Mrs Kearns had earned a reputation among both parents and students for being the strictest of disciplinarians who taught first grade at my Texas elementary school during the 1960s. As the neighbourhood boys would say: “She really swings a mean paddle, so you better hope that you are not assigned to her class.” Unfortunately, I was.
I was a very bright and curious student, yet I was socially immature and very prone to mischief. Early in the school year, it was clear that I would excel in all academic subjects; my behaviour at school, however, was ‘sorely’ in need of improvement!
In early October, I and several others boys and girls were required to stay in the classroom during recess to write sentences, as a punishment for some minor infractions. We were admonished that we were to be totally silent and were to stay in our seats during the entire period, even though no teacher would be in the room with us.
After only a few minutes of staying on the sentence task, I became very bored, fantasising about ways to misbehave while the teacher was out of the room. After all, what an opportunity!
The clever idea struck me to go up to Mrs K’s desk, and forage through it, uncovering its many mysteries. In the top drawer, I discovered her grade book – wouldn’t it be great to look in the grade book, and see everyone’s grades? Our first report card was about to come out! At this point, the curiosity overcame the other students, as they joined me at the teacher’s desk, creating quite a commotion.
In the joy of our misdeeds, we never thought about being caught, much less being punished. To our surprise, Mrs Parker, the teacher in the adjacent classroom, showed up at the door, astounded at what was going on. In my nervousness, I knocked over an ink well, which partially ruined the grade book. Mrs Parker quickly made us all sit down, and had me attempt to clean up the mess, before leaving.
During the next 15 minutes, I sat squirming and fidgeting, worrying about what fate would come to me for me misbehaviour. Although I had misbehaved before, this was by far the most serious thing I had done, and I knew it. Would I be paddled that day? If so, when and how? Would I be taken to the principal’s office?
I knew of Mrs Kearns’ reputation, and I had seen evidence of it first hand, as she had spanked two boys about a week earlier. I had watched, along with the whole class, as she escorted the boys out to the hallway, which contained glass windows that lined the entire classroom wall.
I had seen her bend the boys over, and swat them several times with her well worn ‘Fli-back’ paddle (which had once had a rubber ball attached to it.)
I had heard the loud swats, which made me guiltily uncomfortable, even though I was not the victim on that day. Like the whole class, I was excited and eager with anticipation when they were spanked.
We had silently celebrated the event, enjoying the fact that the boys cried and rubbed their bottoms when they returned to the classroom. Yet I felt discomfort and nervousness, perhaps knowing that my day would eventually come.
My fundamentalist Christian upbringing had taught me to always tell the truth, and that things would be OK. Perhaps if I volunteered the story of my misbehaviour to Mrs Kearns, and accepted full responsibility for my behaviour, she would go easy on me. That was my strategy; I would be penitent and apologetic and truthful – she would forgive me.
As the class returned from recess, I longed for my opportunity to go up to Mrs Kearns and tell my story, and to apologise. I then saw her through the glass windows, talking to Mrs Parker. The latter was pointing in my direction and Mrs Kearns appeared to be very angry and unhappy. As she walked back into the classroom, I went up to her, attempting to apologise.
She said sharply: “Tommy, sit down – I’ll deal with you in a few minutes.” I began to get nervous – maybe my plan would not work?
A few minutes later, she said “Tommy, I want you and all of the students who stayed in during recess to come to my desk right now.” About six of us gathered around her desk, and she began to lecture us about all the rules that had been broken.
She then reached into the bottom drawer of the desk, and out came the paddle. My eyes got very big, as they transfixed upon the spanking device which had been used so many times on so many six-year-old boys (and a few girls) in the past.
I was both nervous and fascinated by the wooden paddle. It was the first time I had seen it up close and it was clearly worn from use, so that small cracks appeared over the surface of the quarter inch board. The handle area was soiled with oil from her hands, and neatly printed in block letters on the area which covered the buttocks were the words ‘Mrs Kearns’.
The teacher had each of us tell our version of what had occurred. Each of the other boys and girls gave their versions, all of which pinned the blame firmly on me. I had invented the idea. I had left my seat and gone through the desk. I had opened the grade book and I had knocked the ink well over. It was all my fault.
Although it would make little difference, I was allowed to repeat my version, during which I repeatedly apologised and expressed truthful remorse – all the while knowing that my fate was soon to come. I could not take my eyes off of that paddle.
Mrs Kearns then thanked me for my honesty, and addressed the whole group of six together: “If any of you ever do anything like this again, I will paddle each of you.”
For the briefest moment, I thought her warning was to me also; I had escaped the paddle by being truthful! But then her body shifted towards me and she said: “Tommy, I am going to paddle you today because your behaviour was much more serious than the other boys and girls. You caused this entire incident for everyone.”
As she took the paddle in one hand, she led me to the door of the classroom. My heart was racing fast and my face was flushed with heat as I passed the other students. Mrs Kearns addressed the entire class, with me facing them: “Tommy has behaved very badly today and he is about to receive a spanking. Let his example be a lesson to all of you.”
We went to the window-lined hall, where Mrs Parker waited to witness my punishment. As I bent over, I braced myself on the brick wall. Mrs Kearns praised my truthfulness but repeated the serious nature of the offences. She asked if I clearly understood why I was being punished, and I replied: “Yes, ma’am.”
She positioned the paddle upon my small bottom and raised her arm high in the air. Down the little board came. Whack! I felt the sting on every inch of both butt cheeks, and the sound was loud enough for not only my class to hear, but for all classes on the first grade hall.
As the blood rushed from toe to head…whack! I was trying so hard to fight the tears, to save some dignity – but by the fifth and final swat, I had stopped worrying about dignity or crying; I was not thinking at all.
As we re-entered the classroom, I held my head down, trying to avoid eye contact and eager glances of 30 other first graders. But the wet blurred vision, the tears rolling down my cheeks, and the impulsive rubbing of my sore bottom betrayed me to my classmates, who were both excited and yet sympathetic. I eased my sore bottom into my seat, and cried for a few more minutes.
After school that day, several of the boys in the class gathered around me to discuss my experience. I embellished the details for them, and boasted by saying: “Mrs Kearns sure swings a mean paddle – you better not get into trouble with her!”
Little did I know that Mrs Kearns, the paddle and I would return to the hall on several more occasions during that first grade year.