Multiple choice: Forgive, forget, both of the above, neither of the above / by Alan Strathman

I have been thinking, almost constantly, about the issues of education and (corporal) punishment. These concepts are inextricably linked here.  As I have said I often see children hit with rulers and meter sticks, and slapped on their arms, hands, or backs .  One of my jobs is to work with teachers on bringing positive behavior management into my school.  The Ministry of Education is working on a plan to designate some schools as child-friendly, where no corporal punishment would be administered.  Note,  that none of the hitting I see every day is considered corporal punishment--it's classroom management.

Despite what I see at my school there is a sense that change is ahead..  The Ministry of Education has created rules for the administering of corporal punishment: One person at each school must be designated as the person to deliver corporal punishment (usually the principal); it must be given with a strap made of leather, no more than 5 inches in length; students may only be hit on the palms;  there is (I think)  a limit to the number of strokes.

My friend Doug and I have Creole language tutoring twice a week. Our tutor used to be the principal at my school.  He is a very successful and prominent figure in my community.  He has worked in education, is a leader in community development, and currently works on environmental issues. He is very clearly part of the solution. When the three of us get together he wants to hear how things are going, particularly because of his background in education.  Doug and I have mentioned our concerns about punishment in the schools.

Last week he told us that when he was a child he lived with an aunt who beat him terribly.  He has scars. His aunt was doing it, ostensibly, so that he would learn what he was supposed to learn. That continued until he was big enough that one time when she went to hit him he held her arm and said no more. He left his aunt's at that point, at age 14. When he was done telling us his story he wondered aloud whether, given his success in life, the beatings were justifiable. Though he did not say yes or no, it is clear he still has a lot of anger and resentment. 

This morning I was replying to an email from my friend Larry, who in telling me a bit about his religious upbringing reminded me of my own.  And first let me say that it does not compare to the experience of my tutor.   When I was growing up in Windsor, I went to hebrew school after elementary school a few days each and then again every Sunday morning. I was not a well-behaved child (I know, ironic) and eventually my parents took me out of school.  Nonetheless, I still had to be taught what I needed to know for my bar mitzvah. 

It was decided (Mistakes were made...) that after school every day I would have individual bar mitzvah tutoring with Rabbi Dubitzky. The rabbi was in his 80s (or 90s or 100s, it seemed to this 12 year old).  His wife had passed away years before.  He lived in a house that was very dark, with all the furniture covered in plastic, and it had that, forgive me, old person smell. And every single day he would berate me for my lack of progress and poor performance so relentlessly that I would cry. No physical contact, but I would leave his house every day after having had a very traumatic experience. Five days a week.  It was long ago, still in that era when after he made me cry he tried to make me feel better with a lifesaver.

Somewhere along the way, it was decided (Mwm...) that we would move to the suburbs of Chicago.  I moved in July 1976 and my bar mitzvah was that November. Bar mitzvahs in my large, orthodox synagogue were very important.  There was a large Jewish population and my parents were prominent citizens so the place was packed. Doing your bar mitzvah means having to read from the torah.  But reading from the torah sounds like singing because there are marks to indicate how words are to be said.  So, basically one has to sing this really long song (two actually), in Hebrew, with the right melody. It was said that one could tell how well a boy was doing by watching the cantor.  If a boy was doing well the cantor would be standing, smiling, with his eyes closed, enjoying what he was hearing.  If a boy was not doing well, had not learned and practiced enough, could not remember the tune or the words, the cantor would be frowning, looking down, as if each word was wounding. 

I was in a tight spot: We moved in July, effectively ending my bar mitzvah training five months early.  Rabbi Dubitzky made a cassette tape of my part of the torah being sung correctly and I took that with me. Fortunately, I am good under pressure, and the cantor was effusive in his praise when the service was over.  Many people told me later that it was a shame that I could not see the way the cantor was smiling and enjoying the service.

So, do I think my good performance justified months of trauma? Does my tutor think his success justifies the beatings he was given? Will the students in my classes think that experiencing corporal punishment helped them succeed in life?  Would I, or he, or they have been as successful without this treatment? 

The empiricist in me thinks these are dumb questions because, of course, we can't know if we would have done just as well without the trauma.  The pacifist in me thinks that even if the trauma had beneficial effects it is inappropriate to treat children that way. And the humanist in me wishes I had been given a chance to decide for myself.  I know what I would have decided. And I suspect my tutor would agree.