As a teacher and later as a school administrator I often had the onerous task of judging a student’s innocence or guilt in a particular situation. Once culpability was clearly established I then had to decide what form of discipline was most appropriate. It was the most difficult aspect of my otherwise delightful career. Judging another person regardless of the situation is not something to be taken lightly by any of us and yet there are times when we must do so to maintain a semblance of order in a household, a classroom or a society. Determining how to react to an individual who has clearly done something wrong is never to be done rashly or without great consideration of the consequences of our decisions.
When I was a child it was not uncommon for corporal punishment to be used both in homes and schools. It was not something that I experienced from either my mother or my father except for one instance when I admittedly and knowingly challenged my father who then gave me a swift swat on my backside. It was more of a reminder that when he asked me to do stop doing something that I knew was wrong, I needed to respectfully cease my bad behavior. I instantly got his point and never again felt audacious enough to taunt anyone the way I had done with him. From that point forward neither of my parents ever laid a hand on me. Instead they guided me by example and with words.
Early in my teaching career the paddle was still in use in schools. I mostly took care of my students’ discipline inside the confines of my classroom but now and again something happened that I had to report to the principal. On those occasions I sometimes found myself having to mete out justice with a paddle as decided by school administrator. It was an oppressive task that I never felt comfortable doing. My strokes were so half-hearted that my students had to force themselves not to laugh. I’d talk with them later and somehow we quietly agreed not to do anything that would land us in the court of school justice again. I became known as one of those teachers who had control of my classroom without needing the assistance of the folks in the office.
I was thrilled when corporal punishment was banned from schools. I may be in the minority on that issue but I never felt that spanking other people’s children did anything to improve their behavior or the environment of the school. Most of the time the worst rule breakers were already being brutalized at home and knew little about kindness and the effects of their actions on others. It was more often than not far more effective to counsel them and require them to think about the consequences of what they had done. I held them accountable without responding with the kind of physical abuse to which they had become immune.
Still, there were always behaviors that could not be ignored nor simply accepted. Those were the toughest situations when the young people needed to face the consequences of hurting others with violence or theft or bringing drugs into the school. Such situations required the wisdom of Solomon from mere mortals like me who never quite knew whether or not the punishments were both fair and effective.
These days we argue amongst ourselves about how to judge and decree punishments for the most criminal actions around us. We no longer draw and quarter the guilty nor do we display their heads on pikes until they rot, but we can’t seem to agree how how much justice is too much, and how much is not enough. The hardliners believe that there are no grey areas in meting out fair play while others prefer to err on the side of reformation rather than retribution. Somehow we have yet to find the sweet spot that leads to equitable punishment, but also creates positive changes in behavior. Perhaps we never will be able to control the bad elements of our society as effectively as we might wish.
It is a sad truth that we will always have violent and evil people in our midst. My early teaching experience tells me that whipping children early in their lives does not seem to work any better than counseling them in the ways of controlling their unlawful urges. We can make a difference in some cases, but the frustrating truth is that many people among us are so damaged that nothing we do seems to work to make them better. Sometimes holding them accountable boils down to removing them from our midst. The conundrum that we face is in knowing how to decide who must be locked away and how to effectively treat them once they are imprisoned.
We have innocents who are rotting in prison cells and offenders who get away with their crimes. Our justice system is not always blind nor is it always fair, but it’s what we have and in most cases in the United States we do our best to get it right just as most families and schools also do. Our challenge is to be certain that nobody is above the law while also realizing that no one group should be unduly persecuted by the law. We humans still have a way to go in perfecting the way we deal with problematic behavior. We walk the tightrope of justice everyday and hope that our decisions will have the effect of bringing positive change. It’s a delicate and angst ridden balancing act.