Newsletter 146: Back to School With Corporal Punishment

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one, in honor of everyone being back to school, is about corporal punishment at Mattoon High School. Or as we called it back then: Swats!

Last month, my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Lawyer, died at the age of 88. She was a grown woman with a family and a life of her own, but like all kids, I believed she lived at Columbian Elementary School in Mattoon and never left the building. If you were to really break me down on it, I’ll confess there is a large part of me that still believes this. She will, after all, be known as “Mrs. Lawyer” to me forever.

I learned all sorts of facts about her from her obituary, not least of which that she was 88. This would have made her, let’s see, [does math], 55 when she taught me in 1985. She was married at the age of 20 the year after my father was born, she had three children, her husband died in 2017 after 57 years of marriage, she had a brother who lives in Seattle, she had a beloved cat named Buster, she “enjoyed quilting and socializing.” It sounds like she had a lovely life.

But my memories of Mrs. Lawyer are mostly about fear. She was a tough teacher, fair, but clearly a figure her fifth grade class took care not to cross. Ten-year-olds aren’t quite the monsters they’ll turn into come middle school, but they’re still little shits when they want to be, and her years of experience taught her that she had to be firm and unrelenting to wrangle them into submission. Mrs. Lawyer was unyielding. Every memory I have of Mrs. Lawyer is of her being angry with someone. These recollections, being 33 years old and created when I was 10, are hazy and ill-shaped; I’m half-remembering half-memories. But that sense of wanting to make sure you didn’t do anything to upset Mrs. Lawyer, that dread of misbehaving, still stirs in my stomach when I think about her today.

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You never wanted to get in trouble in Mrs. Lawyer’s class. A boy named Keith learned this the hard way. One day, there was a girl in the hallway who went to get a drink of water from the fountain, but as soon as she leaned in to drink, Keith, being an obnoxious 10-year-old boy, blew as hard as he could from the other side of the fountain, splashing the water into her face. She made a light yelp, and Mrs. Lawyer saw the whole thing, and then things started getting real. Mrs. Lawyer grabbed Keith by the ear — I vividly remember her grabbing him by the ear, though, all told, that’s probably not what happened — dragged him into the classroom and made him stand in front of the whole class to explain what he had done.

Keith started to cry, not because he was humiliated, but because he knew what was coming next. Mrs. Lawyer kept a wooden paddle in the corner of the room, with big knotty holes drilled in the wood, holes she told us she put in there because “it makes your fanny hurt more.” After Keith’s confession, Mrs. Lawyer grabbed the paddle, took Keith out in the hall and closed the door behind her. There was a little window at the top of the door, too high up for us to see anybody’s faces, but I remember seeing the paddle go up, and then WHACK, then back up, then WHACK, then back up, with Keith’s whimpers in the background now, then WHACK. I believe he got five “swats” — “swats” was Mrs. Lawyer’s specific term for them, and it’s an impressively perfect word choice — but they seemed to go on forever. When they were done, Mrs. Lawyer opened the door, and they came back into the classroom. Keith sat down at his desk, and Mrs. Lawyer began whatever lesson she had planned, like nothing had happened.

There was no process to this, no running it by the principal, no official documentation to note what had happened. Mrs. Lawyer was the primary witness, the arresting officer, the judge, the jury, and the executioner. Justice was swift and meted out in the public square, as a lesson for any potential future offenders. Mrs. Lawyer was old school.

I don’t remember anything else about fifth grade, or really anything else about Mrs. Lawyer, or Keith, or the year 1985, other than the Cardinals going to the World Series. But I remember that, specifically the paddle going up, then down, and up, then down, five times. My older son William is seven years old and is about to finish first grade; my youngest Wynn will be in kindergarten next year. Every day is a new memory. You never know which ones will stick. I hadn’t thought about Keith in 30 years. One obit brought all those swats back.

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Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021.

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