I am now in my middle forties and not long ago my thoughts turned to a particularly bad time in my life. I was abused at home to an extent, particularly by my father (a Protestant clergyman) who was essentially a wimpy man who occasionally had what I would call psychotic episodes. In these states he would speak with an uncharacteristic regional accent, or repeat one phrase which had nothing to do with anything over and over, or assume a particularly frightening silent rigidity. He would (on weekends) occasionally barricade me in my room, feeding me higher-than-allowable doses of a psychiatrically prescribed drug which was marketed under the trade name Mellaril. I understand that it was, or is, commonly used to treat schizophrenics. As I remember it, these were 500-mg. tablets, and one could absolutely knock you unconscious in less than half an hour. During these incarcerations (usually for minor infractions) I would become extremely disoriented and lose awareness of time cycles. This happened when I was about nine years old. I do not remember my mother having much part in these episodes, but she condoned the practice by her silence and inaction. Both my parents were highly immature people. They divorced when I was seventeen. The relationship with my father deteriorated to the point of strong mutual aversion and hatred, and when I was nineteen I told him I never wanted to see him again. Since then, I have never had any contact with him. He remarried not long after the divorce from my mother. He had a pattern of lying, of promising fervently to do one thing while in secret hatching plans for the very opposite. And, yes, the belt and the fist were regularly used weapons.
I am giving you this background to lead you in to a period in my life when I was eleven years old. I have trouble understanding it even today, some 35 years later. In the sixth grade I was doing badly in school. The idea of suicide fascinated me, since my life at home was so bad; I never articulated it, except that I remember writing a piece (simply, I suppose, as a way of trying to work things out) which I titled "Prelude to My Death", essentially painting myself as a victim. My mother found it in my desk drawer, and she read it out loud and in a very strident, mocking and haughty voice ridiculed it and gave it to my father for his perusal. He read it sullenly and growled that I had been given everything I wanted, so what was my complaint?
The sixth grade held two terrors: physical education class, which I detested, and the open-area shower where you were humiliated into exposing yourself, stark naked, before everyone else. The sixth-grade gym class was coeducational and was taught by a woman who ridiculed me in front of the class and frequently made me stay after school for calisthenic drill. The coeducational gym class was a little oversized, so some of the taller boys and girls were conscripted into the eighth-grade sexually segregated classes. The eighth-grade coach was a surly man who fancied himself a military drill instructor type. Ultimately, after deciding that I was a hopeless case, the coach had me sent back to the coed class. My troubles, though, were just beginning.
To amuse myself during lulls in classes, I would draw cartoons and write stories which demonized the coach and the woman sixth-grade gym teacher. On several occasions, teachers snatched these scribblings and confiscated them. They were quite bad, and I was in the wrong for doing them. The texts were laced with both profanity and archaisms, Latin phrases and so forth; when summoned to the principal's office, the principal would have a stack of these papers in front of him. One of them was a poem titled "Dies Irae" (which he pronounced something like "Desiree" and he wanted to know where the hell I got such a phrase) and I explained it was an old Latin hymn about the Day of Wrath. He grunted, "There's gonna be a desiree when I get through reading this!" He proceeded to stumble through the text, which was about showing up for first-period gym class on a stormy morning and the coach running behind my slovenly form as I sprinted down the field, yelling, "Son, I'm gonna boot ya if ya don't speed it up!" (That, by the way, actually happened.) After the principal finished his reading, his Church of Christ sensibilities no doubt deeply wounded by the epithets like "son of a bitch" which graced the lines, he said, "There's only one thing to do with you." He reached for the paddle. There were at least eight "swats", each very hard and with broad strokes. I was in tears and screaming. After I had barely managed to sit down in a chair after being spread-eagled across his desk, still whimpering and crying, he took the paddle again and swatted my thighs with it. "That'll teach you some respect!" he grunted.
I was embittered by the brutality, and felt the need for an audacious act. I typed a letter to the principal, in general excoriating him though in rather civil and formal terms. This was 1964, and the principal's red Plymouth Barracuda --- prominent in the parking lot --- was festooned with Goldwater stickers and one that said "Register Communists". Why not call him by the name he fears and hates the most? You must remember that I was 11 years old, highly impressionable, with a misdirected intellect and the child of insanely, religiously "liberal" parents. I said, "I think you are a Communist----a man of extreme cruelty and brutishness who is willing to put down any view other than your own by force."
In the letter, I stated that there were bruises (true). I mailed the letter. The next morning, I was in a frightful state of remorse and asked to see the principal, after having told my father about the letter. I fulsomely apologized to the principal and asked him to destroy the letter when it arrived. I told him that I had mentioned bruises and that I called him a Communist. "You called me a commonist", he said drily. "Yes, sir, but I didn't know what I was saying." He promised to do so; we shook hands and the bitterness of the spankings was forgotten. There was also an older man's fraternal embrace from the principal. To this day, I am firmly convinced that my life up to that point might have taken a dramatic turnaround had he simply thrown away the letter and forgotten everything as he had promised.
Two days later, I was summoned to the principal's office. My father was sitting in the chair opposite the principal's desk. I was suspended from school. What a betrayal! "But you promised---" "You said there were bruises. That is not true." He had not seen my bare buttocks! How did he know? "Your father said there were no bruises. You slandered me. You did not tell me that you slandered me." So I was sent home.
I told him everything I said in the letter. He agreed to destroy it and to dismiss it as an irrational tirade uttered in a fit of pique. He reneged on his promise. I have never forgotten that.
I passed sixth grade, nearly flunked out of the seventh (a verbally abusive gym coach, who taught me profanities I hadn't known up to that point, and thoughts of suicide haunting me daily) and by the eighth grade I finally realized that I could excel as a student, stay out of the principal's office and use education as a tool by which to escape my parents' home. High school for me was a totally disagreeable experience; I was never whipped since the seventh grade, but I was verbally abused by a high school principal who subjected me to a 90-minute monologue on "do what we tell you to do and speak when you're spoken to, and if you have any ideas you want to express---don't express them, because they're STUPID!! And forget all them fancy words." When I told him "I am tired of your pontifications," he said he had never heard the word "pontifications." "Is that one a them fancy words you got when you read the dictionary?" "I don't read the dictionary," I shot back. "You read only what we assign you, son." "I'll read what I please." "But you don't talk about it in class, you hear me?" At that time, I was considered a good student. I went on to earn a bachelor's degree magna cum laude and a master's after that.
I think that part of the flaw of our educational system (chiefly public or, more properly, government schools) is that it abuses the spirit. It fails to make learning an adventure. It instead seeks to prepare children for a harsh life of regimentation and of taking orders. There is a current bias, articulated by talk show hosts and people like the late Albert Shanker, New York teacher unionist and general troublemaker, in favor of corporal punishment. Politicians are climbing on the bandwagon, and religious fundamentalists are in a state of transport over it. I am in favor of academic discipline. I am in favor of challenging the student. I am in favor of introducing foreign languages into the curriculum at the second grade, not waiting until high school to do it. I am not in favor of ridiculing a child in front of a class---and, yes, I've been there, too: my second grade teacher tried to brake my progress in reading by tying a rubber band around my book and not allowing me to turn the page (reading lessons were done group style, in a semicircle with the teacher acting as "moderator" as each child took his/her turn reading aloud). At the time, I was reading way beyond second grade level, but conformity was more important than individual progress. This same teacher embarrassed me in front of the entire class when I admitted that I didn't know Jesus' parable about the man who built his house on a foundation of sand. "You----of all people, raised in a minister's home!" she shrieked, in front of thirty other seven-year-olds. "Disgusting! The idea!"
Today, this harridan rests beneath a stone emblazoned with the trite colophons of the little red schoolhouse with belfry, the apple, the pencil and the ruler and the inscription ONE OF THE FINEST TEACHERS IN THE WORLD. When I visited the town and the cemetery after over two decades' absence a few years ago, I have to admit that I burst out laughing on coming upon this memorial.
By the way, I am NOT a political liberal; but I believe very strongly in individual freedom and the right to privacy. But I part company with a lot of people who call themselves conservatives in their strident advocacy of school uniforms, corporal punishment and shackling of the mind. As Spiro Agnew, a man for whom I always have had nothing but contempt (and a convicted felon), said 30 years ago, "Tired of a convulsive society, they settle for an authoritarian society." Let me close by quoting a local radio talk show host: "Children should have no rights except the right to be fed and clothed, the right to say 'yes, ma'am' and 'yes, sir.' They should have the right to do as they are told or be thrown out on their asses. They should do as they are told until they are on their own." Well, Mr. Microphone Man, Mr. Pontificator, how are they going to learn about the responsibility of choice and the consequences and the fruits of making decisions?