The Spanking House
By Jennie Burke
I arrived in South Texas as a newlywed and a military bride. My new school, a middle school, was a concrete big box on a vast expanse of dry dust and tumbleweed. My previous jobs were in high schools, but 6th grade was the only gig going in this small Texas town. I knew very little about 11 and 12-year olds. I knew even less about small children – I couldn’t imagine having my own one day.
Texas teaching in the late 90’s was prescribed towards achievement on the standardized state test. As a shameless pleaser, I squashed my creativity to teach the daily script. I arrived at school with the sunrise to write clear objectives on the front board and practice my lines. Janis, the Sheriff/Principal, could arrive in the doorway unannounced at any time for a surprise observation.
Janis was tall and handsome, with thick hands, and nubby nails chewed to the quick. Her silver wedding ring had a veiny, oval, turquoise stone. She had loose, sandy curls and spoke in a long drawl. Her Tourette’s tic, a fierce-fisted beat to the center of her chest, did not inconvenience her. If anything, it made her bolder. Who dared to stare? Not me.
Weekly Wednesday faculty meetings in the media center began with the click of a wall clock. Janis stood in silence at the check-out desk, arms dangling at her sides, and watched for the long, thin, red second arm to shift to 7 AM. At 6:59, harried teachers who had misjudged traffic ran to their seats, sloshing coffee, throwing duffels into chairs, gasping for breath. We sympathized wide-eyed and tight-lipped with anyone who snuck in late, head dropped low in shame. There would be a note in their mailbox by day’s end: See Me. Janis.
I flushed in prickly sweat when I discovered a See Me in my mailbox during my planning period one hot and dusty October Wednesday. I had not been late; she had not been to observe me. I wracked my brain trying to think of what I could have possibly done wrong. When I tapped the wired-glass window on Janis’ open door at the end of the day, she greeted me with a warm hello. She only wanted to introduce herself, she said. (Teachers in the district were interviewed and hired by the school board, not the principal. We had not yet formally met.)
I stood ramrod straight before her, like a soldier reporting to a general, when something hanging on the wall behind her desk caught my eye: a long, rectangular, varnished, wooden paddle.
I tried to concentrate on her words.
“Jennie, we are SO happy you’re here. I want you to feel right at home.” She beat her chest.
I comforted myself by concentrating on her tic, instead of the paddle. I snapped my own gaze to attention. I looked her right in the eye, suddenly terrified.
“Thank you, Janis. Thank you for having me. I really do feel right at home.”
My father spanked me as a child. I did not view this as abuse, because abuse, I thought, resulted in visible consequence: a bruise, a cast – something more than tears. The only pain to remember, forty years later, is the fear I endured before a spanking, and the flood of shame I felt afterwards. Spanking, in the mind of the aggressor, is acceptable – but I can’t think of any child who would rationalize the act. Adults are destigmatized to spanking, so we don’t name it “abuse.”
But what if I said: “I am writing an essay about how my father spanked me.”
But what if I said: “I am writing an essay about how my father hit me.”
Which one is true? You cannot spank a child without hitting a child, and I am sorry to write these words, and I’m sorry, Dad, for whatever problem inside of you could only be solved by chasing and hitting a little girl. You built me a treehouse. We sang “Pinball Wizard” and “Hey Jude” in duet. We drank beers just the two of us one night at the ballpark, and we had a great time.
But I can’t unfeel, unknow, what it was like to be chased and hit.
My dad died, but what he did, won’t.
I hear the sound; a high-pitched rub, like chalk momentarily misaligned on a blackboard -- his chair against the linoleum. His thick hands push back against the yellow, Formica dinner table. His wedding ring gleams as he balls his hand into a fist. I hop down from my chair. I run through the family room, then take a hard right towards the steps. My mother watches from the table. My siblings are too young to object. Maybe, like me, they think this is normal family life.
I scramble up the stairs, skipping steps, using the railing to fling myself higher. Dad trips over his clumsy feet, his fingers grazing my heels as he braces his fall. I’m just beyond his reach as he chases me down the short landing at the top of the stairs. There’s a warm glow beyond my open bedroom door. I fly. Dad spits on his hands Ptat! Ptat! and rubs them together furiously, like blocks of sandpaper. A warning: it’s coming.
I slam my bedroom door closed, but before I can spin the brass lock, he forces his way in and wedges half his body between the door and the frame. I run for a corner. He grabs me, and drags me over to my twin bed with the thin, ribbed, pale blue Sears coverlet. He throws me face down across his lap and smacks my bottom twice. Hard.
It was a learned behavior, this. Because who would learn to hit without being taught?
Mike stands over the kitchen sink, sweating through a dirty white t-shirt, green canvas flight coveralls unzipped, long sleeves tied in a knot around his waist. He smells of oil, jet fuel, and sweat. He has absorbed, and radiates, Texas heat. He offers a half sandwich as I walk through the door. I set my backpack down.
“What’s up?” he asks, mouth full. He swigs Pepsi from a two-liter bottle. “How was your day?”
“My principal has a paddle behind her desk. Like, for hitting. I don’t get that.”
“Yeah, they can hit kids here,” he says, matter of fact. He stuffs the rest of the sandwich in his mouth, then brushes his hands softly.
“That’s not true,” I say. “That’s against the law.”
“Don’t believe me then,” he shrugs. “The parents sign a waiver. Kids can get spanked instead of detention if they mess up.”
“But who would do that?” I ask. “No teacher or parent would agree to that.” I imagined a parent signing a consent. I imagined Janis, taking a paddle down from behind her desk. I imagined a wide-eyed child, assuming the position, thinking of the adults that fed her to the wolf. Thinking of every adult who let her down.
After Texas, Mike took three-year orders in Midcoast Maine. I ended up in another middle school, this one in a rural district that pulled from five towns. Some students were children of migrant workers. Some were the children of professors, or military folks, or steel workers. Some had Allen’s Coffee Brandy coursing through their veins since the womb.
Our principal, Bette, was a dreamer. Within our school of 600 students, she created 6 mini-schools, called houses. Each house had four teachers. The house planning period was often my only adult interaction, since I had no family nearby, and Mike was deployed overseas.
Lisa, the science teacher, was hyper-organized, clever, and purposeful. Everything in her room was labeled and highlighted. Every interaction was well-documented. Peggy, the math teacher, was also an artist. Posters of Albert Einstein and The Beatles adorned her classroom walls, along with a few of her weavings. Spider plant tendrils hung from pots in macramé ropes near the windows. Bill, our social studies teacher, did not decorate his room – instead, he housed a massive collection of snacks, enough to feed every child in the building twice a day.
Bill and I called Peggy and Lisa "Laverne and Shirley." On the rare occasions we brought students in for behavior, Lisa took the role of firm disciplinarian, while Peggy served as a compassionate ally. Together they modeled the balance of thoughtful parenting.
“Now Chris, Mrs. Rioux in P.E. says you are being disruptive. She has asked you three days in a row to pipe down,” Lisa began. Then Peggy would chime in.
“Of course not everyone likes P.E…” she said, then Lisa added:
“But we must keep a high standard in The Red House. Mrs. Rioux should be allowed to teach, and your classmates want to learn, and you are getting in the way of this.”
“But maybe something is happening that we don’t know about?” Peggy offered. “You don’t talk out of turn in math class.”
Come to find out an impending divorce was brewing at home. Chris was relieved to have his secret known. He kept it together in P.E., Mrs. Rioux was satisfied; kickball went on, homework was completed, lobsters were pulled from the traps, deer were culled in the fields, the world spun on peaceful, and that crumbling, old, three-story brick schoolhouse stayed my nirvana. No children were paddled in Maine. We never even raised our voices.
For three years I observed Peggy, Bill and Lisa as teachers and parents. I was learning to build my own house and teach my own children. My house, if I had children one day, would follow the ethos of Laverne and Shirley.
I found out I was pregnant a few months before we left Maine for another duty station, this time to North Florida. Alone in a suburban rancher, unpacking, nesting for baby, I missed the guidance of my once-mentors, now-friends. Meanwhile, my own mother was excited for the arrival of her first grandchild. As my due date approached, she asked when she could come and stay.
“Mom, the baby could be two weeks late…it’s silly for you to come, only to wait and wait.” I said over the phone. I didn’t understand her questioning.
Finally after weeks of going around and around about when she should come, she shared her concern: her friends were attending the births of their grandchildren. She had hoped I would invite her to be in the delivery room too.
“Dad and I could just come stay. That way I would be with you when the baby comes,” she offered.
I thought of my mother, gentle and sweet, preparing homemade meals in my kitchen in the days before I gave birth. I imagined her holding my hand or pressing her cool cheek to mine as I labored within the concrete walls of a military hospital.
Then I imagined my parents’ arrival in my driveway; Dad exiting the driver’s side, describing traffic on 95, his frenzied dog pulling on a leash, cigar in his hand. His needs: Fox News or golf on the TV, a driving range, Mike’s attention, eggs for breakfast. I’d wake up to half-tumblers of scotch on my coffee table, or left in my kitchen sink. There would be no escape, and I was not brave enough to ask my mother to come alone. I knew there would be a consequence if I said that I only wanted her. It was easier to lie.
“Mom, I just want to be with Mike before the baby comes. This is the last time it will be just the two of us. Please don’t be mad.”
My mentors had emboldened me to trust myself; to choose attainable outcomes and implement steps to achieve them. I will never be afraid in my own house.
Maggie, three, perches on a booster at the supper table. Her two-year-old sister commands the highchair, pinching macaroni between thumb and forefinger. I sit beside her, nursing an infant from the crook of one arm, crust of French bread in my free hand. I’m leaking. I’m a mess. I’m exhausted. I am entirely effective. I know myself, and I know what I am doing.
Maggie clambers down from the booster, balancing, then pulls full-body against her father’s hand.
“Daddy I’m done. Chase me!”
“Okay, you go first,” he says. She darts for the stairs, wobbly on land legs after 20 minutes in the booster.
She thumps the steps slowly, one at a time. I listen.
“Daaaaaadddy! Come chaaaaase me,” she sings.
“I’m comminng,” he mimics her song.
Mike stabs salad with his fork. He plucks a noodle from the highchair tray and drops it between the toddler’s lips. She nods and gulps like a fledgling bird. Maggie shouts down between the rails of the second-floor landing.
“Daddy! You comin’?”
“I am! Better look out!”
He takes my empty glass and refills my water. He brushes the stray breadcrumbs I dropped on the sucking baby’s soft head.
Upstairs, our daughter slams her bedroom door, hard. The kitchen windows rattle in their frames. She cackles in delight, anticipating the thrill of happy pursuit. She is writing a scene in her memory, while I write one in mine. She does not know she speaks for me.
“I’m safe and you can’t get me!”
Her laughter reminds me of a peal of church bells, echoing against itself, flooding a green valley, covering over everything, long after the last notes have been rung.
Jennie Burke is a Nonfiction writer interested in children, teaching, addiction and social justice. Her work has appeared in Voices on Addiction in The Rumpus, The Brevity Blog, The Huffington Post, The Independent and The New York Times. She is a certified 6-12 English teacher, and has an MFA from Goucher College. Jennie lives in Baltimore with her family. Connect with her on Twitter @jennieburke or at www.jennieburke.com