Column: Keeping Order in the Classroom

By Susan Parker
Tuesday May 30, 2006

She’s Got the Paddle and We’re Up the Creek,” screamed last week’s headlines in a local weekly. 

The front page featured an unflattering sketch of Sheila Jordan holding a wooden paddle, much like the one I had in my Virginia classroom when I was an elementary school teacher 32 years ago. The subtitle said: “As Alameda County’s schools endured record financial woes, Superintendent Sheila Jordan often seemed more interested in spanking employees who questioned her judgment or her alleged illegal behavior.” 

Something about the picture and the accompanying headlines triggered a reaction in me. It brought back miserable memories of teaching science to 6th- and 7th-graders at Lylburn Downing Elementary School in Lexington, Virginia. 

I could believe that Sheila Jordan might paddle someone. After all, I whacked some of my students in 1974—even after swearing I never would and hiding the instrument of destruction in the back of my classroom closet. 

But that was before Sally Martin threw a chair at me, Clyde Walker broke the wall clock, and William Tinsley poked the eyes out of the spotted lizard that lived quietly alone in a glass aquarium on the windowsill by the radiator. 

I read the article. Sheila Jordan hasn’t actually spanked any of her employees, but according to the writer she has done a lot of questionable things. Being the superintendent of schools for Alameda County is a big job, much bigger than keeping order in an overenrolled, undersupplied classroom in the backwaters of Virginia. But that’s not to say my job wasn’t important or hard. It was. And I almost didn’t live to tell about it. 

I grew up in the genteel suburbs of Philadelphia where corporal punishment in the public schools had been banned long before I reached kindergarten. I don’t remember kids misbehaving in 1957 at Wenonah Elementary School. With the exception of Ricky Hinman, who had some anger issues, we were a quiet group of five-year-olds, anxious to please our teacher, Mrs. Rosenberg, and to learn how to tie our shoes, count to ten, and recite the ABCs. 

Nothing in my life prepared me for Sally, Clyde or William, or for Clyde’s cousin Venus, or William’s twin sister Wilma, or Sally’s half-brother Boo. 

I’d taken all the required courses, observed in a multitude of classrooms, student-taught for half a year, and graduated with honors with a degree in elementary education from a college that specialized in training teachers. 

But I didn’t know the first thing about discipline or how to keep students engaged and interested. Sally, Clyde, William, Wilma, Venus, and Boo were all about teaching me the fundamentals. 

Two months into the school year, after I’d run out of options, I took out the paddle and put it to use: first on Clyde, and then William; later on Sally, Wilma, Venus and Boo. I couldn’t send offenders to the front office anymore because Mr. Thompson, the principal, sent them back to me a few minutes later. I couldn’t call Clyde’s mother because she hung up whenever she heard my voice. 

I didn’t want to call Mrs. Tinsley because she scared me. She had told me if anyone messed with William, she’d given him permission to “pick up a brick and beat the shit out of them.” Sally stayed with foster parents. Venus resided in a phoneless house. Wilma lived with William, and Boo bounced back and forth between foster care and an elderly, overwhelmed grandmother. 

When the school year ended, I enrolled in a National Science Foundation seminar that taught teachers how to use a hands-on approach. The following September I concentrated on conducting simple experiments, growing plants and tiny animals, and looking closely at little things in order to understand the bigger world outside our classroom. I didn’t need a paddle. 

Oh sure, there were occasions when I wanted to smack someone on the bottom, send them to the principal’s office, or call their mother or grandmother. But the paddle stayed in the closet and after awhile I forgot about it. 

Until last week, that is, when I read about Sheila Jordan. That’s when I wanted to get out my old paddle and teach her a few lessons.