The school cafeteria served the same frozen hamburger patty every day –only the name changed, to imply variety. One day we ate chopped steak, the next day chuck wagon steak, then pepper steak, western fried steak, chicken fried steak etc.
Finally, a classmate of mine got fed up with the charade and pitched a hunk of mystery meat across the cafeteria. The teachers didn’t witness the crime; they just examined the evidence. Our second grade teacher, Mrs McQuigen, huddled with her first-grade colleague, Mrs Laningham.
I still remember them conferring over that little hamburger patty on the floor, acting with the self-importance of police investigators who had just discovered a body.
They devised a plan to flush out the guilty party. After failing to solicit a confession, they cancelled recess, ushered us back to the classroom and commenced the interrogation.
Mrs McQuigen made us to put our heads down on our desks and remain in that position until somebody fessed up. I wish someone would have told us to do that in high school – I’d have slept all day. But in second grade, we had a different outlook. The minutes dragged by like hours.
The Southern Baptist school’s strict methods remained an enigma to me, a recent transfer student. And looking back on it, I was a bit more immature than my classmates, even though we all were at a tender age. Other kids tried to tough it out but I couldn’t stand it any longer. I raised my head, began to sob, and pleaded with Mrs McQuigen to let us go on with class. “Put you head down, Mark!”
Then she began to lecture us about the Biblical exhortation to confess one’s sins. She spoke to the whole class but the weight of her remarks pressed down on me. By becoming upset, I marked myself as the prime suspect. Yet she wasn’t going to accuse me directly – she wanted a confession!
Two other children, themselves on the verge of tears, volunteered to take the punishment. They made it quite clear, however, that they weren’t guilty. Mrs McQuigen refused their offer. She wanted to find the culpable one.
Soon, Mrs Laningham strolled over from her adjacent classroom, where her first graders were undergoing the same inquisition. The two teachers conferred. I stole a glance in their direction and saw Mrs McQuigen pointing at me as she whispered to her cohort. Clearly, I remained suspect number one. Then they walked to the front of the classroom and made an announcement.
If nobody confessed, everyone would be paddled. “That way, we’ll be sure to punish the guilty one,” Mrs Laningham crowed, almost joyfully.
That was too much for young Beverley. From the back of the classroom, she blurted out a teary confession and a disclaimer. Something pathetic thing like: “I didn’t mean to.”
“Get up here young lady,” Mrs McQuigen barked. I sat directly in line between the teacher and the perpetrator, and I can testify that Mrs McQuigen’s angry expression could have stopped a moose in its tracks. It certainly slowed Beverley, who cried uncontrollably as she walked hesitantly forward.
Teacher met student in the aisle, dug long, sharp, painted fingernails into her arm and practically dragged the miscreant to a position of public humiliation in front of the class. Mrs McQuigen stared directly into Beverley’s teary countenance, as though she were looking straight through the girl’s eyeballs to the back of her head.
“You were going to let these other students take your punishment, weren’t you?” Denials, sobs, tears. Mrs Laningham continued: “You were going to let your whole class get punished because you didn’t have the moral courage to confess your sin, weren’t you?” Weaker denials, deeper sobs, copious tears.
Mrs McQuigen went to her top desk drawer. She withdrew a white laminated plywood bolo paddle, a child’s toy which came from the factory with a red rubber ball attached by a thin grey elastic cord. It was no longer a plaything. To a second grader, this nine-inch implement looked two feet long.
She faced Beverley toward the blackboard, then commanded her to ‘bend over and grab your ankles’. Beverley was already an emotional wreck, even though her punishment was just beginning.
She pleaded, in her best Becky Thatcher imitation: “Oh, please, Mrs McQuigen, I’ve never been spanked in school before.” I knew I wasn’t going to play Tom Sawyer and volunteer to take her whipping for her. “Well, there’s always a first time, young lady, especially for liars and cheats,” our teacher replied sarcastically. Mrs Laningham looked on with a satisfied smile.
Mrs McQuigen made Beverley bend all the way down and grip each lower leg, just above those thin little fold-down socks that elementary schoolgirls wore inside their shiny shoes. Then she lifted Beverley’s dress and exposed her bottom to the class. Only a pair of cotton panties, decorated with multiple imprints of pink teddy bears, shielded Beverley’s nakedness from our unbelieving eyes.
In all my seven years, I had never seen such a hard spanking. This was the reward not only for misbehaviour but for the more unforgivable sin of deception. Beverley screeched and howled with each savage lick. Her pleas for mercy went unheeded, as Mrs McQuigen punctuated each spank with a lecture on integrity. Every few swats or so, part of the paddle landed on the bare flesh beyond Beverley’s panties.
By the time the dozen swats had found their mark, we could see bright red skin bordering the clothed area of her buttocks. When the ordeal finally concluded – or so Beverley thought – the floor revealed a puddle of tears.
Unfortunately, this was only Act One. Beverley had another ordeal to endure. Mrs Laningham’s first graders, their time of inquisition over, were in for a rare treat. Every first grader knew absolutely that second graders got much more powerful spankings, as the thin school house walls muffled no sounds. Now, they had the opportunity to witness one!
The last visual image I remember of Beverley was her terrified, pleading look as Mrs Laningham hauled her next door, as if she were a kitten being transported by the scruff of her neck. The ensuing loud whacks and unmitigated screams emanating from the adjacent classroom must have petrified the whole school building. I don’t remember anyone else being spanked for days afterwards.
Then the incident finally wound down, with Beverley sobbing while standing in the classroom corner, her nose pressed into the meeting of two walls. Mrs McQuigen modified the day’s curriculum, hauled out her King James Bible and give us a lesson on the scriptural basis of chastisement and the value of not sparing the rod.
Later, our teacher the avenging angel, became the soothing conciliator. As the rest of us did arithmetic problems an hour later, Mrs McQuigen sat Beverley on her lap, gently stroking her hair with a child’s hairbrush, while whispering calming words in her ear.
Southern Baptists definitely believed in repentance, and post-punishment conciliation was definitely part of the process. The little girl’s sin had been expunged by the fire applied to her buttocks, and then washed away by her tears. Now her former tormentor reassured her that she was once again pure, just like she had been when she emerged from the waters of baptism.
At semester break, Beverley’s parents – not subscribing to such draconian methods of assuring their child’s salvation – transferred her to public school. I remained at the Baptist school through high school graduation, however, and witnessed numerous other bizarre displays of gospel-centered discipline.