(This is a revamped version of a column that ran March 2013.)
Never in my life was I sent to the principal's office for wrong-doing.
But there was one instance, at Fair Oaks Elementary School in Oakdale, in which Principal Byers caught me goofing off in the lunch line and pulled me aside to issue me a most unorthodox admonition. He locked his sweaty arm around my back, with his cupped fingers gouging a hole in my side as he uttered his rebuke directly into my ear to make his point. His "ribbing" technique was most uncomfortable but I was dying of embarrassment since my friends were snickering at me, the good kid, getting nailed by the big guy. No dummy, I knew Mr. Byers was trying to intimidate me through an uncomfortable invasion of my personal space.
The lesson lasted. I never horse-played in line again and I became fearful that my classmates would fall victim to the uncomfortable embrace of Mr. Byers so I'd try to stop them from meeting their own embarrassing episodes of the ultimate creep-out.
Today a principal cannot hardly touch a kid let alone give him a bear hug.
Oh Mr. Byers. He was the same principal who created a flap in the early 1970s when he would not allow a girl - she was a goat roper type cowgirl - to wear jeans. Girls were supposed to wear dresses, he asserted. (For crying out loud, this was Oakdale.) But it was also 1972 and the world was more conservative than today.
Mr. Byers and his narrow-mindedness would hardly fit in today's mold of principals. He was old and fat and ugly and would have been in stark contrast to today's principals, who are increasing less conservative, increasingly more of the attractive female variety, and certainly more hip, younger, cooler and, might I add, more colorful. Mr. Byers never would have shaved his head bald and painted himself as Megamind as Bruce Clifton did to celebrate his Carroll Fowler Elementary students achieving 830 on the API. Nor would he have followed Vaughn Williams' example of having his head shaved by the wife at a schoolwide assembly or dyed purple another year. He certainly never would have allowed students to watch as his mustache was half shaven like Jerry Panella did one year. He was not good natured enough to put his desk on the roof for a morning like I remember seeing one Westport principal do one year as rewarding students for achievement.
No, Mr. Byers would never have ever worn cool. Stiff-necked and stodgy and rarely smiling, he looked like he was sweat beads away from a heart attack. But when I was a kid, the Mr. Byers' of the world were not supposed to be your friend; they were to put the fear of God in you as disciplinarians for stepping out of line.
Mr. Byers is dead and gone. And if you will, so are some very sound and practical school practices. Don't get me wrong; I had no affection for Mr. Byers. But as the trend moves to seemingly overpay them ($120,000 a year, really?) the collectively more enlightened they seem to become. Today educators principal seems to feel it is essential to tread lightly on student self-esteem.
Society got rid of corporal punishment in school a long time ago. I never thought it was a bad idea to allow principals to administer a little swat on the butt to keep a kid in line. John Bizilo, the former principal of Sam Houston Elementary School, can tell you. He called a fourth-grader into his principal's office in the 1950s for creating a classroom disturbance. It seems this kid, George, took a pen and penned black sideburns on his face to mock Elvis Presley, who was appearing in a nearby town. His antics disrupted the class. Three powerful swats on the fanny are all it took to keep George W. Bush from acting up again. Nor did George and Barbara come down and raise hell. They knew it would do "Dubya" some good.
There's also this true account of a Waterford school principal who was new to his school in the 1940s: "They began to take me for an easy mark. One boy, named George, weighing 180 pounds - the same as I weighed - was a constant pest, becoming more daring during each passing day. One day while I was reading an after-lunch serial story to the class, George kept making noises through a paper megaphone and shooting spit wads. After a second warning he made one more pass. I put the book down, went down the aisle taking George firmly in hand and removed him forceably from his seat, except that he hung onto the desk. The desk was ripped from the floor and George, the desk and I proceeded down the hall. We came back, put the desk in place and proceeded with the reading.
Consequently there were no more problems with any student for the rest of the year."
Principal Richard Moon later recounted: "George remembered me with a Christmas card for many years after he moved away."
Similar stories about Mr. Walter White abound. He'd set fannies on fire, and still maintain respect from those he disciplined. Mae Hensley, too, was beloved even though she dragged kids to school if they were playing hooky. You see, kids knew they were cared for despite the hardline approach.
Now that school officials aren't allowed to exact swift and certain justice in the classroom, is it any wonder that little Adam Troublemaker and Johnny Gangbanger are skilled at the art of demanding their rights whenever they're confronted for their misdeeds? When kids are allowed to cross the line (if indeed they know where the boundary lines are), is it any wonder that we find buildings tagged, joy rides in stolen cars, drugs being sold and boys twisting the wing off of a grounded seagull as happened in Turlock a few years ago?
Instead, in the social engineering world of today's public schools, we're expelling boys for pretending to form guns with their hands and engage in harmless pretend shooting like kids used to do in the days of Bonanza and Rifleman. (I wonder what would have happened to me today because when I was a kid I went around "arresting" classmates and reading them Miranda rights at recess to emulate Joe Friday from the TV series Dragnet.) One New Jersey school expelled a second-grader who only drew a stick figure holding a gun. And at a San Francisco high school in January 2011, senior Courtni Webb was sent home because she wrote a poem about the Newtown shooting in which she said "I know why he pulled the trigger." Our school system smacks of Orwellian world "thought police." I believe schools need to foster more critical thought and debate, especially when it comes to social issues and government policy, not accept a teacher's doctrine without examination. Besides, since when is opinion a reason for expulsion?
Now word comes that the social re-engineers also are dispensing with honors night for high achievers because it "isn't fair to the other students." Massachusetts Principal David Fabrizio of Ipswitch Middle School said honors night could be "devastating" to lower achieving students, claiming some kids just don't have a supportive home life. And we thought the whole notion behind celebrating achievement was a way to motivate the bottom students to raise themselves. Silly us.
Equalizing everything to the lowest common denominator does not seem a good environment for learning.
Mr. Byers may have been far from cool. But you know, I don't think it's any wonder that, as we've reached our new enlightened state of political correctness, we have kids feeling entitled to everything.
Our self-esteem was not always considered, but I can't recall a single time when some kid walked into his school with a gun to blow away their classmates.
How do you feel? Let Jeff know by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org