had to accept violence from my educators. That was the choice my folks had.
I looked it up, while I was managing this preschool I worked in. What is corporal punishment and is it legal in New Jersey? One of the assistants had been accused of it, and the school had to grind to a halt while the director handled the allegation.
Why didn’t MY elementary school grind to a halt? I got hit in 1983. I was thinking this in 2011.
Turns out, corporal punishment has actually been illegal in the state of New Jersey since 1867, in both public AND private schools. It wasn’t until 1971 that another state even bothered to outlaw the practice. These people who held out that they loved their students and wanted to show them God’s love, these same people could have been arrested for the way they belived they were showing it.
I was hit, and was threatened with hitting, because the evangelical school I went to believed in a doctrine of Biblical law being supreme to “man’s law.” They answered to a higher power than the state, so it was okay not to spare the rod. Never mind what it meant to a young child to accept violence from the hand of an educator. Never mind the psychological warfare inflicted on a class of six-year-olds by a teacher deliberately displaying her weapon of choice. Never mind what it could mean for an administration of mostly white people, in the middle of a predominantly black and Hispanic city, to dole out corporal punishment to kids at a church inside said city, as part of an effort to educate them.
One of the parents in the school I went to was a visual artist. He painted a gruesome depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Jesus, on the cross, was literally turning blue from asphyxia. He was naked in the painting, but the artist had taken pains to censor the private parts of Christ. The two thieves next to him were suffering. I recall the uproar that happened when Mel Gibson made the ultra-violent film “The Passion of the Christ,” depicting the torture and death of Jesus. Gibson should have been at my elementary school to learn about violent death.
In searching for the images to match this article, I googled “wooden spanking paddle.” Apart from the sexualized paddles used on consenting adults, I found several examples of the kinds of paddles that people use on kids.
They come with quotes:
Pa is boss as everyone knows
But what Ma says always goes.
Never spank a child in the face.
Nature provides a better place.
Board of Education.
He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.
And then there’s the used paddle for sale on eBay…complete with the signatures of the kids upon whom it was used, probably from the 1970’s. There is a nostalgia for violence against children, a romanticizing of it. A need to normalize it at the state level. A taste for bruise.
What kind of sick, demented shit is this?
I want to be angry. I want to rage and scream and tell you to rescue your babies from schools like this, because they absolutely exist, and they absolutely destroy. But the truth, at least right this second, is simply this: I’m tired. I’m tired of carrying around so much memory, so much belief in my own doubt, so many pictures in my head, and so many stresses in my body.
I’m going to allow myself the space to mourn it, for now. I’m going to continue writing around these experiences, and I’m not going to allow anyone to deny me what I know to be true.
And there is hope for me, I know, especially as I continue to write into the pain. I’m reminded by my young cousin JoJo, who is an ardent Christian, that this stuff doesn’t have to define me, and he’s right. But it’s not about self-definitions, precisely. It’s about healing enough to start doing that defining, for real, and for certain. The one thing I do hope happens is that the people who need to heal, who also experienced schooling like this, can read what I’m saying and find something in there for them. I know I’m not alone in this experience and I know I needed to say it for others, as much as for myself.
I’d hoped to be able to talk to Kevin about these years, since his has been the name I remembered most clearly, from all the way back in first grade. And already I’ve missed one chance.
Is this an essay?
It’s a start.