“Education is what survives when what has been learned is forgotten.” —B.F. Skinner
“You boys in the last row,” Mrs. Page announced one memorable afternoon near semester’s end at South Ward Elementary. “Tommy, Rodney, Joey, Leon. Report to Mr. Whitaker’s office when class is over.”
Public school curriculum 50-plus-years ago in Mount Pleasant equipped us with the sciences, history, math, English and other “book learning.”
A dozen years of showing up, applying ourselves and presto—we were graduated into the real world.
What about the psychology we would need in the real world, however? Training for business negotiation, raising children, and knowing what to do with life’s frequent curve balls?
Enter the educators: teachers and principals. Individuals who skillfully blended lessons-in-life training with the educational curriculum.
I remember those whose teaching and training made a difference at South Ward Elementary. I also remember that some of us required a little bit of special training, often the result of mischievousness. Teachers like Mrs. Page, Mrs. Beck, Mrs. Edwards, or Mr. Mattingly faithfully administered the book learning, but our deviations from the curriculum landed a few of us in the principal’s office for some of that special training.
Hardin Whitaker was a tall man, especially viewed from the perspective of a grade schooler. His office was right in the middle of the building, near the front door, the restrooms and water fountains, likely the result of astute planning. Most mischievousness was perpetrated near the restrooms and water fountains.
Our special training was not free, we earned it fair and square for our mischievousness in general: activities like, but not limited to, spit-wad practice when the teacher’s back was turned.
Bragging rights for personal achievement was derived from being part of a “group mischievousness,” then escaping the consequences when guilty parties were singled out. So, when Mrs. Page said, “Boys, I’ve told you for the last time…,” we all held our breath to see who was busted.
Mrs. Page’s crafty postponing of the inevitable compounded the anxiety and gave us more time to contemplate the fate that awaited us. Special training introduction to psychology 101.
“Why are you here, fellows,” Mr. Whitaker asked. He was taller than ever at that particular moment in time.
“I don’t know. Got me. Nothing. Wasn’t my fault,” echoed in a cacophony.
“Boys, you know why,” he recited while slowly removing his paddle from the desk drawer for us to see. The board of education. Psychology 101, part two.
“Every one of you knows better,” he added. “You are smart young men, too smart to have behaved badly enough to be here.” Psychology 101, part three.
“Each of you is capable of better behavior. I’m certain your parents would not be proud of you right now.”
This was Psychology 101, grand slam. My parents and I had an agreement. They agreed to it, but I didn’t get a vote. One lick at home for every lick at school. No questions asked—the teacher was always right.
Talking in unison on our part was now replaced with group head bobbing up and down … also in unison.
Rather than the anticipated, “Bend over and grab your ankles,” Mr. Whitaker then slapped the palm of his hand with the paddle resulting in a loud pop. Psychology 101, lesson concluded.
“You boys think that if I let you go, you could go back to Mrs. Page’s class and behave?”
Heads were still bobbing up and down in unison.
Quietly and orderly, we left the principal’s office on a warm spring afternoon long ago having received “special training,” the realization for which would be many years in coming, but never forgotten.