Big Easy and the paddle

"Spare the rod and spoil the child" was the mantra when I was growing up.

When my father threatened to take off his belt, I shaped up in a hurry because I didn't relish painful whacks against my backside. I relate to "Daddy's Hands," a 1986 country song by Holly Dunn:

Daddy's hands were soft and kind when I was crying

Daddy's hands were hard as steel when I'd done wrong

Daddy's hands weren't always gentle, but I've come to understand

There was always love in Daddy's hands.

At my public school, teachers were free to inflict corporal punishment. In my middle-school years, I had a male teacher who allowed students to wad up paper balls and throw them into the trash can at the front of the classroom. If the paper made it cleanly into the can, no problem. If the student missed, however, the teacher took out a wooden paddle and told him to bend over. I say "him" because the boys, myself included, were the only gender stupid enough to play this game of Russian roulette. I lost at this game one time before suddenly losing interest.

Flash forward about 30 years, and you might reasonably suggest that all heck would break loose if a teacher or principal struck one of my children. I don't hit my kids at home, and I sure don't want a school official correcting them that way. It's a different world, you might say, than when I was a kid.

Or is it?

Religion News Service had a fascinating story recently by Bruce Nolan on the New Orleans archbishop putting a stop to corporal punishment at a Catholic high school:

NEW ORLEANS (RNS) As a high-school student in the mid-1960s, Greg Aymond occasionally saw an angry teacher cuff a student. It never happened to him, nor does the memory of faculty discipline in those days particularly trouble the man who later became the archbishop of New Orleans.

But now, as Archbishop Gregory Aymond confronts formal physical punishment at one of the city's top Catholic high schools jewels, he is clear:

"I do not believe the teachings of the Catholic Church as we interpret them in 2011 condone corporal punishment.

"It's hard for me to imagine in any way, shape or form, Jesus using a paddle," he said.

Moreover, Aymond said, the social research "is very, very clear: Violence fosters violence."

The story goes on to explain that, surprisingly enough, Aymond's decision has drawn a backlash from some people associated with the school:

The 61-year-old archbishop's concerns about corporal punishment at St. Augustine High School received a public airing late last month in an extraordinary meeting with the school's parents and alumni.

The alumni urged the school to drop its temporary ban on paddling -- a ban put in place, Aymond disclosed, as a result of concerns he quietly raised months ago.

One after another, business and professional men, tradesmen and fathers recalled getting bent over and whacked by a lay teacher or a priest during their days at St. Augustine.

With the distance of age, they told Aymond they appreciated the crack of the paddle for its ability to force a mid-course correction on a young man grown lazy, or disrespectful, or too full of himself.

A few recalled memorable collective punishment: a whole class getting caned, one by one, for substandard academic performance, or because one miscreant declined to come forward.

The RNS piece does a nice job of catching the high points of the New Orleans debate but never really explains how Catholic teachings have changed. Nor does the report provide any context on the extent of 2011 corporal punishment in other schools -- public and private. According to CBS News, 20 states still allow paddling, including Louisiana, where more than 11,000 students suffered that fate in a recent year. The story does cite a researcher's claim that St. Augustine was the last Catholic school in the country to use the wooden paddle.

In general, I felt like that RNS story adequately reflected the archbishop's perspective. However, the piece lacked much input from anyone else. Readers never really get a feel for the other side of this discussion.

For that reason, I was pleased to find a more insightful piece -- also by Nolan -- in The Times-Picayune. While the RNS story does not disclose that St. Augustine is an African-American high school, the follow-up report makes it clear that race is an issue, perhaps the biggest issue:

In fact, according the Rev. John Raphael, the president of St. Augustine, it's not even mostly about the paddle.

In Raphael's view, Aymond and the Josephite trustees, who last fall imposed a temporary paddling ban at the school they founded, have dismissed St. Augustine's record of success, and more deeply, African-American parents' desire to educate and discipline their children in their own traditions.

Absent any scandal or evidence of abuse, "it is insulting to suggest that our 60 years of experience with kids would have left us harming them and continuing to harm them," Raphael said in an interview.

To St. Augustine parents and alumni, the push to end corporal punishment sounds paternalistic, Raphael said. "It's as if critics are saying, 'We know what's best for you. We're going to help you raise your children. Obviously you disagree with us, but we know better.'?"

He continued: "Why do African-American families have to beg permission from folks in another culture to raise their kids in the Judeo-Christian tradition that has sustained our culture for so many generations?"

Read on, and the story explains that the archbishop inflamed the controversy with a weekly video address in which he unveiled an initiative to fight street crime and the murder rate in New Orleans -- and later pivoted to the St. Augustine situation:

Aymond acknowledged that there might be cultural differences in play and said he had not come to a final conclusion. But he also said: "I truly believe that we teach violence by being violent."

Some viewers said they saw that as an implied linkage between St. Augustine alumni and street crime.

The video spread rapidly.

Wow. There's a story.

Certainly, corporal punishment is interesting.

But in the Big Easy, the racial angle may be even more so.

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