Reflections on Childhood School Discipline

An event that occurred more than 50 years ago still sticks in my memory. My older brother came to my grammar school on that Saturday at 12:00 noon, as usual, to pick me up to walk me home. Like many other grammar schools in Hong Kong at that time, my school had classes five and a half days per week. For many minutes my brother waited and waited at our usual meeting spot, but he still didn’t see any sign of me. He was concerned and went to the school office to inquire. They told him that because I forgot on that day to bring to school the notebook for one of my classes, the teacher of that class was punishing me by requiring me to stay after school to work on an extra assignment.

The punishment was to write the most complicated word in the Chinese language 1,000 times. Since that word has 26 strokes, one can write at most 10 words per minute when writing at a very fast pace. This means that even if one writes continuously without any pause or rest break, it would take at least 100 minutes to finish that assignment. It was no wonder that my brother had to wait for about two hours before I was allowed to leave.

Very tired in my right arm and eyes, as well as my whole body due to hunching over my desk and writing furiously and continuously for two hours, I was very upset at that teacher for being so harsh. After all, this was just grammar school, and not the army training for war. It was a harmless mistake that did not affect anyone else, and not some mistake that created a life-and-death situation for someone. Even if I needed to be punished, surely the punishment could be something less severe than a useless two-hour exercise that forced a young boy to miss his lunch and more importantly caused his mother waiting anxiously at home and wondering why her two children still had not come home yet. Keep in mind that in the early 1950s in Hong Kong, most families did not have telephones at their homes, so the school had no way of informing my mom that I was delayed.

My brother was also annoyed. He had to waste two hours just waiting for me. He was also very hungry and did not get to eat lunch until much later. More importantly, being older, he knew that our mother would be worried by our absence; thus the incident also caused him unnecessary stress.

I often wonder under similar circumstances, what would have happened to me at a grammar school in the U.S. Nothing, except perhaps the teacher would say to me, “Please remember to bring that notebook to school in the future.” In the absence of a notebook, if I needed some papers to write on, the teacher would have given me some blank papers. If I needed some class information that I had recorded in my notebook, the teacher probably would have shown me that information again or asked me to look at a classmate’s notebook for that information. Or the worst punishment could be being required to stand in a corner facing a wall for five minutes.

In spite of the fact that I felt that the punishment was way too harsh for the deed, I did learn a lesson. After that day, I never forgot to bring my notebook to school again. I wonder if the punishment had been to stand in a corner facing a wall for five minutes, would I have learned the lesson and would never forget to bring my notebook to school again?

That kind of punishment, although not necessarily that specific punishment, was actually representative of a strong disciplinary approach in the Chinese society at that time, not only in schools, but also in homes and society as a whole. For example, it was very common for parents to spank their children when they misbehaved. I, as well as my brothers and sisters, had personally experienced many spankings delivered by our father using a cleaning-feathered-stick. As a matter of fact, it was also common for teachers to give out physical punishments, such as hitting a student’s hands with a ruler if the student misbehaved. Although I was never a bad kid, I also had experienced that kind of physical punishments from my teachers in Hong Kong.

Looking back at that incident more than 50 years later, I still share most of the feelings I had at that time. I do not mind that the teacher gave me punishment for forgetting to bring my notebook to school, but the punishment that I received was definitely too harsh for that single act of forgetfulness. If a teacher does that today in an American grammar school, he or she definitely would receive at least a strong reprimand, and probably would even be fired. 

However, having lived in both the Chinese society and American society and noticing the amount of serious disciplinary problems in American schools, homes, and society as a whole, I often wonder whether a more disciplinary educational system in the U.S. could reduce significantly many of these social problems facing American schools.  I also wonder whether a more disciplinary approach in homes and society as a whole would reduce significantly many of the social problems among the youths in the American society. 

I do not necessarily mean that we have to dole out physical punishments, but I do believe that our youths should be taught more discipline, and they should be held more accountable. They should expect that there will be adverse consequences to them if they misbehave and violate the rules of society.

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