Corporal Punishment verses the Power of the Pregnant Pause
As many people who attended schools in the early sixties, corporal punishment was part of our educational experience. There were paddles with holes drilled into them to create blisters on our bottoms and samurai teachers swinging yardsticks. Teachers often gave students a choice: “the paddle or a call to your mother.” Most students were so terrified of the wrath of their parents that they gladly accepted the paddle. Fortunately for me, my patens didn’t have a telephone. Nevertheless, I learned my lesson in sixth grade about the short-comings of corporal punishment.
In everyone’s sixth grade class there is one boy who is always in trouble. Lowell was that boy in my class. He spent much of his time wandering about the room pulling girl’s braids trying desperately to get their attention just like every other boy, but still Lowell was different. He smelled like stale cigarettes. His clothing was dirty and in bad repair. It was a poor neighborhood; most of the student wore patched hand-me-down clothing, but rumor had it that Lowell’s parents were alcoholics that frequently locked their children out of the house over night when they had parties.
On this particular day when a girl complained to Miss Peterson, our fresh-from-college first-year teacher, that Lowell had pulled her hair. Miss Peterson really lost it. She was furious. She demanded that Lowell bend over a desk and she wielded her yardstick like a mighty club. Lowell received these humiliating beatings daily, but today was different. She was the Samurai Warrior and Lowell was the nemesis. She began hitting him harder and harder at first on the buttocks and then down his thighs, at least twenty or thirty hard blows. Suddenly Lowell turned around, his face crimson with rage, snatched the yardstick from Miss Peterson’s hand and with one crack broke it in half. Miss Peterson’s face was horrified and she stepped away. Lowell tossed the broken yardstick aside and raised his hands above his head. “I’m going to kill you!” he roared seething with anger. As Lowell stepped toward Miss Peterson, all of the boys in the classroom, leaped on him and tried to hold him back, but it was like holding back a run-away locomotive. Lowell continued forward carrying them with him and Miss Peterson turned and ran from the room followed by Lowell with all of the boys still clinging to him. In a few minutes, our principal, Mrs. MacDonald came into the classroom, quieted the frightened students, and took over for Miss Peterson. Lowell and Miss Peterson had the rest of the day off.
When I became a teacher a decade later, corporal punishment was still being used in the classroom, but after that experience, I had no desire to use it. Since I stood a whopping five foot one inch almost and ninety-five pounds, I knew the likelihood of me intimidating anyone was pretty small, so I had to find another way. I really didn’t have to look any further than my parents. My parents both had very different approaches to discipline. My mother (another five foot monster) used corporal punishment. She would slap you, break into tears and wail, “Wait until your father gets home.” Since she was small, the slapping wasn’t much although we did feel badly for making her cry. The real terror were her words, “Wait until your father gets home.”
My father never spanked anyone. He was the master of the pregnant pause, forcing you to wait and think about what you had done. For example, on one particular day, I had attempted to kick my younger brother, Dave, in the chin for his verbal taunting. Just as I was about to release my anger on him, he slammed the door to his bedroom and my foot penetrated his bedroom door. I had to wait three hours for my dad to get home. Petrified I began to create excuses for my behavior. It was, after all, Dave’s fault because if he had not slammed that door, he would have been properly kicked in the chin and door would have suffered no damage.
When my father got home, I met him in the driveway filled with anxiety. I tried to tell him what had happened and who was to blame, but he would not listen. He told me to wait until after dinner. My anxiety increased. After dinner he told me to wait until he had had a shower and changed his clothing. My anxiety increased even more. After that I had to wait while he read the paper and had time to unwind from work. I was near manic stage. Finally he asked me to sit down at the kitchen table and wait while he fixed himself a cup of coffee, got me a glass of milk and put a dozen Oreo cookies on a plate. I knew I couldn’t eat cookies or drink milk because my stomach was churning. After a long slow sip of coffee, my father asked me to explain what I had done wrong that had upset my mother so much. Like a machine gun, I rattled off all of the events of the day explaining how it was really my brother’s fault because if he hadn’t slammed that door nothing would have been broken except his chin. “So, do think kicking your brother’s chin would have been better than kicking the door?” He waited for my response and I realized the error in my judgment. I had to admit it was not. He sipped his coffee and nibbled on a cookie while I waited nervously. “What could you have done differently?” Even though I again insisted that if my brother hadn’t taunted me, this would never have happened, he would not accept it. He shook his head and indicated that he was talking to me and not my brother. After I had identified several alternative plans to dealing with a taunting brother, he pointed out there was still the matter of the broken door. He explained to me that replacing that door would take money from the family’s recreation budget and since I was the one who broke it, he didn’t think it was fair for the entire family to suffer because of my lapse in judgment. He again asked me to think of ways I could earn the money to replace the door forcing me to select chores I could do for neighbors to earn enough to replace the door. As a result, I ended up gardening and mowing lawns all summer. Even though I paid my father back for the broken door, he never replaced it until I moved away as reminder to me to not to lose my temper.
It is in the power of the pregnant pause (the waiting) that forces students to think about what they have done, take ownership for their poor choices, consider alternative behaviors and take responsibility for repairing the damage. Some people call this “Think Time” and it helps students learn to be responsible. Next time you send a student into the hall wait to talk him. Let them simmer for a while. It will give you time to regain your composure, so you can direct his/her understanding of his/her behavior in a calm, collected manner. It allows the student to think about what he/she did wrong. Although corporal punishment is rarely used in today world, we do have teachers who use verbal assaults and intimidation to control students. These tactics do not teach students to take ownership for their behavior and learn other methods of problem solving or in Lowell’s case socialization. Leave the yardstick in the classroom. You don’t want to become Miss Peterson, instead use the power of the pregnant pause.