William H. Holmes Elementary (near the southeast corner). Top left corner was Mrs. Pierce’s classroom in 1978-79 year, November 22, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).
It was the first Friday of May 1980. I was in fifth grade. As part of my ritual that had been my routine since the start of third grade, after the 11:35 am bell, I walked the seven blocks from William H. Holmes Elementary School home for lunch. I made my standard lunch on that day, a slice of fried beef bologna with two slices of Home Pride white bread with Miracle Whip man-naise. The way the grease from frying the bologna would soak into the bread, combining with catching ten or 15 minutes of The Price Is Right and (if I lingered longer) a few minutes of the 12 noon news on WCBS-2 or WNBC-4. It made the almost one-and-half-miles of midday walking five days a week worth it.
Especially since I could count on my pre-Hebrew Israelite stepfather either being out of the apartment or snoring away, my mother at work at Mount Vernon Hospital on her 7 am-3 pm shift, Darren at Clear View in Dobbs Ferry (the school’s now in Briarcliff Manor), and baby Maurice with the babysitting family the floor above. Those days were the most stable (if one could call it that) of my growing up years. I failed to see the duct tape holding up the stack of playing cards back then.
It was on that bright and sunny spring day where coming back to Holmes for the second half of the day brought chaos. As I rounded the southeast corner of the school for the remaining 15 minutes of recess on the dirt softball fields and the long asphalt pavement adjacent to it, I witnessed the tail end of a brawl. Something like twenty of my male classmates were fighting where they normally played a friendly game of softball. It was often broken down between the two fifth grade classes, Mrs. O’Daniel’s and Ms. Bracey’s. Because there were other fields, the fourth and sixth grader boys (and a few girls) could also play softball and football. The girls usually double-dutched, raced each other, played hopscotch, or just talked in their groups along the asphalt L along the west side and back southern end of the Holmes complex.
For two years, I had wanted to stay at school for lunch in the spring, just to play some softball. But on this day, I was more than happy to have not been a part of the melee. I remember my friend Starling excitedly updating me on how both teams had spent part of the morning and the early part of lunch preparing to “throw down.” Someone was hit by a pitch, and then a fight between batter and pitcher turned into our school’s version of a brawl between the Yankees and the Red Sox, or the Yankees and the Royals (take your pick).
I only saw the last minute or so. But dirt, grass, spit, snot, and even blood embedded in boys’ clothes, faces, and hair. Me, Starling, Anthony, and maybe two other boys between the fifth grade classes were the only boys who weren’t a part of the fight.
Mrs. O’Daniel and Ms. Bracey both witnessed the fight. Mrs. O’Daniel saw everything from her window on the second floor, which faced out to the back of the school. Ms. Bracey was on the playground when the brawl broke out, and attempted to break it up, but got hit herself in the process.
They, along with our principal Dr. Smalls, decided to mete out the only punishment they thought fit the crime of riotous insurrection. Public ass-whuppins. Yep. After lunch, Ms. Bracey read her class the riot act. She was so loud that Mrs. O’Daniel didn’t begin her quiet chastisement of the boys’ behavior until after Ms. Bracey has stopped yelling and came over to our classroom next door.
After the two had their say, they began taking the boys, one at a time, to the boys bathroom down the hall. From 1 pm until 2:55, they took turns beatin’ ass with Mrs. O’Daniel’s “board of education,” three yardstick rulers taped together for dispensing punishment. She had rapped my knuckles once for talking to a neighbor in class way back in September or October. That was enough for me.
Some of the boys cried well before they were taken into the bathroom for their paddling. The older boys in my classroom, at least, the full-on 12 and 13-years-old (we had three that age in Mrs. O’Daniel’s class in fifth grade), were more stoic. Unlike the other boys, they did not cry, or if they did, they did theirs quietly. They didn’t yell out or whimper like the 10 and 11-year-old when the “board of education” met bare ass.
Then, both teachers gave our classes the “don’t you ever do this again” speech, and then, “Have a good weekend.”
Honestly, it was truly an awkward day for me. I wasn’t sure even at ten whether it was kosher for teachers to whup students’ asses. But I also knew not to question it. I knew what my classmates did was wrong and wrongheaded. “That’s what they get for fighting. Them teachers did the right thing,” my mom said emphatically when I told her what had happened that afternoon.
As an educator, I know none of this would fly now. Even if approved by all the parents, the principal, and the teachers, as it actually was in 1980. Heck, if William Prattella and the Mount Vernon Board of Education had known about this in 1980, the incident would have made its way to The New York Times and the Mount Vernon Daily Argus. The Board of Education would have faced lawsuits and been paying off parents and their kids for trauma for the next five years. The teachers and the principal would have been out of jobs, probably out of education altogether, plausibly then and most definitely in the 41 years since.
But we were a nearly 99 percent Black school with a Black principal and more than a few Black teachers. Many of them and us had ties to a culture where corporal punishment was the response for high-level offenses at home and at school. We lived in a violent world, where White cops and White vigilantes wouldn’t just stop with a “board of education” and five or six licks to the buttocks.
Still, long term, it didn’t work. Many of my peers would end up in brawls after school, off school grounds, to avoid this kind of punishment. Or, they and others whom I never got to know would end up in fights on school grounds, at Davis Middle School (for some), at Hamilton Middle School, at Mount Vernon High School, and certainly in other schools in Westchester County and in the Bronx. I witnessed so many fights, boy-on-boy, girl-on-girl, girl-on-boy. I was part of a few myself, if only to defend myself.
Restorative justice is the idea that schools take a 360-degree approach to changing behaviors. One that allows victims of violence and other violations to experience some form of justice, and those who have victimized others the counseling and help they need so that they can embody behaviors that are healing and not hurting. Most school districts remain uninterested in such approaches, as they are too closely tied to the racist police state that most schools are for most students Black, Indigenous, and Brown. Perhaps the namby-pamby White middle-class parents who want schools to reopen should consider the harm that schools to students of color. The ass-whuppins that students of color — who are the majority of students in public schools these days — may be rhetorical and by statute, but they are just as emotionally and psychologically scarring.
Bloodied bust of President Zachary Taylor, Statuary Hall, US Capitol, January 6, 2021. (Frank Thorp V/NBC News).
But for the 7,000 or 8,000 Maga-insurrectionists who tried to overthrow the vote, kidnap, beat up, and possibly kill members of Congress, all to keep one Donald J. Trump in power beyond January 20? Maybe an ass-whuppin’ is what all of them should get. Right outside on the west side of the US Capitol. Have a big strong man, like say Eugene Goodman, or former Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker James Harrison, beat them with the House of Representatives’ gavel on their pale and flat asses. That would be the easy way out. Watching them cry and holler, though, would make my weekend
What should really happen is time for the ringleaders — murderous treason is about as high as crime as it can get — in prison or in a place where can no longer make attempts at bringing a full-blown autocracy to the US. What should really happen is that the rest of the cabal should contribute to a reparations fund, like a quarter of their wealth or something. What they need is years of group therapy to uncover their narcissism. What we need is a government that is worth protecting from insurrectionists mobs moving forward. Otherwise, the US may well get an ass-whuppin’ from which it won’t recover. An ass-whuppin’ from within.