Mount St. Helens in Skamania County, Washington,
in the Pacific NW region of the United States,
before its 1980 eruption.
(Continued from last Thursday, September 19 . . . )
First, thank you for wishing me good health. As you can see, I just needed to go back to bed yesterday. Now I’m hunky-dory!
Let’s continue this Omaha saga. In my memory, it’s Monday, February 15, 1960. I’ve come into the classroom and announced the method of discipline that would set boundaries for the rest of the school year. I began with the following words: “For four weeks, I’ve given you so much rope you’ve hanged yourselves with it.”
I remember those words well. They helped me save face but were so untrue. I’ve given them no rope. The truth was I simply didn’t know how to establish classroom discipline in that milieu.
To teach, I needed quiet punctuated by questions, curiosity, and discussion. Many of these seventh graders also wanted this, so my despotic discipline was unfair to them. But to reach the gang members and a couple of girls who were causing the disturbances, I had to become autocratic.
I also knew that the subtraction problems I meant to use for discipline would be wearisome to finish. To begin the process, I’d multiple a three-digit number like 537 by another three-digit number like 241. The answer would be 129,417.
The students would then subtract 537 from this large number and would keep subtracting 537 until they got to 0. They’d subtract 241 times to do that. A lot of mental work.
I explained this to the students to give them a sense of the scope of what staying after school meant. Several booed and let me know that no one—Absolutely. No. One.—could keep them after school to do anything.
It was then I pulled my trump card.
When Sister Brendan, the principal, had given me permission to try this tactic, she’d added, “Tell them that if they walk out and don’t complete the problem, they’ll be suspended for three days. And if they do that a second time, they’ll be expelled. That ought to do it.”
When I played the trump card she’d given me, several boys cursed.
Eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, at 8:32 PDT.
Hearing the curses from several students, I turned my back on the class—fearful still that someone might throw a knife—and printed their names on the chalkboard with a checkmark after each name.
Turning back toward them, I said, “That’s for cursing. If you get two more checkmarks today, you’ll stay after school.” They groaned but said no more.
To begin our new regime, I established a daily subject schedule. We’d pray, say the pledge of allegiance, and begin with religion. Following that, we’d study math, then reading, and so on.
Before we began each subject that day, I distributed the textbooks for it and directed the students to open them to a section where their knowledge was weak. I’d learned their subject deficiencies from the quizzes I’d given on my first day in that classroom.
As the day progressed, several boys sat like convulsive volcanoes ready to erupt. Throughout the day, I added checkmarks for anything that was on the list I’d posted that morning.
Mount St. Helens two years after the 1980 eruption.
As I remember, by the day’s end, four boys—Ron, Bill, John M., and Tommy—and one girl—Jenny—had three or more checkmarks by their names. The five of them stayed after school. And subtracted. And subtracted. And tried to convince me they’d gotten to 0. And subtracted some more. The last student left the classroom nearly two hours after school ended. Fortunately, all five lived close by and could walk safely home.
And so began the reign of Sister Innocence, tyrant of Mount Saint Scholastica Monastery.
Mount St. Helens, October 2009,
with a view of the ice-covered crater rim.
(. . . to be continued next Wednesday, October 2)