by Marion Hermannsen
Proverbs 23:13 – Do not hold back discipline from the child, Although you strike him with the rod, he will not die.
“Spare the rod, spoil the child”. That’s what my Ma always said and has it done me any harm? It made me tougher, better able to handle the world out there. I make sure that my students are harder and tougher than anything life can throw at them.
“Padraig, go and cut switches”, I say to the oldest in the room. I trust him. He knows where the hazel grows and how flexible the wood has to be. Padraig’s parents were entirely unequipped to deal with their headstrong child. When he arrived at my school, he would not shut up. He would walk up to my desk and hand me drawings he did over the weekend. They were rubbish. His pirate boat was green and the water brown. He couldn’t tell one color from the next. He’d stand in front of me, grinning like a loon, waiting for my approval. He didn’t get it.
He wasn’t color blind for long. When I grabbed his hand and slammed my ruler over his knuckles, he blinked. Then he opened his mouth and started bawling. So I did it again. And pretty soon, he understood how to learn and behave. After 4 years, he’s my best helper to correct the children when they need it. And they need it often. Some might call me cruel. I had parents complain about me. But my classes are the best behaved in the school district and they know their books by heart. So my methods work.
When I was little, I used to be just as weak. My Da worked really hard and I never saw him. I remember crying over something stupid one night and my Ma hit me hard. It hurt really badly and I fell over. The anger in her face made me forget to cry. So I hiccoughed instead. She yanked me up from the floor by the arm and put me over her knee. I suppose the soup ladle was the closest she could grab and she beat me ten times on the legs. She told me later that the bum is too well-padded and that the legs would hurt more. They burnt for hours afterwards and I went to bed hungry. The next day, she told me that I needed to learn my lesson and never show weakness. I needed to toughen up so people couldn’t hurt me.
So I did. I pinched myself everyday until I was bruised all over. After a while, I didn’t cry anymore. Funny thing is that when Da came home that night, smelling of booze and cigarettes, Ma cried. I loved her for teaching me skills she didn’t have, even if it hurt.
Proverbs 13:24 – He who withholds his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him diligently.
This morning I feel strange. I’m used to seeing an old woman looking back at me from the old mirror above the cracked white sink. The years have not been kind to me. Teaching children and driving the stubbornness out of them is hard work. I have no man to take some of the burden. I did not stay alone out of choice but I have no desire to be dominated. Some have tried but I was not going to be soft and feminine and weak. So I choose to be alone in my small flat with the clock ticking down the hours and days. I know I’m not well liked but that’s the price one pays for doing important work.
Today though… I have red streaks running down my face, some of them to the point of splitting the skin. They are sore when I touch them. They weren’t there yesterday. Maybe an allergy. I will have to see a doctor if they don’t go away.
When I arrive at school, I hold my head high and dare anybody to mention them. Nobody does. In fact, the children keep their heads down as instructed and my colleagues greet me as usual. Padraig had kept the fresh switches in a jar of cold water to make sure they stay flexible. Michael hasn’t learnt his lines as I knew he wouldn’t. Michael is a stupid child. Sometimes he surprises me by remembering things from class but he can’t read properly and his writing is horrendous. He tells me that his parents are away and nobody had time to do his homework with him. He needs to learn that it’s his responsibility if he wants to grow up a useful member of society.
I take his pale skinny hands while he kneels in front of me. I need an elevated position to save my back, otherwise I don’t have the strength anymore to do this properly. He’s already crying and I hiss at him to stop. I’ll need to work harder with him or he’ll never make it out there. His head bowed, his hands facing palm up, trembling on my knees. I lift my arm and with a satisfying swish, the hazel descends towards his fingers. In a split second, Michael’s head jerks up, eyes blazing, and he pulls his hands away. I should have asked Padraig to hold his arms. With a thwack, the rod hits my upper thigh. The pain is excruciating. A white hot scream of agony burns in a thin line on my skin before it spreads up and down my leg. Finally my throat opens and a high scream rises out of my mouth before I can cut it off. There are tears running down my face and I wipe them away angrily. They are not tears of pain, they are involuntary.
Then I look at the wretched boy in front of me. He looks terrified and well he should be. Does he not realize I’m doing this to help him? That without me he would be torn apart by the realities of his poverty-stricken life? His alcoholic mother, his useless excuse of a father? I vow to myself that I will not let him down again and wave at Padraig to come over to help.
Revelation 3:19 – Those I love, I rebuke and discipline. Therefore be earnest and repent.
Tonight as I brush my teeth, I see that the red streaks have burst into bleeding gashes. There are pearls of congealed blood all down my cheeks, like that St. Mary statue crying bloody tears Father John told us about. I touch my face gently and feel the crusts of my suffering. It feels good, like the viscous liquid has cancelled out the shame of watery tears this morning.
And the next day, the gashes are closed and leave silvery scars. They are highly visible and I carry my head high as I walk into the dampness of the dark old building. Nothing has changed. My colleagues bid me good morning, my students are grateful for the discipline I impose on them. At lunchtime I ask Padraig if he sees something on my face and he says: “No Miss”. He isn’t lying, I can tell. Maybe only I can see the scars in my face. Maybe they are signs that confirm that finally, after decades, I’m doing right by my children. That their pain and their scars show in my face and that I will bear their suffering in order to guarantee them a better future.
Today I will work extra hard to chastise them and Padraig will help with cutting thinner switches. The extra sting will brand my lessons into their memory. I hope that they will pass on what I teach them. Their children will know that only the strong survive. Michael cowers in his seat but he also will grow up like Padraig, like myself. I vow again to not fail my charges, not matter what it takes. I am content doing His work.