all of the selves we Have ever been
With talk of de-funding the police in schools, I reflect on school security during my own years of education.
Most of my learning was acquired in Catholic schools. My military family moved frequently, so I have a larger school sample than most of my peers.
Police didn’t visit schools when I was an elementary student. Teachers could pretty much handle any crime wave that broke out—gum chewing, late arrivals, bus shenanigans... In Catholic school, if a person in uniform was needed, a nun would do. Dressed in distinctive garb, nuns wore a giant rosary around their waists, crosses dangling like revolvers. One false move and a kid could be sprayed with shame and humiliation. It was very effective until it went out of style some time during the mid-to-late 1980's when the self-esteem movement took hold. Self-esteem was not invented yet when I was a kid. My trophy-less mantle proves it.
In one school where I spent some of first, second, and third grades, the day began with the principal going from one classroom to the next. We could hear her coming, and we all knew she was carrying a wooden paddle. When Sr. Principal knocked on the door, the classroom sister was ready. Out went the students who had a bus report that morning. We could hear the paddle cracking across their small behinds just beyond the door. “Beware, my pretty!” was the morning greeting before the expression, “Have a nice day,” was invented.
Throughout the average school day, minor infractions were dealt with swiftly by the classroom teacher. A child biting his fingernails might feel a ruler come down over his knuckles. One wriggly youth was often picked up from his seat by a long pointer under his shirt collar. A student could be made to stay after school and do chores or extra assignments and was then expected to walk home if he or she missed the bus. Parents always sided with teachers, so a kid knew there was more to come when he got home.
My biggest infraction in elementary school was being left-handed. Moving to that new town with the school year in progress, the second grade teacher, Sr. Genevieve, zeroed in like a laser on my dominant hand as soon as I took my seat. She was relentlessly abusive in her efforts to make me right-handed. I think she believed that left-handed was the same as leftist. And it was the Cold War. The McCarthy hearings had ended a few years before I was born, but that didn’t discourage Sr. Genevieve’s determination to rout out budding leftists. The ongoing exercise scrambled my brain and damaged my gross motor coordination which then became the focus of a new series of attacks. Once a child came under surveillance, it never ended. J. Edgar Hoover was surely proud of Sr. Genevieve. I didn’t care too much for her, and, thankfully, we moved again before I was excommunicated or thrown into a federal penitentiary.
By high school, the world was changing faster than a nun’s habit. While the sisters’ skirts were getting shorter and their headdresses smaller, a new counter-culture was blossoming. America was getting restless with a war in Vietnam fought largely by teenagers, a drug culture was growing on the streets and college campuses, and Civil Rights Movements and Women’s Movements were happening everywhere. That was a lot more movement than was generally allowed in Catholic high school. My friends and I remained under the tight security of nuns and Catholic guilt. However, it was the 1970's, and there was the occasional bomb threat. Police turned up at school every now and then to search the building. While the men in blue scoured the school premises, the women in black watched over us. The students in their unfashionably long grey skirts and navy blue knee socks happily passed the time in the parking lot wishing they had a bigger campus to be searched. Perhaps the school would not be safe until the police investigated the Kaufmann’s Department Store and bank across the street. We made our best argument to the art instructor, the most gullible of teachers.
Those bomb threats and the growing social unrest gave the adolescent student body the energy to join the movement. One day someone managed to arrange a student walk-out. During the change of classes we discovered the words “Go home Jerome,” (a reference to the principal) painted on a statue of the Blessed Mother holding an open book. At an appointed time following the discovery, all of the students stormed out of the building en masse. With no security footage back then, there was no way to single out one student for punishment. The nuns might as well have been hit with a stun gun. They were used to doing the intimidating, but the pointer had turned.
Other than that protest march, my only real infraction in high school was defiantly chewing a piece of gum in the classroom once or twice. Imagine the threat to law, order, property, and hygiene! It is probably on my permanent record. I am surprised I wasn’t kicked out of National Honor Society and forbidden from graduating.
My friends who are now the teachers tell me that the transition from “power to the people” to “power to the pupil” has gone too far. Schools are becoming more dangerous. Students no longer fear teachers; students fear each other. And teachers fear students and angry parents. How did we get here? Perhaps that is the bigger conversation we must have before we remove security from some of our schools.
As for me, I have come out. I openly write left-handed. (Take that, Sr. Genevieve!) I can still do many things right-handed, but my brain remains scrambled. The right hand doesn’t always know what the left hand is doing. And neither do I--except that I deliberately chew gum EVERY DAY.
I remain on the run—a radical leftist gum chewer.