“don’t misbehave”

 

 

A couple of years ago, I went back to my hometown, Canton, Massachusetts, for a high school reunion and visited an old friend. It was great to see him.

We got to talking briefly about our old school and our teachers. Our friendship had begun in the seventh grade.

My friend told me that in our elementary school, one of the teachers hit him one day — he didn’t know why. She whacked him across the face. My friend was not a great student (he was actually of above average intelligence), but he was not a bad kid. He could occasionally be mischievous, but his “sins” would probably pale in comparison to what some kids do today. I do recall one time that he got in a lot of trouble with the school authorities for writing an obscene word on a piece a paper that he either accidentally or on purpose dropped on the floor and that was found by a teacher.

 

 

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My friend said that, on the day he was whacked by the teacher, he told his father about it when the latter came home from work that evening. He said to his father, “Mrs. _______ hit me today.”

His father asked him why the teacher had hit him. He said he didn’t know why.

“Well, don’t misbehave,” his father said.

 

 

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I was thinking about this incident and its implications. It seems to reflect parental attitudes very different from nowadays.

Few will agree with me, I suspect, and I wasn’t the affected student or the son of this particular parent. Nevertheless, I do not think that one should jump to conclusions about how my friend’s father responded.

I think he may have — note I say may because I was not involved and my friend merely gave a bare factual account; I am not sure how he himself feels about this incident in retrospect — actually handled the situation well. By which I mean to say that not knowing what had occurred, the father assumed his son might have been misbehaving. He would have, it seems, had some basis for thinking so.

 

 

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I knew my friend’s father well. He was a soft spoken, kindly man. He worked in a factory. He was, from what I and my own parents could observe, a loving parent.

The message he conveyed to his son was, don’t do anything that might get you in trouble.

This was actually good (tacit) advice, because — although my friend was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a “bad kid” — I know that he could be mischievous at times (which I think was probably a result of his being bored and restless in school), and he did get in trouble on at least one occasion, as I have noted above, where school administrators were on his case. So, actually, his father may have been trying to help him with the best advice he could.

Given what happened (I realize that it was no doubt hurtful to my friend, since he remembers it), I don’t think my friend’s father handled it badly. He didn’t freak out. He tacitly sent a message that may have actually been good for my friend to hear: don’t antagonize your superiors.

Do you think the case would be handled the same today? I doubt it. Parents are always crying “foul” and assuming that their children can do no wrong. When I was growing up, a premium was put on behavior, and adults were assumed to be right. I am not an advocate of corporal punishment, and I am not advocating a return to the days of schooling such as is depicted in George Orwell’s autobiographical essay “”Such, Such Were the Joys … .” I am merely trying to point out — the thought occurred to me — that sometimes parents can be more helpful to children by cautioning them to conform and submit to strictures rather than to defy or complain about them.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  October 2016; updated February 2018

 

 

 

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Addendum: The pedant in me gaining the upper hand, I can’t resist showing off. I wonder how many people know where the title of Orwell’s essay came from. It is from a line in William Blake’s poem “The Echoing Green.” I took a wonderful course in Blake with the revered professor and poet Allen Grossman at Brandeis University.

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; classical music; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin.
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