ON CORPORAL PUNISHMENT.
“Joseph bolted out of the kitchen into the back yard, and Adam started screaming. It curdled my blood. I thought I was going to die of a heart attack. I whipped around to see what was behind me – to see what had frightened the boys. There was nothing there, but I was too afraid to go down the hallway and look for… Whoever or whatever.”
[I’m an Army brat. All of this happened in Texas, just outside of Fort Hood. The names of the boys have been changed for obvious reasons.]
My first job was babysitting. I was so proud when my parents finally decided I was old enough and responsible enough, and thrilled that I’d be able to supplement my modest allowance with money I had earned myself. I felt all grown up at twelve. I was officially a “Big Girl.”
The first family I worked for had a newborn baby girl. Before she was born, her military father had been gravely injured in a helicopter accident (his craft had become tangled in some illegally strung electrical wires), and I took care of her as her mom stayed by his side, waiting for him to regain consciousness, and eventually recover. This babysitting job lasted for months and months.
When I was thirteen, my second babysitting job was for a military family with two sons – Adam, four and Joseph, three – every weekday after school. I was a few days into my new job when it happened.
I was doing my homework at the dinner table as the boys played with their Matchbox cars a few feet away in the kitchen, where the floor was smooth for racing. They were having fun, until things took a turn for the angry. Joseph was upset because his older brother had grabbed one of his cars, and demanded it back. I stopped doing my homework to watch what happened next.
To understand how I reacted (or didn’t, as the case may be), you should know I have just one sister, and we are less than a year apart in age. My parents generally let us work out our differences ourselves. If and when we couldn’t or wouldn’t, then (and only then) they would step in and resolve it for us.
It became apparent that Adam wasn’t going to give Joseph back his car, and that Joseph was getting more and more upset about this outrage. I stood up from the table, faced the boys, and firmly said, “Adam, come here!”
What happened next is burned into my memory in detail. It is among the most terrifying things that have ever happened to me. All of a sudden, Joseph bolted out of the kitchen into the back yard, and Adam started screaming. It curdled my blood. I thought I was going to die of a heart attack. I whipped around to see what was behind me – to see what had frightened the boys. There was nothing there, but I was too afraid to go down the hallway and look for… Whoever or whatever.
I started quickly toward Adam to ask him what was happening, and his screaming got worse – so much worse, though I would not have thought that possible. It dawned on me that I was scaring him more. I squatted down to his level, and tried to get him to tell me what was happening. All he would say between screams was, “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t.” He was bawling. To say he was trembling doesn’t do it justice. It was more like a seizure.
I started begging him to calm down, to please tell me what was wrong, that I was scared, too, and I needed his help… That I didn’t know where his brother had gone… That he had to trust me so I could protect all of us from… Whoever or whatever.
It was then that he told me he was afraid of ME. He thought I was going to hurt him.
[Dear reader, you don’t know me, but I don’t do that. It’s just not who I am. It is not who I have ever been.]
It took time to get it out of him, but Adam explained, in a child’s way, that he thought I was going to make him go find a “switch” in the backyard, bring it to me, pull down his pants, bend over and grab his feet, and “get whipped.” If he returned with a switch that wasn’t bad enough, I would go and find a really terrible one to use. If he tried to resist, I would hurt him worse. These were the rules, as explained to him by his daddy. “Oh, god,” I thought, “He’s four, and he knows these sick rules?”
I started crying, too. I put my arms around his wracked body, and promised him that I would never hit him or hurt him. I told him he was not bad, that my sister and I sometimes argued over toys and other things, and that we were good. It took time, but he calmed down, and so did I. I asked him to help me find his brother.
We went into the backyard. Joseph was nowhere to be seen. It was a fenced-in yard, with a gate latch too high for Joseph to reach. I hoped he wasn’t strong enough to climb over the fence. Adam and I looked everywhere – up the trees, under the bushes, in the doghouse, under the porch… We finally found him. Two metal garbage cans were chained to the fence. Somehow, Joseph had managed to wedge himself between and behind the cans, against the fence. I could see he was crying and shaking, and that my having found him was making it worse.
It took a while, but with Adam’s help, I convinced Joseph that it was safe to come out on his own, that nothing bad was going to happen to his brother or to him, that my promise was a promise he could trust me to keep forever.
I got the boys inside, and started to deal with how they looked. Adam’s face was blotchy, red and swollen, and he still had the shakes. I gave him an icy-wet towel to hold on his face. Joseph’s back and the backs of his arms were crisscrossed with the pattern of the chain-link fence, and his clothes were dirty. I brushed off his clothes, and used a soapy rag to clean them off. I could do nothing to fix the pattern in his skin, but I was sure it would clear up before his parents got home that evening.
Later, as the boys ate dinner, I made my decision. I was not going to tell anyone what happened – not their parents, and not mine. I had my reasons. One was selfish (I was afraid of losing the job and the money), but the rest were not. I was afraid something bad would happen to the boys if their parents found out that they told. I was afraid that if I was not their babysitter anymore, they might get one who hit them. I thought that if, every single day, I told their parents what wonderful, good boys they had been, life might get better for them.
I have no respect for heritage. “The way things are,” “The way things have always been,” “The way we do things around here,” “The way we have always done things?” I am not impressed. I know what I know, and I know right from wrong. If this happened to you as a child, and you “turned out fine,” I am truly relieved and sincerely happy for you, but here’s the thing:
You can’t go back and re-run your childhood, changing that one variable, and measure the results. Even if you could, I don’t give a damn what those results would be. I believe that from the moment you’re born, until the moment you die, you are a human being with human rights. You belong to yourself. There should be limits on what anyone may do to you. One of those limits is hit you.
“Spank.” “Punch.” “Whip.” “Assault.” “Slap.” “Beat.” “Whoop.” “Strike.” “Smack.” “Slam.”
I don’t care what they call it.
I don’t care why they do it.
I don’t care what your relationship is to them.
I don’t care how little you are when they do it to you.
It’s wrong. It’s evil. If it isn’t a crime, it should be.