Corporal Punishment: A Vignette

Corporal punishment in the public schools is becoming a thing of the past. As an elementary teacher for 35 years, I’m glad to see it go. The following is my only personal experience with spanking that resulted in a positive outcome. (Names have been changed to protect privacy.)

Inner City School, Colorado Springs, 1971

Tricia looked gorgeous as usual. Pink satin bows set off the braided loops of her hair and the carnation shade of pink exactly matched her stylish dress.  I thought the other third graders might tease her about her fancy clothes since very few of them could afford anything close, but they never did. With the democracy of childhood, they accepted her.

It was Thursday, and so far Tricia had not completed any of her work for the week.  This had been her pattern since school started six weeks before. Her mother was concerned, and when I sent work home to be finished, it sometimes got there, but not always. Tricia would say it got lost or she just didn’t remember what happened to it.

She was smart, with no learning problems. She read aloud fluently. She zipped through math problems at the chalkboard with ease.

The golden fall sunshine streamed through the tall windows of the nineteenth century building. My high heels resounded on the polished wooden floor as I walked over to see how Tricia was doing.

She had laid her pretty head down on her desk, and the satin ribbons fell gently against her pencil resting in the pencil tray.

“Tricia,” I kneeled down beside her, tilting my head sideways to look into her face.

“Your mom and I have talked to the principal about you doing your work in school, and your mom said that if you don’t do it, the principal can give you a spanking. You need to get something done before recess or I’m going to have to tell him.”

She raised her head and looked thoughtfully at her papers, but by recess she had done nothing.

At recess I went to the office. Mr. Anderson looked up from the stack of papers on his desk. Competent and fair, he had won the respect of the community as a white principal in a black school. He listened as I told him about Tricia’s latest failure to finish her work.

“I’ll come by after recess.”

Ten minutes later Mr. Anderson was at my classroom door, wooden paddle in hand.

“Send her out,” he ordered quietly.

Mouths dropped open and eyes got big.

“It’s the principal!” someone whispered.

“And he’s got a paddle!”

Twenty-four third graders began working furiously, with an occasional furtive glance toward the doorway.

WHAP! Several students startled in their seats at the sound.

Pink ruffles were not much protection, but I didn’t hear any outcry.

Tricia returned, eyes wet, but not crying.  She picked up her pencil and finished all her work. And she did it every day for the rest of the year.

Postscript.  A few years later, a high school choir performed at our elementary school assembly. I recognized Tricia, now a beautiful teenager, in the group. The choir exited to the school bus before I had a chance to speak to her, but I caught the choir director. “I had Tricia in third grade,” I told her. The choir director answered, “She’s very talented in music,” and then called over her shoulder as she hurried out the door, “and an honor student, too!”


Lucy BellLucy Bell is a retired teacher and writing consultant. She is a certified Native Plant Master and Interpretive Guide at Cheyenne Mountain State Park. She founded Friends of Emerson in Colorado Springs, now in its thirteenth year.