I SURVIVED THE CRUELTY OF THE TEXAS PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM Part 1 (warning: graphic descriptions of trauma)

I grew up in 1970s Texas attending private school until 2nd grade, when my mother and stepfather decided to move out further into the rurals to live on a farm they purchased outside the Dallas metro area. At first, public school didn’t seem all that different but this would soon change. The quality of education alone was “substandard” compared to what I was used to and I found public school more often boring than not.

In 2nd grade, my teacher was Miss Brown, a well-liked young new teacher in her early 20s and everyone loved her warm, kind nature. When school portraits came out, she ordered enough of her photos to give to her students in exchange for their pictures. For whatever reason, I have kept hers, perhaps to never forget what she did to me.

I was a painfully shy, self-disciplined and studious child, with undiagnosed selective mutism, which later in my adult life would be identified as traits of Asperger’s. My parents had just put me in piano lessons after years of me playing by ear since the age of 2, because they thought I would become some sort of virtuoso. I would soon despise piano lessons, for reasons that become clearly outlined here and other mention of it in some of my posts under “THE SPECTRUM” category of my blog.

One day during class, Miss Brown was called away to take a phone call. This was the 70s, and there was only a landline in the office, no cell phones. Suddenly we found ourselves as unsupervised 7-year-olds, while our teacher was out of the room.

Most of the kids left their desks to wreak havoc around the room and all their voices made for a deafening crush of laughter and hollering. There were spitballs flying and paper footballs and airplanes launching around the room. I chose to stay at my desk because I was a loner who withdrew into my own head most times. I had to perform a piece of sheet music from sight reading after school for my stern piano teacher, so I decided to pass the time fingering an imaginary keyboard on my desk to remember the notes.

Soon, a girl next to me started shouting “Ahmmmmmm, ahmmmmmm!”, while pointing directly at me. Some of the other kids nearby looked over to see what she was calling attention to with me. “Ahmmmmm, you shot the finger, you shot the finger!” she started to chant like a mantra. I heard her in the background of my mind at first and finally broke my trance to notice she was referring to ME. I had no clue as to what she was so excited about. By this time, other children had mindlessly joined in the chant. I looked at her with a confused expression. She repeated, “Ahmmmmm, you shot the finger, I’m telling Miss Brown!”. I still had no clue as to what this girl was implying, “Shot the finger? What in the world is THAT?”, I asked myself. I had no older brothers or sisters to ruin my innocence about such things.

I chose to ignore the girl’s laments at this point, like I did most of my peer group, I preferred the company of adults, as I regarded most kids by default dumb as rocks and misbehaving miscreants. Suddenly, Miss Brown walked in, all the rowdy kids scrambled back to their desks tripping over each other, and she sat down at her desk to commence roll call. The girl who had accused me of doing something I didn’t understand got up and strutted to Miss Brown’s desk. She whispered in the teacher’s ear and then smirked back at me. I realized she had made good on her threat and was snitching on me.

Miss Brown called me up to her desk and asked “Lea, did you shoot the finger?” I shook my head “No”, but I didn’t actually understand the charge. She asked me again, “Did you shoot the finger?” This time I verbally answered “No Ma’am.” Miss Brown then pressed me further, “Show me what you were doing while I was out of the room.” So I showed Miss Brown, using her desk as an imaginary keyboard, fingering the notes of the sheet music in my head, while explaining I was to be tested on it later after school. Apparently, in one part of the music playing in my head, I lifted my middle finger outward above the other fingers (not upward) while the other fingertips were still in position on the desk. I had really long fingers, even as a child. Miss Brown immediately seeing this exclaimed “Stop! Come with me to the office.”.

So here I was, following Miss Brown to the dreaded Principal’s office, to answer for an offense I had no understanding about. I was an only child, sheltered from worldly things, living my best life as a pious barefoot farm girl in overalls and pigtails when I wasn’t at school. I didn’t know what obscene finger gestures were, I didn’t care to know. I had no idea what terrible fate was coming, and my eyes were starting to well up, blurring my vision.

The principal was a crotchety old woman in her 70s, who stereotypically wore her hair in a severely pulled back bun. She was silhoetted against a backlit bank of tall huge paned windows, so I never really saw her face, just a gravelly voice from an imposing dark full-figured old woman looming over me. Miss Brown told her what had happened in the classroom. The principal thought for a minute and said, “Well Lea, you have 2 choices. We can call your parents and tell them what you’ve done and let them decide how to punish you, or…we won’t call them and you can get 3 licks from the paddle and be done with this and they will never know.” At this point, a waterfall of tears was streaming down my face and dripping off my chin, drenching the front of my dress. I was trembling, paddling was for mischievious boys, and a paddle was never used on me at home. Welcome to the era of sadistic corporal punishment in public school, where the default was that school officials were not required to notify your parents beforehand and certainly not required to prove the misconduct of the child first.

The corporal punishment paddle was an object of schoolchildren’s nightmares. Often fashioned out of a hardwood like oak, multiple holes were drilled in it to make the high forceful swing before impact, more “aero-dynamic”. The sound of the loud hard slaps when a child was being paddled was so distinct, that those of us that experienced that era can remember being in a classroom and all of a sudden, hearing a child being paddled outside another classroom, echoing down the hallway. Boys used to take a paddling as a badge of honor, for street cred, grinning with watery eyes, while holding back the blistering pain as they limped back into the classroom to a bunch of attaboys from their friends. This punishment was administered from elementary, junior high and all the way into high school. In my whole 10 years of attending public school, I never knew of a girl getting paddled (except for me) and if you think times have changed since the 70s, this type of punishment for misconduct is still approved for use in many schools across the United States today. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_corporal_punishment_in_the_United_States

“Well Lea, what will it be?”, the Principal asked me again. What rushed through my mind was, I had no idea what I did that was so egregiously bad, and maybe my strict disciplinarian mother would find it so equally offensive that she would be terribly disappointed and further harsh punishment would await me when I got home. I reluctantly chose under duress and ignorance, to not have my parents called.

So as a frightened scrawny 7-year-old girl on the spectrum, with my favorite teacher as a hostile witness, I was bent over a desk, my dress pulled up, and I received 3 excruciatingly painful hits on my backside and upper back thighs from the paddle, by a sadistic old bat of a Principal who just minutes before had first learned of my name, didn’t refer to my flawless conduct record at school, didn’t care that I was too innocent to understand the false charges from the heresay of another 7-year-old and an inexperienced reactionary puritanical teacher and certainly didn’t care that she hit me as hard as anyone would an older juvenile delinquent teenaged boy.

After I was finished screaming with my eyes closed so tightly I saw phosphenes for hours afterwards, Miss Brown escorted me back to the classroom without saying a word. I could barely sit down, was trembling uncontrollably, convulsively crying and I held my head low to avoid eye contact with anyone for the rest of the day, staring at my desk in a death trance. Everything I liked about school left me like a spirit leaving a dead body that day. Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw the girl who had been my false accuser, who sat and smiled smugly over at me, proud of what she had done. My pain and hurt feelings would soon turn to quiet pent-up rage after that day, that now in adulthood, awakens within me like a lion’s roar whenever I sense a Lord of the Flies moment breaking out.

I had only been attending school for 2 years of my young life and already, this was the defining moment in time where I realized that I could never trust an authority figure or other students ever again. A bratty tattletale girl’s false accusations weighed more than my innocent pleas and demonstrations to clear my name. I set upon a quest to find out what this confusing “shooting the finger” business was all about, but it would be years before I actually understood what it really meant with its use in popular culture. My parents went to their graves without ever knowing this had happened to me. I was a child that suffered in silence at school alot, as more horrible abuses from evil teachers over the following years would shape my jaundiced view of the broken and sadistic public school system and the authority figures who monstrously keep it that way.

After I became a mother to my own child and stepchildren, I advised each of them to question authority and never be afraid to tell me anything bad that happened at school, that teachers were not allowed to hit or humiliate them and that I would trust their word over anyone else’s accusations, unless evidence of misconduct was proven otherwise.

And those children all grew up to be very fine people.

Continued in Part 2: https://leasavoy.com/2023/10/08/i-survived-the-cruelty-of-the-texas-public-school-system-part-2/

About Lea Savoy

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