We got to talking recently about how parents and teachers punished kids when we were young.

Like when our friends sassed or uttered bad words, their parents would wash their mouths out with soap.

Friends came to visit on a dreary afternoon over the long New Year’s holiday weekend, and we somehow got to discussing our childhoods, both at home and in school. The talk also turned to the subject of books and what we have read and not read.

Two of us boasted about how lucky we were to have grown up in Skowhegan and have extraordinarily good English teachers in junior high and high school in the early 1970s, because of Elizabeth Merrill, the chairman of the English department and drama director at Skowhegan Area High School, orchestrated what books kids would read for their last six years of school.

We read and scrutinized the works of Dickens, Hawthorne, Faulkner and other authors, as well as poets including Shakespeare, Frost and Thomas. We were trained to write well.

By the time we got to college, our freshmen English professors were impressed with our writing skills and knowledge of literature.

We decided during last weekend’s discussion that we got a decent education and were pretty good kids overall, though we weren’t immune to breaking rules now and then.

Some kids’ parents spanked them or slapped their faces when they misbehaved. When they entered high school, their parents “grounded” them as punishment, prohibiting them from leaving the house for a week or more.

My parents never grounded or struck us, for which I am grateful. They didn’t believe in physically hurting anyone unless in self-defense, especially someone smaller than they were. However, when we got particularly unruly, and that did happen as we were a brood of seven, my father would shake a little stick at our legs as a warning.

My mother never washed my mouth with soap, another form of retribution that, to me, seemed primitive and base. I felt sorry for my friends who were abused as such.

In school, some teachers were cruel and slapped kids, a corporal punishment that today would get them fired and charged with assault. My brother Matt’s sixth-grade teacher slammed a book on his head for some minor infraction, breaking his glasses.

“You’re not going home on the bus tonight,” she told him.

“I’m not?” he said.

“No, you’re coming with me.”

After school, she drove Matt to the optometrist’s office, where his glasses were fixed. Then she drove him home, after which my mother, upon learning of the teacher’s actions, headed to the school and threw the book at her — figuratively, of course.

A boy in my fifth-grade class was a nervous sort, always shuffling his feet under his desk. The teacher told him if he didn’t stop, she’d tie his feet down with bricks, which she ultimately did, much to his — and our — chagrin.

Thank goodness for the good teachers we had; it’s amazing how behavior on the part of some others was allowed to continue.

For instance,  my junior high geography teacher, who was a pretty good teacher for the most part, would come to school hung over and smelling of liquor. His face was always red and he breathed heavily, sometimes exhibiting a temper that scared us. He wore a large ring on his right hand and one day popped the boy sitting behind me on the head with it, causing him to wince in pain.

A substitute teacher in my eighth-grade English class made fun of my new eyeglasses, saying, “Miss Calder, don’t you know men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses?” I was mortified, not only because I was proud of my new glasses, but because he mocked me in front of the entire class.

Which is all to say that, boy, when you get to remembering things that happened in the old days, you can laugh aloud at some of it, but other parts can be downright heartbreaking in hindsight.

Thank goodness we’ve evolved to a more humane way, in academia at least.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 33 years. Her columns appear here Saturdays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.


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