To the Tune of a Hickory Stick
Wed, 03/30/2022 - 2:46pm admin
Those of us old enough to remember the song “School Days,” with the words “readin’ and ritin’ and ‘rithmatic,” will recall the lyrics also include “hickory stick,” which is a metaphor for classroom corporal punishment. Principals had paddles, with and without holes. My Catholic friends tell tales of nuns wielding rulers to the knuckles of misbehaving students. But in the 1950s, at the old two-room school in Montier, the disciplinary tool was Mr. Shockley’s belt.
Wilbert and Margaret Shockley, husband and wife schoolteachers, whom I have previously written about, taught for forty years in the Birch Tree and Mountain View school systems. Their personal and professional reputation is of the highest echelon. I rank them as two of my best and most influential teachers, and I am not alone in my view of the Shockleys. I frequently see them praised on social media, and I even received a handwritten note from a sitting governor and former student of theirs thanking me for an article I had written about them.
Nevertheless, they didn’t suffer bad behavior in their classrooms. Corporal punishment, or whippings as we called them, from Mr. and Mrs. Shockley weren’t a regular occurrence, but did happen, and a couple incidents standout in my memory. Not for me, personally—I came close a couple times—but that’s another story.
In the fourth-grade, I saw Mrs. Shockley administer a dandy to a big-for-his-age third-grader, who had repeatedly broken a rule—I think it was bringing tobacco to school. Initially, she simply swatted him a couple times across his backside with a ruler and sent him outside for recess with the rest of the students. There, he made the mistake of bragging that the punishment didn’t hurt. A tattletale classmate heard this and scurried inside and told Mrs. Shockley.
After recess, with all the students in their seats, she confronted the boy about his comment, and instructed another student to go to the next room to get Mr. Shockley’s belt. With the belt in hand, she instructed the miscreant to bend over his desk and proceeded to use the belt like it was a bullwhip. With each lick (about 3) across his rear, the boy jumped and yelped. Then she said, “Now, don’t you ever say my whippings don’t hurt.”
In today’s world, a belt whipping might well be considered “cruel and unusual punishment” and probably would result in litigation, but in those days at Montier it did not offend the contemporary community standards.
Fifty years later, I interviewed Mrs. Shockley for a magazine article and brought up the incident. She said, “Oh, I can’t believe I did that.” I assured her the day was indelibly imprinted on the minds of every boy in the class. It had the collateral effect of hanging a dead coyote on a fence as a warning to the rest of the pack.
With her recollection seemingly refreshed, she said, referring to the boy, “You know, he grew up to be big as a house, and every time he sees me, he hugs me and tells me he loves me.” I’m not surprised, because all the boys and girls loved Mrs. Shockley, but when her eyes narrowed into a penetrating stare, it was time to tread lightly and alter one’s behavior.
Concerning punishment, Mr. Shockley employed a “mark system.” If a student committed some infraction, such as passing notes, he would put a pencil mark by the student’s name on a piece of paper. If a student got five marks in one week, he or she would get a whipping with his belt. Receiving a mark generally amounted to a mild reprimand, and sometimes it was his way of teasing a student: “You’ll get marks for that,” he would threaten, with mock ire.
To my knowledge, the only whippings Mr. Shockley ever administered at the Montier school were to a somewhat unlikely fifth-grader named Andrew Arthur Griffin, III, who seemed determined to try his patience.
My stepfather, who trained the heavyweight boxing champion of the Navy in World War II, often said, “If you want a boy to be a fighter, name him Egbert or Cogbert.” Such was not the case with Andrew Arthur Griffin, III. He was not a fighter, but with a moniker like his, fitting in with schoolmates in the rural Ozarks would take a modicum of effort. Maybe he tried, but it was an awkward effort, if he did.
Nevertheless, a weird acceptance of Artie, as he came to be known, gradually occurred. He was a reasonably handsome lad of average height and weight for his age, but he quickly gained a reputation for exaggeration and drawing attention to himself. Most of us thought he was a windy, but an oddly fascinating character.
He moved to Montier from a more urban area, and his speech pattern had the implied superiority of a nobleman speaking to peasants. In retrospect, I think of him as a younger version of Chatsworth Osborn, Jr., the affected rich guy from the “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” series on TV from 1959-1963.
In spite of Artie’s hifalutin demeanor, there was no objective indication of vast family wealth. As an only child, he lived with his parents in the apartment above Silas Nicholson’s vacant store building in Old Montier, a couple hundred yards from the school. His father repaired pinball machines and worked on electric scoreboards.
Artie always seemed to be in trouble at school and regularly accumulated marks. Most kids in Mr. Shockley’s class who had four marks would be careful—not Artie. He would get that fifth mark and the corresponding whipping. Perhaps, it was another way to get attention.
Artie had a female cousin, a well-behaved, good student in the grade ahead of him who must have cringed over his behavior. But what she didn’t know at the time was whenever Artie got a whipping, he would tell his mother that his cousin had got another whipping. These lies eventually caught up with him. One day Artie’s mom said to her sister, “Isn’t it a shame your daughter gets all these whippings.” Flabbergasted, the sister told Artie’s mom that it was Artie and not her daughter who got the whippings.
Artie’s cousin recently reminded of another incident that put Artie under the lash. Artie brought a peashooter to school, and when Mr. Shockley had his back turned to the class, Artie would shoot him with a pea. It didn’t take long for Mr. Shockley to catch him. The cousin said, “He dropped his bag of peas, and Mr. Shockley used his belt on him. Every time he picked one up, he got a lick.”
I suppose most Montier School alums turned out okay. Certainly, students of the Shockleys became parents, teachers, doctors, and even some lawyers. In case you are wondering, Artie did not become a lawyer, but he did work for a traveling carnival for a while.