Most teachers I know have heard the sound. They know when it is likely to happen, and, truth be told, which student is likely to make it. Probably Social Science and Language Arts teachers have more experience with it. Subjects that deal with the human condition are more likely to produce the sound, but it’s definitely not exclusive to the humanities. All too often the sound is predictable. In fact because a teacher is often able to predict this occurrence it could actually be avoidable. But censorship presents other problems.
So what’s the mystery noise? It’s the enthusiastic, often adoring, sound of unbridled excitement when one human being hits another.
You might be showing a documentary on labor strife or the film version of a classic piece of literature. When raw violence occurs, usually in the form of a slap across the face, or as we’ve recently seen in surveillance videos a knockout punch, there are always a few in any classroom who literally jump out of their seats with joy. While others might wince, or look away, or display empathy with the victim, these few who seem over the top with glee get most of the attention. It usually takes them a few minutes to calm down. Any information or film dialogue that follows the violent outburst is always lost.
It’s unsettling. It’s curiously disturbing. It’s usually left alone.
We like to think that no person or culture values violence for it’s own sake, but they do. In my classroom experience it is most often the students whose childhood involves corporeal punishment that react the most enthusiastically to violence. Their lives are most likely to be filled with violence either from family, friends, or the amount they see in the media. Physical fighting is often encouraged. Discipline gets confused with punishment. Might usually makes right in their world.
I taught a full year in a middle school once when the historic education cutbacks hit California in the early 1980s. My students were mostly Latino and African American. The school principal was African American as was one of the three counselors. The year proved most enlightening for many reasons. While my students were engaged, intellectually curious, and developed a love of reading, there were a few who acted out on occasion. On one rare occasion that I sent a student to see his counselor because it was not a good day for him to be in class, I was asked by the counselor if I could please join a meeting between her and the student in question. She phoned to tell me that the boy’s grandmother, with whom he lived, was not able to attend. After school that day I gladly went to her office. I knew the back-story. The grandmother adopted Paul when his parents abandoned him. In her late seventies, she could barely get around so attending this discipline meeting was out of the question. Mrs. Washington, the counselor, played a vital role in Paul’s life. She was the role model he needed. She set the limits and she enforced the rules. Paul was not a difficult student. He was not meaning, vindictive or even unmotivated in the classroom. He simply found himself out of control on occasion and had the habit of displacing his anger on his classmates or even his teachers. Mrs. Washington gave him a choice. He could either be suspended for two days or face her consequences. We all knew suspension would not be the choice. It was merely a formality because Mrs. Washington knew that if he stayed home with grandma nothing productive would result. Paul chose the alternative. Mrs. Washington told him to get ready. He then thrust forward his arms and she produced a ruler from her desk drawer. I watched her strike his wrists with the ruler about 5 times on each arm. Paul apologized for his behavior in class and then left the office promising to be on time to class the next day.
I never spoke much with Mrs. Washington about her method of discipline. I knew that culturally it was the norm. The rod was not spared in many God-fearing families.
But this is part of the behavior that needs to change. Today that form of traditional discipline is gone. Even the wooden paddle “swats” my P.E. teachers administered to their all male classes are a thing of the past. But residual behaviors and attitudes survive. They have come to light as the technology continues to encroach on our time and privacy. Reluctantly or benevolently, we move forward.