One day while I was probably engrossed in the Nancy Drew mystery that was hidden behind my 7th-grade English textbook, the class clown started acting up. He was a bright-eyed, handsome boy who maybe was ADHD, but at that time was regarded merely as a wise-cracking, obnoxious, smart-alecky little snot who invariably disrupted our study time.
Suddenly our fragile, menopausal teacher snapped. She lunged across two rows of desks and — open-handed — began slapping him about his ears.
I don’t remember what happened after that, being shocked and scared, seated right behind him and certain that I was next. I know that the teacher wasn’t fired (although perhaps furloughed), no parents came to the school to complain, and the other kids present at the attack regarded it as well-deserved and, in fact, way over-due. The victim was undaunted if not thrilled that he had provided his schoolmates with such high drama.
I got to thinking about that the other day while reading the latest account of the St. Augustine High School paddling controversy. I’m sure that some of the kids at our school were paddled, but not until they had been made to “walk the tree” a few times. This hour-long punishment, inflicted only on boys, consisted of being made to walk in a circle — about 20 feet in diameter — around a big oak that the principal could see from his second-story window. He would rap on the glass for the student to pick up his pace in the well-worn rut.
I think walking the tree was probably worse than being paddled, not that I’m defending that practice. There is the danger that not everyone who inflicts corporal punishment is restrained and benign. These are not loving parents who, reacting as I did, give their children fanny-swats when they try to dart into the traffic or howl loudly and demandingly in grocery stores.
My mother used a switch — twice that I remember — and she made ME, wailing loudly in anticipation of the horror to come, break it off a bush in the front yard. The parents of we Gap Guppies — the small generation between The Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers — were barely removed from the Children Should Be Seen and Not Heard era and raised their own offspring with a nod to some of these customs.
When my mother had guests sitting in our living room, I had to say, “Excuse me, please,” when I walked in front of a chair, and, indeed, had to pass behind the chair unless it was up against a wall. This was considered good manners in our family, and we children were required to have good manners even if we had diagnosed brain deficiencies and couldn’t manage to make all As in school.
I didn’t require that my own children circumnavigate the living room with such exquisite deference, but I did tell them when company arrived to take the visiting kids to the den or their bedrooms and not interrupt us adults unless fire broke out somewhere in the house.
I began to notice a shift in parenting when I visited my younger brother and his family. His oldest child is 20 years junior to my daughter. For one thing, the walls in his sons’ and daughter’s rooms were covered in shelves holding trophies, scrolls, plaques and ribbons awarded for every conceivable activity — sports, the arts, education. Wow, I thought, until I looked more closely and discovered that almost all of the prizes had been given for just showing up.
“We’re building self-esteem,” explained my Baby Boomer brother, describing a parenting style that I was later to encounter many times, along with the products of such endeavors. When Gen Xers hit our newsroom, it was with a sense of entitlement writ large across their faces. Heaven forbid that an editor should ask them to rewrite a news release or do an obituary. They were stars when they arrived.
Now, I have always told my grandsons that they are handsome, smart and altogether wonderful. I consider uncritical adoration to be the role of a grandmother, and mine have had an almost daily dose if it, living down the street as they do. Let Mom and Dad do the correcting; I marvel at their school’s good fortune that they go there.
If they got paddled, I’d no doubt flip out.
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living Section, for which she wrote Silver Threads until her retirement. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.