I had mixed feelings about going to my 50th grade school reunion. I wanted to see my classmates but wasn’t crazy about returning to the “scene of the crime.” I feared the sights and smells of the old school would bring back painful memories.
Right before the reunion, Linda Montez gave me a pep talk, encouraging me to attend. I had been moved by Linda’s account, in the Review, of being traumatized by a teacher in first grade. She described the physical battering and said it was two years before she was able to start learning again. She described the mistreatment she received as abuse. I had never thought of the “corporal punishment” and public humiliation I suffered as abuse.
Bad memories aside, I ended up having a great time at the reunion. My classmates were so gracious and supportive. One commiserated with me about the mistreatment: “The nuns hated me but they really hated you.” Another recalled an episode when a teacher put me under her desk and poked me with her crutch. It was healing to hear it really happened and that my classmate had felt sorry for me.
My classmates said they couldn’t understand why I infuriated my teachers. There were several factors. Our class sizes were ridiculous. How could anyone teach a class of 50 without losing their temper? Secondly, I was no choir boy — wait, I was a choir boy but an incorrigible one. I continually acted up in class. I was so attention-starved, I didn’t care if it was positive or negative. In fact, getting negative attention was a lot easier.
Thirdly, the teachers were trying to break my spirit, so I would conform but I was strong in the spirit department. They tried every conceivable method: keeping me after school, making me write out punishments, and hitting me in the upper body area. I refused to back down. This led to a downward spiral of poor grades and perpetual punishment.
I didn’t realize it then but, like Linda, the emotional trauma affected my ability to learn. Fear, anger and anxiety interfered with my ability to think clearly and memorize material. I wasn’t the only victim. My classmates had their own war stories. I was appalled that that same teacher hit one of the girls in the head with her crutch to punish her for talking. However, we didn’t dwell on these abuses. We were too busy laughing about old times and catching up on the present.
I’ve always believed, though, that there’s an important emotional aspect to learning. When I taught writing to French and Hispanic ESL students, my first focus was to help them overcome the shame they felt about their language skills. They were even ashamed of their accents.
I told them they had to turn off that negative internal voice if they wanted to become good writers. It worked. They learned how to pour their words out on paper and then make the necessary corrections and improvements.
Today, we don’t have teachers bashing or humiliating students. However, many students are suffering from anxiety, which is either self-inflicted, peer-induced, or parent-driven. I was speaking with a school psychologist about this problem. He said a certain amount of anxiety can be helpful in making students productive. Too much anxiety can paralyze their ability to learn and complete assignments.
I said that I could have really used him back in grade school. He replied, “That’s what everyone tells me.”
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries. Jrice1038@aol.com