During the 1940’s when my mother was in the eighth grade, her teacher, Mrs. Gammel, was fond of terrorizing her class with a ruler. When I was in the sixth grade in a public school in Sheridan, Wyoming, in 1974, one of my teachers, whom I’ll call Mr. Smith, taught math, not my best subject. Instead of trying to help me understand long division and other mathematical concepts, he threatened that if I didn’t improve, he would hit me with an eighteen-inch ruler.
One day, he kept me after school to work on some problems. When I ran into trouble, I asked him for help. “Maybe I should hit you right now,” he said, as he reached into his desk drawer.
At that moment, the school secretary entered the room. “Abbie, your mother’s on the phone,” she said. Relieved, I followed her to the office. After that, Mr. Smith never threatened me again.
He left the elementary school in Sheridan after my sixth grade year. I heard he was driving a truck. He eventually ascended to the position of principal at a school in Casper, Wyoming, approximately 150 miles south of Sheridan.
Years later, an article about me appeared in a newsletter that was produced by the Wyoming Department of Education and distributed to schools and visually impaired people living in the state. At the time, I was working as an activities assistant in a nursing home. I received a letter from Mr. Smith. I was surprised because it was the first time I’d heard from him since the sixth grade.
In his letter, he said that after reading the article, he admired me and hoped that I remembered him. I wrote him back and said that yes, I definitely remembered the eighteen-inch ruler, After putting the letter in the mail, I thought that would be the end of it.
To my astonishment, he replied, saying that through the years, he realized that he hadn’t been a good teacher. “Corporal punishment isn’t always the answer,” he said. “I hope you’ll forgive me.”
Since he didn’t have my home address, he sent his first letter to me in care of the nursing home mentioned in the article. I had a great relationship with Joan, my supervisor, and since I didn’t want her to think I was in the habit of receiving personal mail at work, I mentioned our correspondence. Jean, one of my co-workers, happened to be in the office when we were talking, and she said, “I’ve never heard of an eighteen-inch ruler. I don’t think there is such a thing.”
“Oh, that’s just too funny,” said Joan. “Maybe the next time I have to go to Casper, you can come with me, and I can drop you off at his school.”
“That’s a great idea,” I said. “I could walk into his office and say, ‘Okay, Mr. Smith, I see your eighteen-inch ruler and raise you a forty-six inch white cane’”We all laughed.
But after giving the issue some thought, I came to the conclusion that teachers make mistakes like everyone else. Mr. Smith never followed through with his threat to hit me with the ruler. Since I didn’t see it, it may not have existed.
On the other hand, my mother was a victim in the eighth grade. I wonder if Mrs. Gammel ever saw the error of her ways.
Is there such a thing as an eighteen-inch ruler? Do you have memories of being taught reading, writing, and math with the help of a hickory stick or other implement? Are you a teacher who used corporal punishment and now regrets it? Tell me about it. I’d love to hear from you
Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome