By O. Victor Miller
In memory of Dan Fowler
“O ye! Who teach the ingenious youth of nations, Holland, France, England, Germany or Spain. I pray ye flog them upon all occasions, It mends their morals, never mind the pain” – Byron, Don Juan
The other day young Michael Brooks, publisher of Albany Magazine asked me if it was true, as his father swore, that our generation walked barefoot to school through the snow. Loyal to the parental credibility of my contemporaries, I assured him that this was so, though truth compelled me to add there was snow on the ground in South Georgia only from September through April.
If Michael’s generation doesn’t have trouble filling our shoes it’s because their feet are bigger. Kids are taller now. In my day nobody on the basketball team was over five-ten. Our growth was stunted because there was no free lunch, and we burned a lot of calories walking to school-calories we couldn’t replenish without lunch money. Also, parents and teachers conspired to keep us small so they could whip us with impunity. Size was power, and if the youth of today aren’t sinewed with cables of steel, it’s because their mettle is untempered by the exquisite hardships we endured. Even the notion of healthy growth was treated contemptuously in my day. Adults derogatorily labeled recalcitrant children big babies, or, bigshots, or too big for their britches. Existence itself, being, was even shameful. “You think you’re something, don’t you?” they’d chide.
Another distinction between my generation and Michael’s is the commitment of our teachers, who were tough as the seasons. We had corporal punishment in our segregated schools and teachers fully capable of dishing it out. They ordered us to grab our ankles and flailed us with strops, paddles, rulers, fan belts and radiator hoses. Licks, the punishment was called, and the rare girl got spanked too. Girls grabbed their ankles with their derriere to the blackboard to prevent baring the dumpling hinges of knees. The humiliation of public whipping didn’t umbrage Victorian modesty. The other guys delight in the struck penitents’ wobble of breast, but I always averted my eyes.
To make sure you didn’t release your ankles and straighten up before the–therwack-lick landed, the coaches randomly fired high, swinging over our backs. Anyone bolting upright at the penultimate moment would be stropped across the ear with a fan belt or clubbed with a modified 2X4 in the back of the head. The paddles were marked with clever nomenclature: Board of Education or Golden Ruler. We were too stupid for reverse psychology. One new math teacher down from New Jersey announced that misbehavers would no longer be allowed to work word problems. “Oh Jeez,” we pleaded, “anything but that!”
Sugar Ray’s punitive policy had a sporting twist. When you misbehaved, cut-up they called it, you came back after school and chose one of the four drawers in his filing cabinet. One had a large paddle, one a smaller one, one a razor strop, and one drawer was empty. I made a point of cutting up every fifth period until ordered to report after school. During sixth period W.C. Anderson would find out which drawer was empty and whisper the secret number. I’d show up to try my luck, choose the empty drawer, and leave Mr. Council scratching his head over the mathematical odds of my choosing the empty drawer every afternoon for 15 consecutive schooldays.
Miss Plant would have us read Macbeth, leaving the room when the Bard’s text contained the words inappropriate to her Victorian sensibilities. Mr. McNabb, the principal, wouldn’t let her expurgate Shakespeare. We’d read loud enough for her to hear us in the hall.
It was a special and festive day when a girl got licks, though this generally occurred in the sequestered inter-sanctum of Miss Plant’s office, where not even football players were allowed. It was generally conceded that girls who acted like boys were treated accordingly, but it was feared that a misplaced lick could “ruin a girl for life,” shocking the uterus into permanent dysfunction. This eventuality wasn’t viewed as particularly tragic as long as the good girls’ uteruses survived in tact, though everybody knew only bad girls engaged in the kind of deportment that led to reproduction.
Robert “Buffalo Bob” Faudree, the second largest teacher at AHS, married the Spanish teacher and became a banker, kowabonga. Lots of teachers in those days were farmers too. And auto mechanics. They brought in a diverse variety of educational aids–jumper cables, hydraulic and radiator hoses, fan belts. The female teachers brought in bed slats, having them drilled and whittled in wood shop to offset with balance and leverage whatever they lacked in upper body strength.
“I don’t know,” Edward answered, carelessly pointed his digitus impudicus under Frenchy’s nose. “I seen the other boys doing it, so I copied them. I don’t know what this means.” Edward’s decomposed body was found a decade or so later in a snow bank in Ohio with a gangland bullet in his head. I don’t know if Coach Lowe has any connections up there or not. Tommy Ross married beautiful Robin Leeger and became a lawyer like Buster Vansant, who says Pat “Mudcat” Field paddle him so vigorously for cutting up in Mrs. Saunders’ English class he had to go home and unstick his bloody underwear from his ass by soaking in the tub. Buster’s mother was horrified, but his father smiled over his newspaper, understanding what an insufferable little shit Buster could be.
Times were tougher in those days, and winters were colder. During hard freezes we left home early, staggering our paths to step in lukewarm cow flop to keep our toes from freezing. We followed closely behind the cows because the pies cooled as they dropped and froze soon after splattering the frozen pastures. Teachers in those days provided heated antifungal footbaths at entrance thresholds to keep us from tracking cow shit into the classrooms. It was a long walk between cow pies for those who crossed the frozen Flint. Eventually, teenage entrepreneur Bucky Geer drove his father’s cattle to school and let us for the price of our lunch money follow the herd. Our mothers, as had mothers since the first one, warned us not to make ugly faces in winter for fear a north wind would freeze our mugs into a hideous rictus we would carry to our graves.They sighted football hero Frank Orgel, who never obeyed his mother, as a living example. Orgel became a prodigious broken field runner rushing late to school and zig-zagging through as many cow pies as he could along the way. His face froze into an agonized snarl that didn’t soften until middle age.
I told Michael he could thank or blame my generation for the softness of his and for its general progress. If sons’ vision is longer than their fathers’, it’s because sons stand upon the shoulders of our stony hardship. It was difficult to improve ourselves fighting hard times and dodging the draft, and we developed a grim determinism of poverty and global aggression-a perpetuity of world wide economic and military instability which can be expressed, in the words of Steve Hinton’s mother: “They’ll always be POah and WAwah.”
Coach Bob “Big-un” Fowler was educations best deterrent to bad deportment. He’s only 6’8” inches now, but he was a lot taller when I was in junior high and high school. We figured if he paddled you, you’d end up in a body cast or an iron lung. But the coaches weren’t the only teachers compulsive about keeping order. “Sugar” Ray Council, my high school algebra teacher, paddled me so severely one afternoon he numbed my coccyx and backlashed my ducktail. Temporarily paralyzed in a jack-knifed posture, I had to walk home dragging my knuckles across frozen cow pies, my mind full of splintered light. For this, saints flagellated themselves?
I got another whipping when I got home, for getting a whipping at school.
W.C. later died in jail awaiting trial as the prime suspect for killing “Jane Doe,” a decomposed woman discovered to be his wife, but in those days W.C. had replaced Bucky as recipient of my lunch money. One day W.C. cut class to shoot illegal wood ducks, and I found myself trying to stare through a gunmetal filing cabinet, procrastinating as long as I could before stooping to eenie-meenie mental telepathy. Sugar Ray smiled diabolically when I picked the drawer containing the large paddle with nickel-sized holes for he’d been sorely provoked. With that instrument, powered by hostility pent up from weeks of unavenged insubordination, he embossed nickel-sized blood blisters in base relief across my fundament, teaching me that the slight Mr. Council could give licks nearly as hard as we imagined Coach Fowler could.
Miss Thelma Plant, the Albany High School dean of girls, carried a tape to measure skirt lengths she suspected be less than 6 inches below the knee. Miss Plant was no taller than my belt buckle. She didn’t even have to stoop to gauge hems. Pregnant girls were sent home, married girls were sent home. Funny haircuts were sent home with the heads they decorated. The worst thing they could do to us was send us home, where our parents didn’t want us around any more than teachers did.
“’I have given SUCK’,” we’d yell, “’and know how tender ‘tis to love the babe that MILKS me. I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my NIPPLE from its boneless gums and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this’.”
Miss Plant was hard on girls but loved football players, in whom she found grand measures of bucolic grace. She’d beam lovingly as Mike “Toilet” Doyal or Eddie Ogletree duhed and stuttered through Elizabethan drama. “That was wonderful, Michael, spoken like a true Southern gentleman. Now please be kind enough to recite the dagger soliloquy.”
Strangely Miss Plant loved me too. My daddy, she insisted, had saved her life with an O-negative transfusion when she’d had some unmentionable organ removed. She’d pull me aside and smile upward, focusing her teary eyes on some phenomenon a thousand yards beyond the back of my tangled ducktail. “We have the same blood in our veins, you and I,” she said.
I don’t recall Coach Fowler ever whipping a girl. Actually, I don’t remember him giving anybody licks at all, but it was rumored that he used his bare, oar-sized hand instead of a paddle.
There were other coaches like O’Brian and Tilliski, who’d pop our buttocks with lanyards as we ran laps around the track. Mr. Hershell, the mechanical drawing teacher, had forearms like Popeye, and we were deathly afraid of one-armed “Lefty” Sanders, to whom Ben Swilley gave a single cufflink for Christmas. We correctly assumed Lefty to be twice as strong as any two-fisted teacher except Coach Fowler.
Graham “Frenchy” Lowe threatened to run Edward Lewis through the expansion wire window of the gym and dice him like a carrot. Edward had flipped a bird at Tommy Ross and Frenchy saw him through the corner of his eye. Coach Lowe snatched Edward up by his upturned collar as Edward ran in place. “What does that mean, big shot?” he demanded.
Coach “Moon” Mullis, famous for tantrums, accidentally flung his watch along with a pile of substandard geometry papers, shattering it against the wall, then paddled Johann Bleicher for laughing. Johann later became a San Francisco hippie, a drug head, then a high school principal in North Carolina.
“Sweet William” Bragg was there, svelte and dramatic, waving his arms and quoting Falstaff. Nobody misbehaved in his class either, and if any teacher ever deserved a monument cast in bronze it was Billy Bragg, whose professional footsteps I tried to follow, later becoming his colleague and friend.
We liked them all well enough, our teachers. They were decent men and women with sadistic streaks we could understand, but Coach Fowler was the one who stood us in awe. He never rushed, he never screamed, it looked like he never breathed deeply enough to blow his whistle. Our respect derived in part from our knowledge that he was big enough to kill us but didn’t.
Coach Bob taught me in junior high and in high school, as did Graham Lowe. To this day I don’t know if they changed jobs, got promoted, or moonlighted just to follow me around. At Darton College I taught Bob’s youngsters Julie, Nancy, and Dan less for vengeance that for a sweet sense of continuity. Dan couldn’t get to my 8 a.m. English class on time because he deer hunted every morning. To make him punctual, I hunted with him until I started coming in late myself. An emu or a wildebeest could walk under your deer stand at Fowler Farms, which served as a holding facility for wild animals Dan’s naturalist uncle had promised to zoos. There was no telling what Uncle Jim turned loose in that swamp. Sometimes I was too scared to climb down at 8 o’clock.
I tried to follow Billy Bragg’s footsteps but found my path as staggered and beshitted as our way to school. Billy was an institution, the kind of teacher I’ll never be. All my old teachers were better educators than I am, and a high school diploma in those days was equivalent to at least a master’s degree today. I still remember the Shakespeare Miss Plant made me memorize, and what little algebra I know came from Mr. Council. I’ve never paddled a student, although I’ve had to call the cops on a few, and more pupils than I can estimate have come through or around me without mastering basic literacy skills.
Georgia’s public schools in Albany during the ‘50s weren’t perfect and our teachers weren’t either, but I don’t remember ever seeing a kid beyond the third grade who couldn’t read, write or figure. Our teachers meant well, and I hold no grudge for the licks. If they didn’t teach us right from wrong, they left no doubt in our minds what they thought was right and wrong, and our parents sided with them to present a united front. I look back on my education with one haunting regret. I’m ashamed that I wasn’t anywhere near the role model for Bob’s kids that their father was for me.