228. A Crucible

I’m proud of, or at least comfortable with, most of the important decisions I’ve made so far. Most of the mistakes I’ve made were forgivable; I’ve had several factors to balance, and I’ve tried to do what seemed right after I’d considered all the factors.
But I made a decision in 1974 that I deeply regret. I was a second grade teacher in an open space school in New York. One of the members of our team of four teachers had some ideas about teaching that really bothered me, but one of her ideas, and her related actions, upset me quite a bit. She believed that children who misbehaved should be spanked. It was against the law for a teacher to hit a child for any other reason than self-defense, but she told me that she thought it was a dumb law – one of those laws “made to be broken.”
A few times during that year, she proudly told me that she had spanked a child. I never saw her do it, but other teachers assured me that she wasn’t kidding. They spoke with embarrassment, but if they felt the moral indignation I felt, I didn’t notice it. They seemed to see it as this teacher’s “thing,” and though they didn’t agree with spanking, they didn’t express any intention to do anything about it.
After several months of this, two parents made an appointment to speak with the principal and the second grade teachers. They had sent a letter accusing this teacher of spanking children. I spoke with the principal privately and told her what I’d heard about the spanking. The principal, who had already branded me as a trouble-maker, warned me not to say anything about what I’d heard. Telling my “hearsay stories,” she said, would be “unprofessional.”
I had a family to support, and I wanted to support my family by teaching young children. I was worried that I would lose my job, and maybe ruin my chance to ever get another job, if I did what I thought was right. And so I kept quiet as the parents made their accusations, though a voice inside me was screaming. When one of the parents asked me whether I knew anything about the alleged spanking, I said I didn’t. But I didn’t add what I had heard.
Perhaps some of you are shocked by my complicity in this abuse of children. Perhaps some of you think I’m making too much of it. And maybe there are even some of you who think children should be spanked, law or no law. But Billy and Michael, if you’re reading this, and you remember this issue from second grade, please forgive me for failing you. And those of you who face similar situations, please know that the effects of some decisions can stay with you.

Comments are closed.