by Christopher Paslay
The following memoir was cut from the final version of The Village Proposal: Education as a Shared Responsibility. The book, which is part memoir, part education commentary, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield this September.
I’ve met teachers over the years who don’t believe in an overabundance of structure. They feel too much emphasis on rules and discipline makes things ridged and stifles learning and creativity. Personally, I disagree. It’s been my experience that students crave discipline, especially the ones that have chaos in their lives. If you put up a fence in the backyard, a kid doesn’t have to think about the boundaries anymore, he can run free within the limits. Without a fence, a kid might forget himself and get hurt. Wander off and get lost, fall down a well, get hit by a car.
Growing up, I knew all about fences. I went to 12 years of Catholic school. In sixth grade, during the 1983-84 school year, I had a nun for a teacher named Sister Dominica. She was about 70 years old at the time, which meant she had cultivated her teaching and disciplinary techniques in the 1940’s and 50’s, a time when Catholic school nuns were known for outrageous behavior, like closing a door on a student’s head or slapping him smartly across the face. I had a run-in with Sister Dominica during the first quarter of the school year. Apparently, she considered me to be what she called an R.C.I.—a person who was rude, crude and ignorant. She even had me recite this back to her. She’d say, Mr. Paslay, what are you? And I’d have to say, Rude, crude and ignorant, Sister Dominica. In reality, I was just an 11-year-old boy who was a bit silly and hyperactive.
I hung around with two other boys who were silly and hyperactive as well. In class we talked too much and weren’t as respectful as we should have been. When Sister Dominica told us to jump, we hesitated—and ripped the occasional fart—before we asked how high. Of course, this didn’t sit well with this old school nun who in her heyday ate elementary school children for dinner.
So in the beginning of November, when report cards were issued during parent teacher conferences, Sister Dominica met with my mother in her classroom and tore me a new asshole; thankfully I wasn’t there to see it. Sister Dominica carefully articulated my disrespectful behavior—the fact that I would fart in class and not even say excuse me. She went into detail about my silliness and tom-foolery, my propensity to distract other students and not always follow directions. She said this and a half-dozen other things that horrified my mother. She also noted that I’d received two C’s on my report card—in spelling and grammar, ironically enough. In 10 minutes Sister Dominica got two months frustration off her big-bosomed chest.
After the conference was over, my mother left the classroom and to her embarrassment walked out into the hallway where she was greeted by the stares of all the other mothers who’d overheard the entire episode while waiting their turn.
My mother was fuming.
I was playing football with some friends on the front lawn of our house when she pulled up in the car after the conference.
“You’re in big trouble, buster,” she said to me, got out of the car and slammed the door. My friends snickered over the word buster, but when she gave them a scolding look they took the football and left. My mom was so angry that she had trouble getting the key in the front door.
“Get inside,” she said. “When dad gets home, you’re going to get a beating.” I asked why, and then she recapped the whole incident—how Sister Dominica said I was misbehaving and screwing around in class, not following directions, acting like a real jackass.
“And the worst part,” my mother said, “was that you embarrassed me! All the other mothers were waiting in the hall and overhead everything!”
When my father got home there was a gigantic blowout. My parents lectured me for a half an hour about respecting the teacher and following the rules, and informed me that I wasn’t allowed out the following weekend.
“And no television, either,” they said.
As it turned out, this wasn’t enough to get through my thick head. The next morning, when I was getting ready for school, I started arguing in the kitchen with my mom about school work and about the things we talked about the afternoon before. This meant only one thing: it was time for a spanking.
My father stormed downstairs, anger in his eyes, wrinkles forming on his forehead. “Go upstairs. You’re getting a beating.”
“Go upstairs now!”
I knew the drill. I went up to my bedroom, removed my pants and underwear, and lay down on my stomach on my bed. Several minutes later my father came into the room, belt in hand, and proceeded to whip my backside, hard, three times. He left three welts that would fade within the hour, but it hurt like hell and I cried at the top of my lungs. Spankings were agonizing and put the fear of God into me, which is why my father only used them as a last resort in very serious situations.
Afterwards, it was time to go to school. My father dropped me off like he always did.
“Chris,” he said to me before I got out of the car, reaching over and putting his hand on my shoulder, “I hope you know that me and mom love you. We only do this because we care, and want to see you become a good person. Do you understand this?”
“Yes,” I said to him, and sniffled.
My father hugged me and I went inside to school. I went through the normal morning routine in Sister Dominica’s class, diagramming sentences, defining vocabulary words, still shaken from the spanking. At one point I started quietly crying again, ducking down behind the boy in front of me so no one would notice. Sister Dominica came over several times to give me some Kleenex, revealing a rare soft spot in her heart, and this simple act changed our relationship profoundly. She was impressed I was taking my medicine like a man, and looking back it’s clear she was struggling with something close to guilt. Had she overreacted with my mother? she wondered. Maybe.
But now I was awake. Aware. My head had been officially removed from my ass. I eventually became Sister Dominica’s favorite student. She was able to help me channel my energy into my class work, and I finished the sixth grade with straight A’s. My behavior grade went from a U (unsatisfactory) to an O (outstanding).
Did I believe in fences? Boundaries? Rules? Most definitely. As long as they were reasonable and anchored in love.