Eldon and the Paddle

The smartest kid in Beaumont, Texas gets in big trouble

I just wanted Eldon to shut up. All of his repeated attempts to get my attention caused my overly nervous heart to race. The fact is that I knew what he wanted: Eldon wanted answers.

I hated being the smartest kid at that school. My consistently high grades provided the proof of my status as the intellectual silverback on that campus. This is less of a statement of arrogance on my part and more of an indictment against the school district of that Southeastern Texas town. My family had moved to Beaumont from Houston the previous year and although the cities are only an hour apart, it felt like moving from NASA to NASCAR. In Beaumont, one’s importance stemmed from their actions on the football field—playing or cheering.

“Pssst!”

I refused to look over my left shoulder at Eldon. I kept an eye on Mrs. Sharpe, our science teacher, while telepathically pleading with her to finally hear Eldon and make him stop. But she caught nothing. My focus returned to my test because I feared the repercussions if Mrs. Sharpe thought I had emitted that leaky tire noise that Eldon kept making. This school didn’t take kindly to students stepping out of line.

And neither did my dad. Maybe Eldon’s parents didn’t expect a high GPA from him. Maybe Eldon’s parents didn’t emphasize grades. Maybe Eldon didn’t get grounded or worse when he brought home a grade of C or below on a test. Or maybe Eldon did have strict parents like mine and that is why he was desperately trying to get my attention.

“Hey!”

His voice had grown bolder and more insistent. I couldn’t ignore Eldon any more, so I turned around.

I gave him a helpless look and mouthed, “What?”

Eldon leaned forward and handed me a piece of paper. He had written ten problems and their multiple choice answers on his sheet of scratch paper. On the bottom, the words Help me pleaded in perfect junior high handwriting. Eldon even included a frowning face. My shaking pencil hovered above the scratch paper while I thought about the pros and cons of assisting a fellow student.

School policy against cheating was very strict, as were most punishments for anyone caught violating the rules. During my first week of school in Beaumont, a kid acted up in class, goofing off and causing a distraction. The teacher told him to get up and go outside. The teacher instructed the remaining students to continue reading our textbooks, but I was focused on the teacher’s next move. He reached for something under his desk, pulling out a paddle about two feet long. The other students started whispering among themselves as I sat silently in fear.

Soon, I heard the snap of hard wood on soft flesh — twice — followed by the teacher’s words to the student about which kind of behaviors would not be tolerated. The student walked back into the classroom first, his face teary with a mixture of defiance and humiliation, preventing him from making eye contact with his fellow students. The teacher entered the classroom, spinning the handle of the paddle before returning it to its position under his desk.

The image of that teacher clutching his paddle like a vigilante hellbent on justice played over and over in my head while I stared at the questions Eldon had written on the page. If caught, would I be the one walking outside only to return with stoic tears in my eyes? Would I have to watch Eldon get hit first or would Mrs. Sharpe dole out the first punishment to me? Or would a last-minute act of chivalry on Eldon’s part save me from this backwards penance? While I was busy speculating about the future, Eldon was still beckoning me during the present.

“Psst!” I held up one finger to let Eldon know I needed a minute. I looked at the sheet of questions, all of which I knew the correct answers to and all of which he could have answered had he just paid attention in class. But Eldon never stayed focused on the teacher’s lessons. He became a bit of a class clown, too skinny to be on the football team and too effeminate to be welcomed as a player even if he had the right physique. We were outcasts, even if I was a more studious one.

Reluctantly, I circled the answers to all the questions. With my left hand, I slid the paper off my desk and brought it down behind me, passing it to the eager Eldon.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

He began finding the questions in his test so that he could circle the answers. I turned my own test in and slid my blank scratch paper into the trash basket next to Mrs. Sharpe’s desk. I returned to my seat, not making eye contact with Eldon. I began reading a book. The room was silent.

Eldon stood up shortly afterwards, taking his test to the teacher as well.

As Eldon returned to his desk, Mrs. Sharpe said, “In my 20 years of teaching, I have never had a student turn in their cheat sheet with their test.”

My heart jumped in my chest as I turned around to make sure Eldon saw the horror on my face. The other kids in class started laughing.

“Now who could have given Eldon all these correct answers?” Mrs. Sharpe said.

I hated being the smartest kid at that school.

Mrs. Sharpe made eye contact with me before she asked Eldon again to name his co-conspirator. In the amount of time it takes a pit crew to change a tire during the Daytona 500, Eldon ratted me out. I couldn’t believe it. When asked if it was indeed true that I had indeed helped Eldon cheat, I admitted it because we nerds are nothing if not honorable.

That’s when Mrs. Sharpe told us to join her outside of the classroom. A wave of quiet “Oooohs” escaped the mouths of my fellow students. My eyes instinctively looked for her paddle, an object whose location meant nothing to me until right at that moment. As Eldon and I shuffled outside of the classroom, our teacher followed, paddle-free.

I couldn’t look at Mrs. Sharpe directly, choosing to focus on the stains on the linoleum floor, my shame preventing me from holding my head upright. Keeping with her usual demeanor, Mrs. Sharpe remained calm and instructed Eldon and me to go home and to talk to our parents about what we had done (yeah, right!) and come back the next day with what they thought our punishment should be. I went home that day, choosing to say nothing to my parents, burying my head in textbooks but unable to focus on any one of them.

The following day, Mrs. Sharpe had Eldon and me wait outside her classroom before the class started.

“What punishment do your parents think is appropriate?” she asked.

Eldon spoke first. “They said whatever you think, that’s good with them.”

Mrs. Sharpe stared at Eldon for some time before turning to me. “And what do your parents think, Stacy?”

It was now my turn to copy off Eldon. “They said the same thing.”

Mrs. Sharpe thought for a moment and said, “You are both to write a two page report on why cheating is unacceptable and why it won’t be tolerated. Bring it to me in the morning.”

My punishment was finished before I stepped off the bus that afternoon.

I never told my parents about that day, always fearful that I had let them down by allowing someone to use me to cheat. But years later, I did talk to them about that school’s practices, about how crazy it was that a school still paddled in 1988.

My dad agreed: “Your mom and I didn’t approve of it. That’s why we signed that letter that forbade the teachers from paddling you.”

Maybe I wasn’t the smartest kid in that school.

Ed. note: Corporal punishment remains legal in public schools in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming.

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