Friday, June 26
Thursday morning, the social studies teacher (let’s call him Mr. A) brought three students into the teachers’ office and took out his cane. He snapped off the broken edge, held it out, and hit the backside of the first student.
“Oh!” I cried out, my hands clenched above my head.
He turned to the second student, flipped open her workbook, and said, “Zero.” He lifted the cane and brought it down, twice. There was a loud thwack, and the girl jumped and gave a quiet yelp.
“Oh my God! Stop!” I said. I had squinched up my face and my stomach was tense.
The teachers shook their heads at me and smiled. The first two students were standing in the corner. Mr. A approached the last boy and hit him, hard.
“Stop! You shouldn’t do that.”
Ebinezer motioned at Mr. A, who took the child outside. I couldn’t see the boy, I just heard thwack, thwack through the open door. I thought of Jennifer, sitting next to me on the patio and asking if they cane in America. I told her no and asked her if it hurts, because the teachers said it doesn’t much. “Yes, it really does,” she said quietly. I thought of the students lined up in French class, ready for their daily cane. I thought of my kids in the play and my Environmentalism Day leaders, who are so great and whom I could never hurt. The knot in my stomach was growing, my throat was choking up, and before I knew it, I was crying.
“Oh no, don’t cry,” the other teachers said.
Mr. A walked back in with the boy as I was slumped over the desk with tears running down my face.
“I’m sorry, don’t cry,” he said.
“You shouldn’t do that,” I said hoarsely.
“I’m sorry, I won’t do it again.”
“But you will! As soon as I’m gone you will, and you shouldn’t.”
“Sister Robin, you are right and we will stop. Don’t cry,” said Mr. Caesar, the English teacher. He leaned over his desk toward me and looked into my eyes.
“I know I’m silly to cry like this,” I said, wiping away tears, careful not to smear my eyeliner. “I know you didn’t really hurt them that much. But I mean it. Caning doesn’t help the students, it only hurts them.”
“Yes, don’t worry Robin.”
“They’re such good kids, and they’re so well-behaved,” my voice rose. “They don’t need the cane, and it doesn’t help them learn.”
“We are sorry miss. We didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I’m okay, it’s not about me. It’s the kids.”
I pulled out my journal, composed myself, and started to scribble furiously. But I couldn’t concentrate. I set my pen down.
I walked over to Mr. A’s desk and started to ask him, “Do you ever think – ” when suddenly I was choking up again. “Do you ever think,” I said hoarsely, “of where caning comes from?”
He stared at me.
“It comes from slavery.” Fresh tears were running down my cheeks. “It comes from the cruel legacy of slavery. And you should reject that, not continue it.”
“Ahh,” said Mr. Caesar, rushing over. “So we are like the slave masters caning the slaves when we cane our students?” He looked at me brightly and blinked.
“I don’t think you’re like the slave masters, but that’s where caning comes from, and it’s cruel.” I rested my hands against Mr. A’s desk.
“I see, that is very interesting,” Mr. Caesar said. “Yes, but, it is different in our country. Where you come from, caning is unacceptable and illegal, but here, it is part of our culture. The government allows up to three strikes. We need strict discipline, or the students will not pay attention or do their work. We don’t have the support of their families. They don’t care about school. We ask the parents to come and talk to us and they don’t show up. And then the government blames us when the students fail.
“Just the other day, one of the students spat at a government official who had come to visit. We were all so embarrassed. We need to keep the students in line, and the only way they will do their work is if they are afraid.”
“I understand that it’s hard for you,” I sniffed. “And that’s tough the families don’t support you. I know they don’t give you enough resources. I know the classes are too big for you to always give them individual attention. When I have a French class of 30 kids, I can’t know all their names. For the play and with my Environmentalism Day leaders, I can get to know my 15 kids, and they want to participate and do their work. And you can’t always do that.
“But you want the students to want to do their work, not be afraid of you. The classroom should be a place of love and support. Learning should be something they look forward to. If you cane them, they’re not going to suddenly change or behave. You need to teach them why what they did was wrong, and then support them and help them do right. I understand the cane doesn’t really hurt them that much, but there are better ways of disciplining them.”
I told them about giving them detention, timeout, extra lines, even dunce caps; writing students’ names on the board; having them write letters of explanation; and holding meetings to follow up.
“You need to ask students what’s wrong and find out what’s going on in their home lives,” I said. “Because they’re not bad kids, and there’s probably a reason they’re acting out. Like Justice, he wasn’t in school for two days, so we asked him what was going on and it turned out his Dad was sick.”
“Those are very good ideas, and we will try them out,” said Mr. Caesar.
“Yes, we will do that next time,” agreed Mr. A.
“You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”
“No, we will.”
This was way too easy. “Did I really just change your mind?”
“Yes, I see what you mean. There are other ways of discipline. We need to help and encourage the students. They should love us, not fear us.”
“Yes, exactly,” I beamed. I looked between Mr. Caesar and Mr. A. “If you want to go back to caning, I suppose I can’t stop you, even though I disagree. But I’d appreciate it if you would try out these other ways.”
“Yes, yes, we will try.”
“Great! Let me know how it goes.”
“I hope I don’t seem like an outsider imposing my views and saying my way is right and yours is wrong, without understanding your culture.”
“No, I am learning a lot from you,” said Mr. Caesar. “I like this exchange of ideas.”
“Good! I do too.” I sat back at my desk and took out my journal.
Mr. Caesar headed out to class and said, “I look forward to discussing this with you more.”