It's a little known fact in modern day America that corporal punishment at school is still practiced in 19 states of the union. A recent study identified seven culprits, Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Oklahoma who make up 80% of its application right now in the United States. No surprise, when it comes to "children of color," they don't spare the rod. According to the Office of Civil Rights, Department of Education, African-American children are twice as likely to be subject to "in-house corporal punishment" in schools. Oh dear. Is this yet another reminder of the racist past? Yes, of course it is. But along with mass incarceration, and the school-to-prison pipeline, it's also another shocking indictment of our racist present.
Then there's that pesky term. What do they mean by "in-house corporal punishment"? The Department of Education defines it as "paddling, spanking, or other forms of physical punishment imposed on a student." "Paddling" is done with a "paddle" - a wooden instrument that looks like a child's cricket bat. I'd seen them before, in old comedies like "Animal House" (Kevin Bacon gets six degrees of paddle from his satanic frat house buddies), and "Catholic Boys" (a sadistic monk torments his pupils with a customized model). But when it comes to the cane, the schoolmaster's traditional rod of discipline and punishment, the paddle is a joke by comparison. Growing up in England, during the 1970s and 1980s, I have my own memories of its use. None of them, I hasten to add, are any good.
The first time I got caned was at Mosspits Lane Primary School in Liverpool -- a seat of learning that famously expelled John Lennon of the Beatles when he was five years old. It was a hot summer's day. The kids were having a grass fight on the school field at playtime. A teacher saw us and shouted out. It was the headmaster: a fish-eyed robot in a tin grey suit that was neither new nor in fashion. We were summoned to his office and beaten on the palm of the hand, ten times, by a slim bamboo cane that he whipped (abracadabra!) out of a steel filing cabinet. I felt the full force and effect of every blow and bit my tongue rather than cry out. It was a lesson in cruelty I shall never forget.
My second experience of "in-house corporal punishment" was at Douai, a Catholic prep school near to London. Almost immediately, aged 12, I noticed that beating children was so much the norm as to be part and parcel of the school's curriculum. Boys were thrashed by monks and teachers for a variety of petty offences - stealing a block of Perspex from the science lab; swearing in the dorm before lights out; and, in one horrific instance, a gap-toothed kid with learning difficulties threatened with "three of the best" for "dumb insolence." He spewed with fear and burst into tears. It didn't save him from the humiliation and degradation of the teacher's cane.
One punishment from boyhood stands out in particular. Three lads from my class got summoned for a caning after some high jinks on the rugby pitch. The penalty was "six of the best" from our Headmaster, Father Wilfred, a human wombat who wore striped pajamas under his cassock to keep out the cold. Forget the English stiff upper lip. They awaited the punishment with dread. Nothing hurt more than a beating from Father Wilfred. My younger brother once described the ritual. In the center of his office, there was a wooden chair with a bible on it. You bent over, eyes on the bible and took your beating like a gent. Afterwards, this being England, you shook hands with the Headmaster and said, "thank you" (however, there were instances of boys telling Father Wilfred to "fuck off," my brother included).
Later, after gym class, I saw their tortured bodies in the locker room. Their rears were blistered black and blue. And they had been thrashed so hard you could even see the grooves of the cane on the butt cheeks. My mind was swimming with questions. How could a fully-grown, civilized, educated and seemingly benign old priest turn robot and thrash a child so hard? Where were the social workers? Nowhere. This was a fee-paying boarding school. Parents approved of the regime. It was character building and many of them had gone through it themselves. They weren't going to call in the social workers, or send letters of complaint to Father Wilfred for beating on their kids.
Soon after, the cane was banned in England. Good riddance. The marks of a schoolboy beating heal, but the mental scars never really go away. But many years on, afar and asunder from youth, you don't expect to wake up in the freest and most enlightened country in the world (that's America, folks,) to discover that corporal punishment at school is alive and kicking. What's amazing is that no one in the media has really addressed the issue. Thankfully, it's a different story up on the hill. Deadlocked politicians jabber and filibuster about the pros and cons of a ban on physical discipline at school. It's about time too.
Spare the rod and spoil the child? No. Spare the rod and educate the child. The United Nations and the American Academy of Paediatrics both say that corporal punishment should be avoided at school. In a statement, the American Federation of Schoolteachers said, "...it teaches students that violence is acceptable." And research by the American Psychological Association identified the physical discipline of schoolchildren as a leading cause of future mental health problems and antisocial behavior. They are right. Beating children traumatizes children and it does more harm than good. And what gives a civilized, rational and highly educated adult the right to beat a child in 19 states of the union? The law. Fortunately, it's a well-known fact that laws can be changed.