Comments by Tom Johnson, April 2001
SCENE 3: Winslow High's assistant principal Scott Guber has been called to the school infirmary, where the nurse is treating a young woman named Cindy for severe inflammation of the skin of her right buttock. Once Guber has been shown the reddened area, Cindy tensely pulls up her pants and confirms that one of her teachers, Mrs. Walsh, struck her with a paddle (having only used a ruler until recently). After Cindy leaves, the nurse also informs Guber that three weeks earlier another of Mrs. Walsh's students came in with an infection from a small lesion, although he would not disclose the cause of the injury.
COMMENTS: This scene illustrates the physical severity associated with paddling as well as the intimate nature of the act. It also hints at the particular embarrassment and/or shame students often feel over having been spanked, which makes them less inclined to report paddling-related injuries or discomfort. Reluctance to remind adult authorities of one's recent misbehavior is likely compounded by reluctance to make one's buttocks again the focus of attention, let alone bare them for others' inspection (possibly including someone of the opposite sex). Hence, the buttocks are an advantageous part of the body for physical abusers to target.
SCENE 5: In Mrs. Walsh's class, a male student ("Mr. Wilkins") is commenting on the works of Shakespeare. Although his comments are thoughtful and suggest knowledge of the material, his tone is irreverent and possibly self-amused. The rest of the class is clearly amused, as his points draw flurries of laughter. Meanwhile, Asst. Principal Guber has slipped quietly into the classroom, observing from a desk in the back.
Mrs. Walsh, an elderly woman of stodgy appearance, answers Wilkins' remarks with a short speech decrying popular cynicism--during which she wryly produces a large wooden paddle, with numerous holes drilled through it, from her desk drawer. Wilkins, realizing he is about to be paddled, sighs with anxiety, disbelief, and stifled resentment. With his classmates solemnly looking on, Mrs. Walsh directs him to come to the front of the class and "assume the position." With apprehension he complies, standing faced-away in front of her and bending over with his hands on his knees. She swings the paddle with great force against his backside, creating on impact a loud, sharp noise. Wilkins grunts in pain; his classmates wince, as does Guber. Announcing it as "one more to grow on," Mrs. Walsh gives him a second hard swat, then sends him back to his desk (addressing him as "Honey"). Holding back tears, Wilkins dejectedly sinks into his chair. "Cynicism must be nipped in the bud," Mrs. Walsh intones to the class.
COMMENTS: This depiction of paddling is unrealistic in some ways. While it may have been common in the past for teachers to summarily thrash pupils in front of their peers, corporal punishment in U.S. schools nowadays is generally conducted in private (albeit with an adult witness present). Teachers themselves do not generally have license to paddle, that being a matter for administrators to decide, carry out, and document.
In more important ways, however, this depiction of paddling is remarkably realistic, for it conveys the degree of force and pain typically involved (albeit more typically from younger, male teachers). Mrs. Walsh's manner is also faintly sadistic, e.g., smiling and joking throughout the process.
SCENE 6: Guber brings Mrs. Walsh into his office. He tells her she must stop using corporal punishment, citing the injuries of two of her students. She explains that her paddle is new and she's "still getting used to it." He repeats his order, to which she replies that she's been teaching for 53 years and that "corporal punishment is legal--as long as it's reasonable." (Note: school corporal punishment is actually is banned in Massachusetts, although the "reasonable" qualifier is common in the 23 states where it remains legal.) As Guber starts to invoke school policy, Mrs. Walsh interrupts to deny giving one of the students in question a lesion. Guber firmly and pre-emptively tells her that she will not take her paddle to anyone.
COMMENTS: Mrs. Walsh's initial defense that she did not realize how severe her paddlings were is plausible, given that the velocity of such blows is not precisely measured. In addition, teachers are usually not given any formal training in how to safely and judiciously administer corporal punishment, let alone required to demonstrate competence thereto. School policy often fails to consider critical variables such as the strength of the paddler, the physical build and condition (including menstrual cycles) of the student, or the student's attire. There may not even be standards regulating the size, weight, and composition of the paddle. Hence, this conventional method of pain-infliction would seem unfair at best, reckless at worse.
SCENE 19: In the teachers lounge, Mrs. Walsh makes her case to an elderly colleague, Harvey Lipshultz. Somewhat sympathetic to her complaint, he says he no longer hits students, resigned to the fact that times have changed. She cites the bold disrespect of modern-day students (as exemplified in concurrent plotlines) and avows the chastening effect of "a whack on the bottom." He counsels further that teachers of their generation are considered "dinosaurs" and thus expendable. She counters that there is too much of a teacher shortage for them to be let go.
As this conversation closes, Mrs. Walsh asks Harvey on a date. When he refuses on the grounds that he's "a married man" (despite being a widower), she coyly suggests that she could bring her paddle along, that he might like it, and that her late husband "couldn't get enough of it." Appalled, he asks her, "Are you saying. . . when you hit these student, it's sexual?" "Of course not," she answers. "I only do it when their ripe little bottoms need to be disciplined [sly grin]."
COMMENTS: In pointing out the discipline problems schools face nowadays, Mrs. Walsh appeals to the anger, frustration, and genuine alarm of adults confronted with widespread serious misbehavior among the young, while inviting a contrast favorable to the "good old days" when corporal punishment was more prevalent. Her subsequent overture to Harvey, however, along with her remark on students' "ripe little bottoms," makes her advocacy of spanking suddenly and disturbingly suspect.
The storyline at this point becomes truly groundbreaking. It is rare in and of itself for a TV show to acknowledge, let alone portray seriously, the modern reality of school corporal punishment. Addressing the potential therein for sexual abuse is simply unprecedented in the popular media. For all the joking references to sexual spanking between adults, such motive had never been suggested in adults who spank non-consenting minors (although a male teacher paddling female students would have made a more compelling illustration).
It appears not to have occurred previously to Harvey that a teacher might have an unwholesome interest in buttocks-beating, and in this respect he is representative of the educational establishment at large.
SCENE 23: Harvey relates to Guber his conversation with Mrs. Walsh, concluding that "she's a pervert" who "beats those kids for pleasure." Guber is speechless, though clearly quite upset.
SCENE 28: Guber has just fired Mrs. Walsh. She pursues him down the hallway, protesting and threatening to sue. Unswayed, Guber warns that if she has not left the school premises by lunchtime he will have the police investigate her for sexual assault.
COMMENTS: It was daring enough of the writers to address the possibility of sexual motive in the non-consensual paddlings of minors by adult authorities. Applying the term "sexual assault" to such actions was particularly bold on their part.
This episode concludes with the students of Winslow High now safe from the likes of Mrs. Walsh. Whether the same can be said for students at schools across the nation is a larger question for viewers to consider.