That I was a discipline problem in school shouldn’t have surprised my parents. Mama had to give up her baby sitting jobs when I was two after I hit a kid on the head with my plastic hoe and bit the rest of them. When I was four, I got kicked out of swimming lessons on the first day.
Mrs. Terry wrote my name on the board my first day of kindergarten. When I told my parents, they were proud. Proud until I told them that it wasn’t a reward; that it meant that I couldn’t stop talking. That was 1980, the first year I knew that years were marked by numbers, and that it wasn’t appropriate to talk non-stop.
In those days, our teachers didn’t need permission to paddle. They only needed a witness. I learned this in first grade when I pulled the chair out from under A W. Ms. Anderson was Ms. Yonner’s witness. Sometimes, the whole class was witness.
Second grade was the year I learned to fight on the playground. Ms. Cook was the primary school principal. After several meetings I was no longer afraid of her, and my behavior went down from there.
It was the elementary school principal—Mr. Gardner—who we feared. Electric paddles, paddles with holes, paddles with rusty nails; these were waiting for boys like me. When I brought a pocket knife to school and opened it in the restroom, I had to go see Mr. Gardner. But he didn’t call the FBI, or even spank me with his electric paddle. He told me to keep the knife in my pocket. He seriously questioned me the time I brought razor blades to school, especially when I told him that I found them “down by the creek.” He amazed me with his brilliance when he replied that they weren’t rusty, and especially when he told me that I had stolen them out of J S’s daddy’s pickup during cub scouts. Mr. Gardner kept the razor blades, but still didn’t use the bloody paddles.
I saw Mr. Gardner again in fourth grade when my friend J T and I fought on the playground. Since I punched J in the very spot where he had a loose tooth, there was blood, so the teacher took us straight to the office. Mr. Gardner made us apologize to each other and lectured us on fighting with friends.
Fifth grade was the year when parents called the school to request that their children not be allowed to play with me.
In sixth grade a new teacher came to Joshua Intermediate in mid-year. It was a great honor to welcome Mr. Mathis. To show support, each teacher was to pick a few of their best students for the new class. The best! But the teachers didn’t stick to the plan, and the result was the class from hell. Mr. Mathis stayed about three weeks, and then never showed up again. We had a substitute for the rest of the year. I hope that God richly rewards that woman. We sure did.
At middle school, we were thrust into dark, damp, concrete halls full of full-blown, fully grown thugs, and I took a break from being the bad kid. My fights consisted mostly of getting beat up, so I kept my head down in my books to keep it from getting punched.
High school is when I reached the height of my being an insecure jerk, until college, and the trouble that I caused my teachers and classmates would fill a book. Whether it was spontaneous badness– turning my trumpet mute into a flamethrower during band class or shorting out electrical outlets with foil–or my planned out, long-term projects of roguery, I was always up to no good. Those were the years when teachers smoked at school, principals walked the halls with big sticks, and students got paddled hard enough to turn blue, which I did regularly, right through my senior year. Especially when one sweet teacher told me to come to after school detention and I said, “Like hell.”
I could give more examples, but there’s no need. To my teachers and classmates who I haven’t apologized to in person, please accept this apology. Also, you’ll be glad to know that I’m not in prison, nor am I a lonely bachelor as one girl predicted. And although I’m not any more likeable than I was then, and my wife deserves your pity, I have learned not to bite or hit people with garden tools.