corporal punishment (noun): punishment administered by an adult (as a parent
or a teacher) to the body of a child ranging in severity from a slap to a spanking.
For no apparent reason, I recently found myself wondering about the state of corporal punishment within the American educational system. I grew up in a time when corporal punishment was a well accepted and oft administered practice, the exercise of which could be found in nearly every school teacher’s tool kit for maintaining order, decorum, and a focus on learning in their classrooms.
I wish I could say that I was surprised, when after a conducting a quick Google search on the topic, I learned that corporal punishment is not only discouraged in today’s overly litigious society, but that it has now been declared to be illegal in 22 states. Such a shame; for it worked so well.
The autumn of 1966 found me enrolled in my junior high school’s Industrial Arts class. Industrial Arts, more commonly known as “Shop“, was on virtually every boy’s short list of elective classes to take. It being the course in which one learned the basics of woodworking, along with the use of table saws, band saws, lathes, drill presses, and belt sanders. Before being turned lose in the shop, the curriculum at my school included six weeks of technical drawing or drafting. This was a necessary prerequisite to flipping the switch on a band saw because we were required to create a detailed three-dimensional orthographic design of each item which we planned to create.
By now, you’re probably wondering what does this have to do with corporal punishment. Let me explain.
It was a Friday, the last day of school before the beginning of the 1966 Christmas holiday break. I was in Industrial Arts class, sitting at my drafting table in the classroom which adjoined the woodworking shop. A good friend of mine, let’s call him John, was sitting at his drafting table just to my right. Both of our tables were in the front row. As class began, our instructor Mr. Carpenter, no pun intended, walked into the classroom from the shop and promptly told everyone to pass their completed homework up to the front.
Being a keen observer, Mr. Carpenter noticed that my friend John was not pulling the required paperwork out of his notebook. ”Where’s your homework, John?” Mr. Carpenter inquired.
“I don’t have it.” replied John with eyes cast down at the work on his drafting table which suddenly had become of the utmost importance.
“You don’t have it, or you didn’t do it?” asked Mr. Carpenter unwilling to leave the subject at hand.
“Uh, well I, um, … didn’t do it.”
“Hmm? ” replied Mr. Carpenter as he finished picking up the papers which had been passed to the front of the class. We all could feel the slight yet unmistakable tingle of electricity in the air. We all knew that on the weekends, Mr. Carpenter participated in rodeo events. As such, we all were quite certain that he didn’t believe in taking “Bull” from anyone.
Mr. Carpenter walked over to his desk, dropped the homework papers, and instructed us to continue working on our drafting assignment. He turned slowly, paused theatrically for a moment, briefly looking directly at John before walking to the door leading out into the woodworking shop. The top half of that door contained a window which was normally closed from view by a venetian blind. As Mr. Carpenter proceeded through the door, he nonchalantly pulled down on the string opening the blinds as the door closed behind him.
By pure happenstance, my drafting table was the only one in the classroom which provided a view into the shop.
John motioned to me and under his breath whispered, “What’s he doing out there?”
I glanced out the window. I could see Mr. Carpenter standing at a large rack on which wood was stored.
“He’s picked up a piece of 1″X6″ about four feet long and is looking at it to make sure it’s straight.” I replied.
As small drops of nervous perspiration began to appear on John’s brow, Mr. Carpenter walked over to the table saw, flipping the switch to turn it on. Startled by the raspy, metallic sound of the saw coming to life, John gasped “Oh damn! What’s he doing now?”
From that point, and for most of the 45 minutes remaining in that class period, I provided John and my classmates with a running commentary on Mr. Carpenter’s activities out in the shop. With the table saw, he cut a piece of the 1″X6″ pine to a length of about 18 inches. Mr. Carpenter’s actions were very slow and methodical. While I never noticed him looking back into the classroom through the window in the door, I’m confident that he was totally aware that his every step was being duly noted and carefully reported to his charges in the drafting room.
Next he walked over to the band saw. John’s body convulsed again as the band saw began to whine. When I realized what was happening, I reported that it appeared that a handle had been shaped on to one end of the 18 inch board. A sigh of total despondency slowly escaped from John.
Using the belt sander, Mr. Carpenter very carefully sanded the board and its handle; rounding and smoothing the edges around its entire perimeter. Then it was over to the drill press, where a series of holes were drilled through the rectangular portion of the wood above it’s handle.
After giving his work a thorough visual examination, Mr. Carpenter took the device by its handle and quickly slapped it once or twice against the palm of his other hand, the sharp stinging sound of which seemed to awaken us all from a trance. Suddenly, we realized that there were only 5 minutes left in the period.
Slowly, Mr. Carpenter opened the door. ”John, ….. can you step out here for a moment?” Realizing that the statement was a command rather than a question, John stood and very deliberately walked out of the classroom and into the shop. None of us were willing to make eye contact with John.
As the door closed, Mr. Carpenter led him into an area of the shop which even I could not observe. In the drafting room, you could have heard a pin drop. As we all sat at our desks, eyes fixed on our three-dimensional orthographic drawings, we heard the unmistakable “Thwack!” of pine meeting rear end, followed in slow succession by two additional “Thwacks!”
Judgement had been decided. Justice had been served. All homework was completed for the remainder of that year!
As we filed out of class that day, Mr. Carpenter, paddle stored under his arm, wished us all a Merry Christmas.
“You too, Mr. Carpenter. Merry Christmas to you.”