He’s eleven. Tall. You could tie a string on this boy and fly him as a kite.
He gets good grades. Never gets in trouble in school.
His parents philosophically oppose corporal punishment. No one has ever laid a hand on this boy. From birth, this boy has been inculcated with one central ethos: Respect is the most important rule. And the rule cuts both ways. These parents practice with their children the behavior they expect.
Of course people in this family get grouchy and selfish. Of course people lose their temper. But physical aggression? Words that demean or humiliate? Spanking, slapping? The boy knows these things happen in other families, but has no personal experience of it.
The boy sits in his 5th grade classroom reading his assignment. Suddenly the teacher is behind him, reaching over him to snatch the book off the desk, turn pages, and set the book back down with a whump! “Listen to the instruction! You’re reading the wrong page!”
And, as the teacher leaves the scene, he punctuates his exit with an open hand shot to the back of the boy’s head, hard enough to bend the boy’s neck and head down and forward.
The shot stings, but it’s the boy’s face which burns with … with …
See, I’ve got to interrupt this story. Because, if I put myself in this story right here at age 11, the sentence ends “burns with shame, humiliation, and embarrassment.” I would have sat, frozen. At the end of class, I would have gathered my things and gone to my next class. I’d be hoping my parents wouldn’t find out.
When I was 11, the abiding assumption was that adults in authority more or less shared permission to discipline children, and physical discipline was commonly included in the collective repertoire. Grabbing kids. Shaking kids. Cuffing them. And swats. My school district was big on swats. Also shame. Making kids stand up in front of class and confess wrongs. The dunce cap was gone, but my peers and I had to stand in more than a few corners.
Now, I’m certain my parents would have intervened in my defense had a teacher cut me, scratched me, attempted to sexualized me, or burned me with a lit cigarette. But, ordinarily, when I ran afoul of teachers, I would usually run afoul of my parents, too. I’m saying that, in 1968, the above paragraph describes a culture of child-rearing that’s really okay with everyone. Even admired. (In 2016, there remain a disturbing number of people with fond, nostalgic longing for the return of this culture.)
Which is what caught my ear – and my heart – in the boy’s story. What happened next was so … different.
The boy’s face burns all right. He’s embarrassed, yes, but mostly his face burns with anger. He contains himself, though. Sits like a gentleman until the bell rings, wherein he gathers his things into his backpack, and does not march to his next class. Instead, he marches to the office.
He doesn’t go to his mother, who works right there on campus. He doesn’t call his father. He doesn’t solicit his peers to hate and jeer the teacher.
He marches to the middle school principle’s office and says to the secretary, “May I please speak to [the principle]?”
“May I tell her what this is about?,” says the secretary.
“Mr. [name] hit me, and that’s not okay,” he says, shoulders squared, in an even voice.
An investigation ensues. Students are interviewed, as well as the boy and his antagonist.
The teacher calls the boy’s father to apologize. The father is appreciative of the call, but reminds the teacher his apology is ultimately misplaced. The relationship that needs repairing is between the teacher and the boy.
The teacher apologizes to the boy, says there was no excuse for the behavior. The teacher expresses admiration for the boy’s reporting him, and tells the boy he did exactly the right thing.
“What did you do then,” I ask the boy.
The boy shrugs: “I offered him a handshake and I told him I accepted his apology.”
In my heart collides admiration and incredulity. When I was 11, I didn’t know I had the right not to be hit by adults, let alone did I possess the ego strength and all round moxie to actually go to the authorities and make that claim!
I keep to myself that the boy’s story helps me redeem pieces of my own history. At 59, how do you tell an 11 year-old boy that, when you grow up, you’d like to be more like him?
(Steven Kalas is an Nevada author, therapist and Episcopal priest. He writes a weekly column for the Sparks Tribune. You can correspond with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)