It was reported to me this morning that the British are poised to pass a law prohibiting the spanking of children by their parents. Apparently, the Brits consider spanking to constitute a violation of kids' human rights. The source for this information was given to me second hand from those wellsprings of intelligent reflection, Rick and Bubba. For those of you who are unfamiliar with southern progenies of popular entertainment, Rick and Bubba are rock and roll radio talk show hosts who have one of those pestilential drive-in in the A.M. verbal slapstick shows featuring bad music and worse wit. I mention this only to inform you that the source of this reported story is highly impeachable, but that is not the point. This story caused me to consider my own personal experiences in light of British political correctness. What follows is not to be taken as a suggestion of how today's children should be raised; I merely want to cast some doubt on the theory that childhood beatings somehow scar a child and put him or her in incipient danger of becoming either a demented serial killer or a politician.
When I grew up, kids beat the hell out of each other all of the time. We had rock fights with the kids on the next street and often returned home bloody, dust-covered and tear- streaked, looking for all the world like little Alice Coopers with brush cuts. These were recreational and social beatings and were thought of as normal. We could half kill each other with sticks or stones or huge clods of dirt and our parents did not particularly seem to mind. What we could not do was swear or steal. The wages of swearing involved either a beating with the belt (in the case of my father), or having my mouth washed out with soap (in the case of my mother or grandmother). World-class beatings resulted from stealing, or, in one case, shooting the neighbor girl with a BB gun. In the case of the shooting, my father beat me so severely that I finally broke away and played cat and mouse with papa around the furnace until my squeals caused my mother to intervene on my behalf. Home beatings were part and parcel of most kids' lives at that point, as were the beatings we received in school.
I started first grade at a Catholic school, and that is where I first experienced staged theatrical beatings designed to instill fear and to serve notice to the student body that intolerance of rule infractions was an abiding principle of the management at St. Margaret's. During lunchtime, which took place in a room that did triple duty as auditorium, gymnasium and dining room, young offenders would be paraded up to the stage and punishment would be meted out in front of the assembled multitude. Our Mother Superior was a pocket harridan who was probably all of 4'11" tall and weighed all of 85 pounds with her clothes on. What she lacked in body mass she made up for, in spades, in spite and she was without a doubt one of the most ill-tempered and nasty little shits I have ever met in my life. She personally took charge of the proceedings and served up Catholic justice on a stick to young hooligans who were, say, unable to count to a thousand correctly or had offered resistance to the thought that George Washington had been relegated to Limbo because non-Catholics could not get into heaven.
At St. Margaret's, corporal punishment was achieved using master sergeant stick. The stick in question was actually a black enameled breadboard with large red letters painted on the back of it. The letters were A and X, and so this charming implement was known as "the axe paddle." Although I did not realize it at the time, it was quite a professional job. Someone had clearly put a lot of thought and effort into its conception and production.
After we had finished our sandwiches and eaten our Twinkies, the condemned would be herded up onto the stage where, in somber and prosecutorial tones, the charges and sentence would be read out. "Little Jimmy Jones, for asking about waste disposal management on the Ark, will receive three blows with the axe paddle." Little Jimmy would then be led to the center of the stage where Mother was waiting, axe paddle in hand. Mother would rear back, with her leading foot raised in the manner of a major league baseball pitcher, and bring the paddle booming down on young Jimmy's bony posterior (this was 1961, before our kids got fat.) Suffice it to say that I never saw any kid endure more than two whacks with the axe paddle without breaking down in tears. This was such an effective method of institutional terror that I never quite forgave nuns, and years later, when I was asked to relinquish my business class seat on an airplane for the benefit of one of the holy sisters, I replied instantly and without thinking that I would not "because of what those people did to me." This earned me some unsympathetic stares from fellow passengers, who I must assume were not Catholic.
Minor punishments included whacks with rulers on the back of hands or on the wrists for minor infractions such as looking out of the window or squirming in your seat. Failure to kneel at prayer or mass in a reverent enough manner would earn you some time kneeling on uncooked rice, but these were mere bagatelles compared to the Orwellian atmosphere and grand theatrics of the public floggings. None of these events were ever discussed with parents. As every Irish or Italian kid knows, admitting or complaining to parents that you had been beaten at school earned you a secondary beating from Dad, under the theory that you should be punished again for having done something to have caused you to have been beaten in the first place. As we were not completely dim, this Helleresque catch was not lost on us, so we quickly learned to take our lumps and not say anything.
I feel I must add, however, as a way of atonement and mitigation for outing weird nuns, that I never once had a priest try to bugger me. I must have been an ugly child, as I seem to be the only male Catholic kid of my generation who escaped clerical sodomy.
Happily I soon escaped, at least partially, the tender mercies of the sisters of mercy. We moved and I got myself landed in a public school system. The problem continued to a certain degree, however, in that I was forced by my well-meaning parents into catechism, which was continuing after school instruction in the Catholic faith. This was at a new school, St Joan-of-Arc. The nuns at Saint Joan were not as violent as the nuns at St. Margaret's, but just like the school's namesake, they were crazy.
At St. Joan, you could still get clocked for a major screw-up, but these nuns really specialized in mental terror; they took the axe paddle, not to your backside, but rather to your mind and soul.
By the fifth grade, I was starting to have trouble with the Bible. I was now ten years old and had seen enough of human beings to know that taking things on faith and believing everything adults told you could have extremely deleterious effects. Once again, the era has to be taken into account to provide a proper context. It was 1965. America was at its zenith in terms of prestige and power. The space program was the crown jewel of our achievements. This was before race riots, Vietnam, and heroin bifurcated our society and turned cool hipsters into angry hippies. Our heroes were scientists, engineers and astronauts. Outside of church, it was a decidedly rationalist atmosphere. So these quirky, often contradictory, stories out of the Bible with no basis in any known science began to take on the decided aroma of fairy stories. In this environment, two things happened that caused me to receive a mental beating of epic proportion and that then directly precipitated my final break with the faith of my youth.
First of all, my parents, who always encouraged education, subscribed, for my edification, to a series of books known as "The Life Nature Library." One of these books took up the subject of evolution. In that book, in a fold out, color glossy chart was a visual depiction of the complete evolution of man from knuckle-dragging Australopithecus to erect and spear-toting Homo sapiens, with all of the intervening variants of humanoid development laid out logically and seemingly completely between them.
The logic and simplicity of these images were, at least for me, compelling. It seemed considerably less far-fetched than the clod of clay and rib scenario that had been drilled into me for years and I immediately longed to share it with others. I was, at that time, rather perniciously precocious and took a great deal of delight in instructing my contemporaries. This caused the second thing to happen. I took the book with me to catechism, and in full view of one sister Regina, explained to the class that the Genesis story was probably a lot of hokum and that the evolution theory with the pictures and testimonials by Dr. Louis Leakey made a whole lot more sense.
"Mr. Lenane, sit down and see me after class," said Sister Regina, who was clearly agitated by my comments. After class, sister Regina used a favorite nun tactic on me. In those pre-Vatican II days, nuns never wore mufti but were only seen in the now infamous penguin attire. A favorite ploy was to back a kid into a corner and to stare down at him or her. The effect was that of a huge black column, blocking out all light, with an angry face of one of God's henchmen peering down upon you from the general direction of heaven and serving up wisdom in a rather frightening manner.
The wisdom thus served to me on that occasion was a catalog of horrors that included perpetual evisceration and boiling in sulfur, which, I later discovered, had been cribbed almost word for word from Dante. These would be the wages of apostasy that I had condemned myself to, for I was, most certainly, damned beyond rehabilitation. "Since you obviously do not believe in God, then God will not believe in you," came the final verdict.
The effect of being thus damned upon my ten-year-old brain was to create a deep sense of melancholy and depression. After all, I had been informed by a fairly reliable source, an actual employee of the almighty, that I was done for. So I believed it. After a week or so of moping around the house, my parents became really concerned, as I was formerly always a cheery fellow. As I stated previously, telling your parents about troubles at school was almost invariably a losing proposition, so it took some considerable time for my parents to niggle the truth out of me. When I did fess up, I collapsed in tears in a most theatrical manner that made an extremely strong impression on my folks. The next day my parents withdrew my brothers and me from the catechism program and except for weddings and funerals, no member of my family every darkened the door of a Catholic church again. God lost five customers that day.
I soon traded in mental abuse for the old familiar physical variety at the Mason School. As the prototype model of an ADHD kid, in an era before the disorder was even known to exist, I had drifted throughout my early primary education and was certainly well on the road to scholastic perdition. I was unfocused and undisciplined and did not really care about school. This changed dramatically when I entered the fifth grade and became the intellectual property of one Milton Riggs.
Now before I catalog the disciplinary horrors of Mr. Riggs's classroom, I must point out that Milton Riggs was the only teacher I ever had who had any influence on me. He was able to rehabilitate and redirect me in a manner that almost certainly saved my academic career. To this day I owe this man a great debt and wherever he is, I wish him well. He improved my atrocious spelling, he taught me the rudiments of research, and he kept me after school to write papers, all under the theory that I was underachieving, and that he was simply not going to allow that on his watch.
Mr. Riggs saw something in me that others had not, and he damn sure was going to make sure that I did not fall through the cracks of what, even then, was becoming "the educational system." Riggs could work his magic on any kid; it wasn't just me. We had a kid in our class who was retarded. That is the way we used to describe it, directly, accurately, and without any PC babble. This kid was named David Billette, and he was right out of Steinbeck. He was big, strong, nice, and as dumb as a box of hammers. We all know what little pricks kids are, what most people do not like to admit is that they were personally little pricks. I am here to admit today that I was a rotten little prick, and I had personally teased the shit out of this poor dumb nice kid. Everyone had. By the time David got to Mr. Riggs class he had no self-esteem and no desire to try anymore. Mr. Riggs fixed that. We figured out pretty quickly that to humiliate David would result in special attention from Riggs. This could be pretty unsavory, as I will describe shortly. Mr. Riggs gave David special attention, allowed him to succeed at his ability level, and gave him back some pride in himself. David was a different kid after six months with Mr. Riggs.
Mr. Riggs was the original "tough love" teacher. He was a fighter jock who had fought in Korea, and at that time he was still active as a pilot in the Air National Guard. Somewhere my mother has a picture of me as a ten-year-old sitting in Mr. Riggs's fighter jet at the Selfridge Air Force Base in Mt. Clemens, Michigan. That was the ultimate field trip.
Riggs had a military man's sense of order and discipline and he enforced it relentlessly. His primary choice as an enforcement device was the meter stick. For those of you who have never seen one, a meter stick is like a yardstick only slightly longer and about four times thicker. It was a superb switch and Mr. Riggs wielded it like a martial arts expert. He would go to no end to prove that he was in charge. We had a kid in class who was particularly tough and stubborn named Tom Oglethorpe. One day he presumed to tell Mr. Riggs that he (Riggs) was not his boss. Mr. Riggs called Tommy to the front of the room and told him he was going to beat him until he cried and Riggs, a man of his word, proceeded to do just that. Little Tommy hung tough for a long time, but the result was never in doubt. Once Tommy had broke down and cried, Riggs observed him with a peculiar detachment for a moment, and then told him that he was indeed a tough kid and that he hoped Tommy understood who was in charge now so that the exercise would not have to be repeated. It was not.
We had two years with Mr. Riggs, and during the first six months, the meter stick was frequently employed; by the middle of the second year, almost never. Occasionally, Mr. Riggs had unrealistic expectations. Mr. Riggs was an ambitious fellow and I believe he was, even then, becoming active in the actual management of the school. He would be called upon to deal with questions and issues that often took him out of the room for ten to fifteen minutes at a time. He figured out quickly that if we were left unattended for anything over 22 seconds we would become noisy and unruly.
His solution to this was, to say the least, peculiar. He made a lamp. Not any ordinary lamp, mind you, but a special lamp, the "sudden death" lamp. If Mr. Riggs left the room, he would turn on the lamp and declare "sudden death" in force. If anybody talked while the lamp was on, a beating was in order. He would occasionally lurk outside the door to try and catch us. He did so and several beatings resulted. What really made it weird, though, was the lamp that he hand-built expressly for the purpose. Mr. Riggs fashioned a black model tumbrel, complete with wheels as the base of the lamp. In case you are unfamiliar with a tumbrel, it was the caged wagon that was used by the French to transport condemned prisoners to the guillotine during the reign of terror. It is a very distinct design and this was quite clearly what Riggs was using as his inspiration, although I did not realize this until years later. Inside the tumbrel he mounted a plastic model skull, into which he inserted a red light bulb. This caused the skull to glow eerily when turned on. Out of the top of the tumbrel a second, larger, white light bulb stuck out and he even added a tiny lampshade to complete his creation. This lamp was hung on the wall at the front of the room.
As you no doubt can conclude for yourself, Mr. Riggs was, to say the least, odd. He was a cross between the Great Santini and Mary Poppins. Having said that, he was the greatest educator I have ever known.
At home, my brothers and I continued to earn beatings with my dad's belt, usually for goofing around in our upstairs common bedroom when we were supposed to be sleeping. We would receive two or three verbal warnings, which we would ignore, and then Dad would lumber up the stairs and dispense lashings to all three of us.
We also had several neighborhood bullies who were always good for an unexpected drink from a can of whoopass, and we had to get the knack of spotting them before they spotted us.
If you add it all up, I got a lot of stick as a kid.
Now here is the odd part. As I look back, I think that the parental and institutional beatings served a purpose and that, generally speaking, I am better off for having had them. I had a respect for authority at a relatively early age and I knew what to expect if I failed to live up to my responsibilities. I do not feel that I was damaged by any of this and I am a fairly normal citizen who has earned a couple of advanced degrees, has a respectable job and a happy family life. I have to say that I do not spank my son, although he knows what a dope slap is. If you do not know what a dope slap is, consult your local Italian or Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers.
I am left to wonder if all of this "don't spank the kids" hooey is just making things more confusing for them and if encourages them to think of us as patsies. Is giving children rights that make a parental decision legally actionable a good way to go. How we raise our children and the disciplinary forms that we use on them is, I believe, our responsibility, just like the decision to bring them into the world was. Having the government set standards for family management is not a good idea. I think it further erodes the ideas of personal responsibility and parental authority.
The British seem to think that the law should be used to manage family behavior. Well, all I can say is that the British track record in management decisions has been less than stellar for the last fifty or so years.