77. Crime and Punishment

Back when I worked as a systems analyst, I fervently preached the gospel “There is no successful system without penalties and rewards.” I wish we could let our schools practice that doctrine.

I read recently that 50 years ago, the top seven discipline problems in our schools  were talking, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls, getting out of turn in line, wearing improper clothes, not putting paper in wastebaskets, and – at my school – printing instead of using cursive handwriting — strictly following the Palmer method the good Sisters of Charity taught us.

Any of the above infractions could result in expulsion, but depending on the mitigating circumstances, some might result in a lesser sentence.  Just as a venial sin wouldn’t force us to spend an eternity in Hell, the nuns used creativity to exact punishments that they sometimes deemed more appropriate to Purgatory than Hell.

The penalties were effective, not just for the miscreants, but for those of us cringing and quaking in our seats.  Take chewing gum, as an example. To this day, I never chew gum.  Repeat NEVER.

And neither would any of my goody-two-shoes friends.  Chewing gum was something we spoke of  in whispers.  If we (or the nuns) had ever heard of it, we  surely would have equated it with masturbation.  Anybody that chewed gum once, never did it twice.  For a very good reason.

If you were caught chewing gum for the first time, you might get suspended from school for a few days  For a second offense, you might get expelled, as when Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise.

Worst of all though, you might have to endure something worse than getting kicked out of school for a few days.   If you were real unlucky, you might have to face the wrath of a nun who, worried about your missed schoolwork. was trying to be more liberal.  Hapless wrongdoers under such supervision would be required to come to the front of the classroom, remove the wad of gum from his mouth (it was usually a boy), stick it onto the end of his nose, and then sit down at his desk and remain there for the rest of the school day.

This punishment was more than effective because it not only nailed the gum-chewer, it had a theatrical effect on all the innocent observers who resolved never to take up a life of crime by touching a stick of gum which might end up planted on tips of their noses for a whole day of ignominy.  A wad of gum on your nose is a whole lot worse than a zits outbreak.

Wrigley’s and Dentyne may have wondered why chewing gum sales consistently faltered in the St. Patrick’s School vicinity during the tenure of the Sisters of Charity, but we know why, don’t we?

Punishment administered at St. Patrick’s School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa was harsh, swiftly delivered and without benefit of appeal.  I don’t know of anybody – parent or student – who ever challenged it. This was because in order to make a complaint, you would have to do it in front of one of the Sisters.  Confrontation with a nun was a lot like having brain surgery — it was something nobody really wants to have.

As anybody who attended school in the 1930s and 1940s can tell you, rules were made, and rules were broken.  But not often.

Several weeks ago, my brother-in-law Bob Ford was talking to me about his senior year at St. Pat’s.  One incident stuck in his memory.  A boy named “Weed” Stegall was apparently guilty of some misdemeanor.  The nun walked down the aisle with ruler in hand, “Stretch your hands out,” she said. “Sister”, said Weed, “If you hit me, I’ll hit you back.”

I have no idea as to the grim fate of that unfortunate young man because Bob didn’t remember that part.  What astonishes me is that he remembered the incident for more than 60 years. It says a lot about how unusual it was for somebody to mouth off to a nun.

Times have changed.  Today if a teacher said to Johnny, “Take that gum out of your mouth”, he might reply “Give me one good reason.”

I’m sorry to say that my handy doctrine of penalties and rewards doesn’t apply in today’s schools. To work, penalties need to be enforced and that seems to be a luxury no longer affordable to modern teachers.  Woe to the teacher who would embarrass Johnny about his chewing gum.  Or his gang attire, or drug paraphernalia.

More’s the pity. But back to the seven top discipline problems in schools 50 years ago.  Today, the top eight reported are: Drug and alcohol abuse. Pregnancy. Bullying. Suicide. Rape, Robbery. Assault.  And guns in the school.

Schools are getting scarier now.  We did a video a couple of years ago in a school where each floor was patrolled by two burly-looking military role models.  What a waste.

All that school really needs are good rules, penalties when the rules are broken, reasonable parents, supportive school administrators, — and some inservice training sessions with those hardy, demanding, inflexible, and powerful Sisters of Charity.  When it comes to putting the fear of God in juvenile rascals, they not only knew the drill — they invented it.

Let’s hear it for the Sisters! And long may they “rule”.


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3 Responses to 77. Crime and Punishment

  1. Bryce Covey says:

    If only I had discipline maybe I wouldn’t have been such a rebel.

  2. Susy says:

    If you equate chewing gum with masturbation I am curious about what kind of gum they were chewing? And wouldn’t they be encouraged to do both at the same time…. a form of multitasking? I guess you could say they go hand and hand.

    Octo Son in Law

  3. Octo Son-in-law says:

    PS Maybe instead of midnight basketball kids now days should convert to midnight gum chewing. But not on the basketball court.

    Octo Son in Law, I hope this doesn’t have anything to do with game equipment.

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