The Old Coot toes the line

School is back in session – kids are wearing masks. I tried that in second grade. I had on my cowboy shirt and hat and wore a kerchief across my face like cowboys did when driving the herd. The teacher wasn’t happy with some wisecrack kid walking into her class like a bank robber in an old western movie. 

“Take off that mask and go to the back of the room and stand in the corner!” I heard that a lot when I was in elementary school. I got to spend time in all the penalty zones – the corner, the cloakroom, the hall, and at the blackboard with my nose touching the slate. 

I wasn’t a special case. All the boys got the same shrift. We were itchy in school; itchy to get outside and play. It was reflected in our behavior. We daydreamed when we should have been learning the difference between its and it’s. We shot wads of paper at the back of kids’ heads instead of making an endless series of loops, an exercise designed to improve our writing skills. 

We slipped a frog out of our pocket to see how he was doing when we should have learned to spell city, CITY, instead of CITEee. Girls, too, got punished, but not for disrupting class or acting like a jerk. They got in trouble for whispering, passing notes, and chewing gum. A sharp word from the teacher was all it usually took for the girls to shape up. Boys needed more; I don’t know why, that’s just the way it was.  

Discipline was progressive. “Give me the squirt gun,” the teacher might say to start a scenario, followed by a series of more onerous punishments. “Go stand in the cloak room,” was a common second step. It wasn’t so bad in spring and fall. It was just boring, hanging out in a narrow room with 25 coats, boys on the left, girls on the right. It was worse in winter; you were in exile with 25 sodden, wool coats. The smell of wet wool drying in a confined space is a punishment that exceeds the crime. I know it well, having served many sentences in “the hole.”

I don’t envy teachers today. They have to get the three R’s across without the behavior adjustment tools that teachers used when I was in elementary school. Although teachers were authorized to spank kids back then, they rarely did. Just knowing they could was enough to keep us in line, most of the time. Any adult was apt to give you a whack if you misbehaved or got sassy. 

The whole village really did raise children back then. If your parents found out that a teacher or a neighbor had given you a swat on the behind for acting up, you got a double dose from them. Consequences were perfectly matched to the crime. Bring a peashooter to class – lose it! Talk out of turn – get scolded! Do it again – stand in the corner. One more time – a trip to the principal’s office. 

Next came the most dreaded punishment of all, “Stay after school.” You sat at your desk while your classmates ran outside to play. Often, writing 100 times on ruled paper, “I will not disrupt class, ever again,” or some such thing.

The meekest, frailest teacher in the school had total control of her room. She had an arsenal of weapons at her disposal. The all-female staff at my school had a secret weapon too, a highly developed vise-like grip between their thumbs and index fingers. When it was applied to a cheek, an ear lobe or the tender flab of skin on the back of your upper arm, it would bring tears to the eyes of even the toughest kids. We messed up, but always with consequences. 

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