In response to my colleague Anthony Mullens’ recollection of his classmate’s shenanigans at the back of the classroom in New York City, I bring forth from the annals of history a tale from my own family’s past.
Born in 1916, my father grew up in a coal hollow near Scott’s Run, West Virginia. West Virginia is a rugged state, where the Appalachian mountains run north to south as a sort of spine. The rest of the state is like a sheet of paper that has been crumpled then flattened out, creating a sort of patchwork washboard of valleys and hills. Each valley is its own little community, and these are called “hollers.” I grew up in California in the 1960s and 70s, but my father would occasionally share stories with us from the olden days of his youth. This story is mostly his voice.
The 1920s was a boom time for the US economy, and in Scott’s Run it was all about the coal. New rail lines allowed coal to be profitably mined, and Scott’s Run, northwest of Morgantown, became a bit of a boom town. My grandfather tried various means to make a living. He tried to scrape coal out of a small mine himself, but had trouble getting the heavy stuff to market. He got some land on a hillside some distance from their home, and planted corn and fruit trees - but at night the miners would come by and raid it, so he had to go out a stand guard with a shotgun. So one summer my grandmother traveled to the city to attend a school to get trained to be a teacher in the hopes that this might raise the family’s fortunes. No bachelor’s degree was required in 1925.
Children in this holler attended Stony Point School, a one room schoolhouse that educated about twenty students, ranging from 5 to 16 years of age, when the law allowed them to drop out. My father, Fred Cody, attended this school along with his younger brother Mart and his older brother John.
Around the year 1925, when my father was 9 years old, the school ran into a bit of trouble. The first teacher my father recalled was Mr. Pritchard, who let the older boys take control. The kids were more than rambunctious. The school was heated by means of a pot-bellied wood stove, and part of the school teacher’s duty was to arrive early on frosty mornings to build the fire. He would fetch the wood from the shed, but one morning some of the boys snuck along and locked him inside. The sun rose high in the sky, and nobody let him out, until a farmer passing by heard him bellowing from within.
He was fired and replaced by a woman, who also was unsatisfactory. The parents then got together and decided that the next teacher needed to bring some order to this mess. They approached my grandmother, Mrs. Martha Cody, and asked if she would take on the challenge. She agreed, but she knew where the trouble lay. She set as her condition that if the students misbehaved, she would have the authority to send them home, only to return with a parent. The older boys who were the biggest source of trouble soon tired of this and retired from secondary education.
Nonetheless, there remained a few holdouts, including a young woman 16 or 17 years of age, named Bella, who was less than an academic star. One day my grandmother gave a writing assignment - and this being before the days of the Writing Project, she told the students to write a story at least 500 words in length. When she got Bella’s paper, she discovered an epic tale. “There was a dog who chased a fox,” she wrote. “And he ran and he ran and he ran and he ran and he ran and he ran and he ran....” And so on, for three full pages. Talk about a run-on sentence!
One day, as my father told it, Bella excused herself for the purpose of visiting the outhouse. A young man named Evans shortly thereafter requested a visit to the outhouse as well. The rule was that only one person was supposed to go to the outhouse at once. But on this day, Mrs. Cody was preoccupied teaching all the levels in her room, and did not notice their collective absence until half an hour had passed. She went to investigate, and discovered that Evans was in the girl’s outhouse, presumably doing what comes naturally. Evans was sent home, not to return. Bella was also told to go home, to return the next day with her parents. But Bella would not leave. She returned to her seat, red of face and defiant. Mrs. Cody accepted the challenge, and as red of face as Bella, stepped over to confront the young woman. “Bella, I told you to go home.” Bella stared back, and said decisively “I ain’t a’goin’!” Whereupon my grandmother drew back her open hand and slapped the girl squarely across the face. “Now you get up and get your things and go home!” Bella, her shoulders shaking, with a mixture of indignation and shame, got up, gathered her belongings and left, never to return. That was the way the new school marm imparted the word that the new order had arrived at Stony Point.
I imagine this story reverberated down to me because of the impact it must have had on my father, who witnessed his mother confront the defiant student and emerge victorious. I would never strike a child, but in the circumstances, I understand why my grandmother made that choice. Her authority came from the agreement she had reached with parents, that uncooperative students would be dealt with by their parents. When a student refused to leave, she had no principal where she could send a student, no school security officers to call to remove her, so she did not have many options.
Though times have changed, teachers still need a sense of authority. That authority comes in part from our agreements with our parents, in part from the ability of the school to back the teacher up - to receive the student at the office, to give detention or other consequences. But the real moral authority of the teacher lies in the identification of the teacher with the interests of the students in the class. That means we try to base every decision we make in what is best for that individual student, balanced with the interests of the class as a whole. Our management and discipline works best when we can make that foundation clear, so actions are not about a struggle for power or ego, but are over the need to create a productive learning environment for all the students in the class. Sometimes we have to make tough choices, and our options can be limited.
I had a challenging experience a few years ago was when I was struck in the head by a small object thrown from across the room. I figured out who had thrown it, and sent him to the office on referral. When I followed up, I learned the administration had not taken it seriously, and later that day I got a note from the student asserting his innocence. I investigated with his classmates and got several of them to write short statements confirming that he was to blame, and gave those to the administration. But because it was the week of standardized testing, the administration decided he could not be suspended. So instead, he spent the period when he should have been in my class in the office for a few days and then returned.
I did not want to slap this student, but I was upset that his actions did not warrant a more serious consequence. And after that I felt less safe, and that my authority had been undermined. Teachers do not need to be able to slap their students, but they do need some backup when their authority in the classroom is challenged.
What do you think? Has your authority ever been challenged in class? How did you handle it?
(The image is a Cody family photo. My father is the boy on the far left. His mother is the woman second from the right in the back row.)
The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.