In 1962, a brisk autumn had fallen upon Tennille, Georgia’s D.D. Crawford School. It was an all-Black elementary school during the years before school integration that stood on a street that would later be renamed after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, a champion of non-violence. The math teacher, Mr. Dennis, was a beacon in the community. He and all of the teachers at the school were looked up to as respectable professionals who’d come back to help educate the youth of one of the state’s poorest rural communities. On this morning, he had asked the class to produce their homework from the night before. The room grew still with silence. As he waited for the students to pull the papers from their desks and bags, his anger smoldered because it appeared that the entire class had not done the assignment. He slammed his hand against the oak desk, “Everybody outside now!” The class of thirty-five black children, mostly from sharecropping families one generation removed from slavery, quickly filed out of the classroom. Mr. Dennis grabbed his wooden paddle and looked at the students over his glasses with a look of disbelief. “I gave this assignment and I expected it to be completed. Unacceptable! This is what happens when you don’t follow directions. Everybody has to pay the consequences now.” One by one, Mr. Dennis struck each student twice on the buttocks with the wooden paddle that had been used as his primary means of behavior management since the start of his teaching career. Just the sound of the blows was intimidating. Mr. Dennis poured his frustration into each swing of the two-inch thick wooden board. Next in line was Jim, a skinny fourteen year old kid whose family grew vegetables in on a plot of land not too far from the school. Jim loved school and read voraciously. Jim actually had his homework in his desk. He thought, “Should I tell him?” Jim was hesitant because he didn’t want to be the only student in the class who produced the homework and risk being the brunt of jokes from his classmates. He placed his hands against the wall, took the two blows, and returned to his seat. Once he walked back into the classroom, Jim quietly lifted the top of his wooden desk, reached for the homework, folded it neatly and placed it in the pocket of his overalls.
What Jim experienced is not unlike the violence inflicted upon Black bodies across the American South during the 60’s. The fear of violence against Black bodies at the hands of racists and law enforcement, dominated all aspects of life. The inflicting of pain upon the bodies of children at the hands of school officials was state sanctioned with laws that are still in place today. Both Mr. Dennis and Jim were positioned in an oppressive system that perpetuated this devaluing of the complex inner-workings of Black life, strivings, and the psychology of fear. Jim would later attend Fort Valley State College and become an educator. Jim’s experience would have implications for my own journey as an educator. Jim is my father.
The year was 1963. Black college students and civil rights activists filled the streets of Birmingham in organized non-violent protests. Black college students conducted sit-ins at lunch counters waiting for service that never came because of the color of their skin. During that same month, about four hours east of Birmingham, Marie was a ninth grader at T.J. Elder High School staging a silent protest of her own. It was a warm Spring day in 1963, a perfect backdrop for a day away from classes. She and her sister Helen had decided that they would arrive at school but cut classes for most of the day. The plan was to meet in the restroom, wait for the bell to ring, and then to casually walk off campus and spend the day at the park. The bell rang and they could hear the hallways clearing out as everyone reported to their homeroom classes.
Marie waited inside the restroom stall until she heard the familiar footsteps of the school principal, Mr. Taylor. His wingtips made an unmistakable sound as they tapped against the hard tile floors. His gait was slow, deliberate and recognizable. She quickly stood on the top of the toilet so that he would not be able to see her black and white saddle oxfords. The stall door suddenly flew open and there stood the school principal staring at her through thick horn-rimmed glasses.
“And what are you doing young lady?”, he asked.
“I…I was gonna go to class but I needed some more time”, she said.
“You realize, don’t you, that this won’t end well for you. Report to the office Marie. Now.” he said.
His voice hinted at his growing agitation that she would try to not only skip classes but convince him that she was not up to something. She stepped down from the toilet, grabbed her stack of books and marched through the empty halls toward the office. Mr. Taylor presented her with two options. The first option was for him to place a call to her parents to notify them that she was sneaking around the school and not in classes. She knew that her parents would be furious, and the consequences would be severe when she returned home that evening. The second option he presented was that she receive a paddling and return to class. It’s not that she didn’t care, but she knew that both options would lead to physical pain. But she absolutely knew that the severity of the blows inflicted by her principal would not compare to the blows at the hands of her mother.
“I’ll take the paddling! Just don’t tell my mama.” she pleaded.
Mr. Taylor already knew which option she would choose. He’d seen this scenario play out hundreds of times before with other students. He reached down, opened the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled out a wooden paddle inscribed with the words “Board of Education”. It was a sinister nod to the power of the wooden board to correct the wrongs of pupils with just a brief but ‘impactful’ appearance. After her meeting with the “Board of Education” Marie made her way to class and never uttered a word about what had happened in the restroom or the office. Marie would later become a teacher. Marie is my mother.
Some twenty years after my parents had their respective experiences with corporal punishment in Georgia schools, I would sit in a classroom at Swainsboro, Georgia and again bear witness to the pervasive belief that beatings in schools were an effective method for controlling behavior. Interestingly though, by 1983 my school was integrated. The principal, Mr. Crenshaw, was White and the assistant principal, Mr. Eason, was Black. Mr. Eason was the “muscle” around the school and much of his day was spent around the office where the strong scent of his cigars would waft out into the front office and hallway. He was our very own “Joe Clark” before we even knew who Joe Clark was and what that leadership style meant. I’d witnessed him march many students out of class, into the hallway and inflict several loud blows with a thick wooden paddle. The familiar sound of the board making contact with an unlocking soul would echo down the hallways. Interestingly though, I never saw him paddle a White child. There was either a stark difference in how discipline was prescribed for them or he wisely adhered to an unwritten rule about who could and couldn’t be the recipients of his “board of education”.
In 2004 I was a 5th grade teacher at Jessie Rice Elementary in Macon, Georgia. Nigel had interrupted my class for the last time. He had so many discipline referrals that I once considered pre-printing his name and usual infractions as a checklist on them to save instructional time. Classroom disruption, refusal to follow directions, rude and disrespectful behavior…Nigel was consistent to say the least. On this particularly eventful day I wrote him up and sent the referral to the office. The principal called back to the classroom and told me to bring Nigel to her office during his P.E. time. I imagined she was going to call his parents and have him spend a few days at home. When we walked into her office she was standing in front of her desk. She looked at him and told him that he was not here to disrupt the learning of others. She told him that she was not going to tolerate his behavior any longer. She turned around, picked up a wooden board from her desk and told him to bend over the desk. Then she delivered three swift blows to Nigel as I looked on. I recall the times I’d heard that sound coming from the hallways of my elementary school, but this time I was actually seeing it firsthand as a result of a referral I wrote. I was an accessory to this crime. In an almost methodical manner, she passed me a clipboard to sign that I had witnessed the paddling. I signed and walked back to class with Nigel. I didn’t know what to say. There were no words. I didn’t intend for him to get beaten with a wooden board as a result of my referral. But I didn’t say anything. Neither did he. What was there to to say? I never wrote another student up during my time at Jessie Rice Elementary. I learned to manage my classroom discipline without involving the school administration. My principal at Jessie Rice was very likely a product of the same outdated structures for managing behavior that my parents were nurtured in at D.D. Crawford School and T.J. Elder School. While discipline was important, this brutal method didn’t sit well with me. I believed that any physical discipline should be administered at the hands of parents in the home and not by school officials. I resigned at the end of the school year.
There are 19 states in which corporal punishment is still legal. Those states are Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming. While only about 15% of Georgia’s schools report that they continue to use this practice, it is interesting that the states where corporal punishment is still legal predominately consists of former slave-holding states who were part of the Confederacy. This assault on the bodies of children, particularly Black children, is part of a long legacy that lingers on the pages of school laws.
Today, the way that law is enforced in African-American communities reminds me of how brutality has been a familiar foe in our lives in this country. Brutality that existed in the larger society found a place in our schools. Now, we see the outgrowth of that same brutality, that belief that violence inflicted upon a person will instill enough fear in others that behavior will be managed through psychological intimidation. This is the mindset that made lynching in the American South a social occasion documented in photographs depicting celebratory crowds. The public nature of the brutality was intended to send a message to others of what their fate might be if they did not adhere to the social order in place.
I am thankful to work as a principal during a time when members of the education profession have developed a deeper understanding of the intricacies of trauma, research on the social-emotional aspects of education, and the importance of relationships in creating successful student outcomes. Educators are more aware of how disparities can emerge to undermine opportunities for students of color as they find themselves on the disproportionate end of corporal punishments, school suspensions, and expulsions. I’m equally hopeful that the way Black bodies are perceived by law enforcement in our communities continues to evolve beyond the brutality that we see on our streets today. The haunting lyrics of Billie Holiday’s song, “Strange Fruit” paints a morbid picture of the lynchings of Blacks in the South. It reminds us of the more recent dozens of examples of unarmed African-American men and women whose interactions with law enforcement have left their “Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze” for us to see as monuments of our ongoing oppression.
Principals have an opportunity to push against this narrative in the ways they educate students, train teachers, and inflict discipline in their schools . The opportunity to enact social justice in school has never been more important than right now in 2020. Teachers need comprehensive training on mentoring, restorative discipline practices and the disproportionality that exists when it comes to suspensions among African-American boys and students with disabilities. Pressures to implement zero tolerance policies come from parents and teachers. Narratives are spun to characterize more informed, research-based approaches to discipline as “being soft” on students. The waters are troubled and deep, but courageous principals are walking through it each day.
Soundtrack: “Revolution” by Nina Simone