Outsmarting the swat took time, and a wise teacher

When it comes to corporal punishment, you could call Larry Slessler the master of swat.

No, he is not a proponent of the paddle. Rather, he spent his Medford childhood on the receiving end of paddles and yardsticks employed to gain his scholarly attention.

He will tell you the swats smarted, but didn't make him any smarter.

"In grade school, I wasn't a very good student," says the Medford resident. "I never did pass penmanship. We had those ink pens where you dipped the point in an ink holder.

"I always sweated getting past the next grade," he adds. "I got quite a few 'E's" along with the swats."

Schools in his day — he is 73 — used the grade "E" between "D" and "F." The grade did not stand for excellent.

"In junior high I got a little better and was better still in high school," he allows. "In grade school, there seemed to be a lot of order in the learning. I did better as we went into more intellectual stuff."

Fact is, he has a master's degree in education and history, serving as a teacher in his younger years. His wife is a local teacher. He is also a former Air Force captain who was awarded a Bronze Star in Vietnam.

His tutelage took him through Washington Elementary School, McLoughlin Junior High School and Medford Senior High School, where he graduated in 1957.

The subject of paddles surfaced after high school classmate Terry Miller recently presented him with the paddle Terry once held as sergeant of arms in their high school letterman's club. Larry doesn't recall his old buddy ever wielding the paddle. The two lettered in football.

Larry refers to the old paddle as a "visceral reminder of a different era."

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted I was paddled at Kerby Elementary School back in the early 1960s after fighting with another urchin. In my defense, he was a larger, older kid who had been bullying me for weeks and I finally had had enough.

But let's get back to the punishment meted out to our man Larry, who, I must also disclose, is a friend of mine. We'll leave out the educators' names to protect the guilty.

Consider the Washington grade school principal who routinely marched wrongdoers into the boys bathroom. They were instructed to bend over and grab a water pipe running horizontally about 3 feet off the floor, Larry remembers.

"On the day of my memory, I was hit especially hard," he recalls. "When the wood contacted my behind, I jerked in reaction. The problem was I did not let go of the pipe, pulling it from the wall and flooding the bathroom. I was a marked man/boy until moving on to junior high."

Nor has he forgotten the two women grade-school teachers who enthusiastically employed yardsticks.

"They would have you stick out your hand and crack your hand," he says. "I had one who hit your palms but another did the knuckles. With the knuckles, she didn't hit quite as hard but it smarted more."

In junior high school, a teacher who was a veteran as well as coach subscribed to the mind-set that sparing the rod spoiled the child.

"This teacher particularly galled me because when he left the room he would put one of his pets in charge to take down the names of the bad people," he says. "The bad people's friends never got on the list.

"It went against my sense of fair play — I knew it was an uneven playing field."

The teacher would then march the misbehaver up to the front of the class for swats. Spankable infractions included talking in class, uncompleted homework or other felonious behavior.

However, his fifth-grade teacher at Washington took a totally different tack.

"She knew that swats weren't all that effective on me," he recalls. "She also knew that keeping me in class after school — cleaning the chalkboard and other chores — was way worse punishment than me getting a big whack and getting out of there."

And he remembers one particular day when he ran afoul of the law and reported for duty.

"I went in grumbling to myself but when I get there I see probably the best girl in my class," he says. "She was the best behaved, just a great student."

Yet there she was, doing the same job as Larry the miscreant.

"So I asked her what she did wrong," he says. "She told me, 'Nothing. I get to stay after school and help the teacher.'

"So here is the best girl in the class and the biggest loser in the class both doing the same job for this teacher," he says. "One of us saw it as punishment, the other as a reward."

It was truly a Tom Sawyer moment.

"I ended up behaving better for that teacher because I didn't want to stay after school," Larry says. "She was a very smart teacher."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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