Tuesday, June 14, 2011

RETURN OF THE NATIVE: Part I


 Return of the Native: Part I
            After graduating from Vincent in 1961, I spent four years at conservative Grove City College.  Shortly thereafter, I flew to Germany on a one-way ticket to meet uncles, aunts and cousins that I had only heard about.  I lived with my aunt and uncle while working in a local factory that manufactured tires.  Some of those experiences were chronicled in articles written for the Erie Times.
            In the beginning of November, 1965, I returned home in a rough North Atlantic crossing aboard the SS United States, the world's fastest passenger ship.  Needing a job, I put in an application for a teaching position in the Erie School District.  After an interview in the downtown office, I was hired as an English teacher and told to report to Strong Vincent High School the following Monday morning.
            How unbelievable is that!  The kid who couldn't qualify for an advanced English class, the kid who was kicked out of his senior academic English class three different times (see “English” post) until being assigned to a non-academic class, was now going to return to his alma mater as an English teacher.  No wonder our schools are failing.  Life is indeed stranger than fiction.
            That Monday morning I walked into the hallowed halls and proceeded directly to the office, where Mr. Lubowiki, the former disciplinarian who was now the principal, stood behind the counter.
  With a big smile, I said, "Gordon Geissler, reporting for duty."
"Good Lord!"  said Mr. Lubowiki.  "I saw your name on the paper I received from downtown, and hoped against hope that there were two Gordon Geissler's and that I was getting the other one," he said with a smile.


"I'm afraid there is only one Gordon Geissler", I replied.
"I know that now," he said.  "At least I won't have to worry about you being sent to the office."
That would prove to be true.  After all, who had the authority to send me, now a teacher, to the office?  As things would turn out, the operative word would no longer be "send," but rather another s-word --- " summon."  But, I'm getting ahead of myself. For now, I was issued the tools of the trade – – – a grade book, a plan book, and a paddle.  I, who had so often been the recipient of pain from that instrument, was now officially authorized to administer justice.  I was about to realize the sheer power that a college degree granted.
It is imperative for any new teacher walking into a classroom to establish himself as an authority figure.  Students will always test any behavioral boundaries that a new teacher draws.  And in a school where the culture of corporal punishment reigns, the instrument of such punishment must be wielded or students will view you as a wimp and you can kiss class control goodbye.
And so it was with me.  Early on I had a rambunctious class that was determined to test my limits.  One day, as this talkative group was doing an assignment, I had to quiet them down several times.  Finally, I issued a warning: "The next one who talks gets the paddle."
This warning was greeted not with fear, but with whispered chuckling.  Soon a boy started talking with the student next him.  This was my test and I had no choice.
"Tom, I warned you.  Come up here, take the wallet out of your back pocket, bend over and grab the desk," I ordered.  I don't know what I would have done had he refused to comply.  But compliance was part of the culture.  It would have been unmanly for Tom to shrink from his destiny.
As he got ready, I grabbed the paddle.  "Now Tom," I said sternly, "there are three different whacks that I give – – – the quarter whack, the half whack and the full whack.  This is your lucky day, Tom.  Since this is your first offense, you're only getting the quarter whack.  All I can say is, you never ever want to experience a full whack."
You could have heard a pin drop in that class as I administered justice.  Tom passed his test, taking it like a man.  I passed my test by willingly using that paddle.  And the class worked quietly until the end of the period.  All was well.
In the classroom every teacher soon learns to expect the unexpected, some occurrence that was not anticipated in textbooks or education classes.  One such event occurred early on that year when, after I had used the paddle on a boy, another student said, "Mr. G, how come you never paddle a girl?"
"Well," I responded, "I guess it's because the girls don't get into trouble the way boys do."
"But that's not true, Mr. G.  Julie is always talking, but never gets the paddle.  That's unfair."
"You're right!  From now on girls, you're on notice.  We will have equal justice.  From now on Julie and all girls are on notice that the paddle will be equally applied to anyone and everyone who cannot behave."
As the boy who had brought up the topic of my injustice looked around at his classmates with a smile and a glint in his eye, a girl piped up with the question, "You wouldn't really hit a girl, would you Mr. G?"
"From now on, it's equal justice for all," I said with a smile and a nod of the head.  "Don't test me!"
I then gave an assignment that the students were to work on individually, no talking allowed.  A few minutes into the assignment and Julie was already talking.
"Julie, I said no talking.  This is your only warning.  The next time you talk, you will get the paddle.  Is that clear?"
The class snickered as Julie nodded her head in acknowledgment of the warning.  Neither I nor anyone else in that room had the least bit of doubt that Julie would be talking again, and we were not disappointed.  A few minutes passed, and Julie was talking again.
"Okay Julie, you were warned," I said, interrupting her latest conversation.  "Come up to the front of the room and lean over the desk," I ordered while taking the paddle in hand.
Now, this was being done in a lighthearted, almost in a theatrical way.  The class was the audience, and Julie and I were the actors on the stage.  Fortunately, she sensed this atmosphere, and was willing to play along. Again, I don't know what I would've done had she refused the order.
So, up she came and leaned over the desk.  As I gave her a gentle whack, the audience cheered and Julie returned to her seat with a faint smile on her beet-red face.  It provided a lifetime memory for every member of that class.  Luckily for me there were no parental phone calls or other repercussions from that incident.  Julie was the only girl I ever paddled (please don't say "spanked"), and may have been the only girl given the paddle at Strong Vincent.
In this culture of paddling, once students saw your willingness to use this "Board of Education", they no longer had to test you.  I only used the paddle on five or six students that year, mainly in the beginning, and hardly ever later on as the year wound down.  I don't know when corporal punishment was banned it in Erie schools.  I only know the when I took on a new teaching assignment in southeastern Pennsylvania, corporal punishment in that region had long ago been abandoned.  And I never missed it.
  (Part II can be accessed in the archives at the  top right)

2 comments:

  1. I enjoyed reading your blog about Strong Vincent. I graduated a year ahead of you and wanted to let you know that Stan Wilkinson paddled me in front of the class for talking with Harold Arrowsmith. I was only a 10th grader at the time! Years later, as a teacher of third graders, I too paddled a student who stole money from my desk but I had to do it in the principal's office. I felt like a fool and regretted the incident. I was so weak that the student barely felt the paddle. I'm happy those days are over for teachers but the pendulum has swung too far the other way.. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us. Linda Symmonds - class of 1960.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your SV experiences. I graduated SV in 1965 and though societal changes were clearly in the air SV in '62-'65 was very much the same as you experienced. In my senior year I learned the one way to get Mr. Brabender's respect - join his wrestling team. He treated us all like equals whether you were a state champ or my 3rd stringer(me). David J. Brown ('65)

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