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Crossing the line from punishment to just plain mean…

May 29, 2019, 10:26 AM

Sometimes, in reflecting on childhood, you remember an incident and think, “Wow, that was really messed up.”  And then the more that you think about that incident, the more messed up you realize that it was.  Such was the case of a punishment that I received from my mother in November 1990 that, based on the way it all happened, was just wrong.  Before I begin, though, I should note that my parents did a great job overall in raising my sister and me.  But this one was wrong in so many ways.  And my mother likes to bring this one up in conversation, and speaks about it as though she’s quite proud of herself for it, despite how hurtful it actually was.

Back in late 1990, I was in fourth grade.  For context, recall that I did not have the best relationship with my elementary school, as it was clear that they weren’t equipped to handle someone like me (I briefly discuss this in the Mrs. Bradley Journal entry).  Because of that, I had a bit of trouble in school, and things were starting to come to a head with my relationship with my fourth grade teacher.  So getting punished was something that I was accustomed to.

However, this particular punishment really took the cake, mostly because of how it came about, and what happened in the course of the punishment, and the lasting damage that it caused.  In the fall of 1990, Mom had started openly tossing around the idea of cleaning out my room, i.e. taking all of my toys away, as a punishment.  Mom brought it up on several occasions that she wanted to do that, and nine-year-old me was terrified of the prospect, because it felt inevitable that she would eventually do that, and I didn’t know how to prevent it because I was never told what transgressions would trigger such a punishment.

On November 5, 1990, we went back to school right after I had come home.  I don’t remember what we went back for, but typically, whenever we went back like that, it was to retrieve a forgotten item.  I have no reason to think that wasn’t the case, and retrieving a forgotten item was never treated as a big deal.  I was in a really good mood that day and full of energy, as kids tend to be sometimes, but apparently, I was a little bit over the top on this occasion, while we were all talking about whatever in the classroom.  Mom was not happy about that, claiming on the way home that I treated her “like dirt” during the whole incident, which I viewed as an unfair characterization of my behavior at the time.

And apparently, her search for a crime to justify cleaning out my room ended with that visit to school.  When we got home, after I got chewed out in the car for the incident, Mom immediately went to work cleaning my room out, taking all of my toys and stuff right in front of me, and over my protests, leaving empty shelves.  This included my Legos, which I had built into various things, primarily a building with various rooms and such.  As she took my Legos, I expressed concern about what would happen to my Lego building, since I had put much time and effort into it.

As an aside, it should be noted that in the days before Schumin Web existed, I did a lot of stuff with Legos, and put a lot of time and effort into my Lego creations.  I was a little architect and engineer there, designing buildings out of Legos and then figuring out to make my ideas work with the materials that I had on hand.  I would periodically change my buildings, either adding onto them, remodeling them, or sometimes demolishing them completely and starting over.  Legos were my creative outlet in those pre-website days, and I took as much pride in my Lego creations as I now do with the website.

In the heat of the moment, my mother said that “it will be dismantled”.  My Lego building was taken away in one piece, so I held out some hope that she didn’t really mean what she said, and that I would get it back intact, since Mom wasn’t always the best at keeping to her word when it came to punishments.  Mom returned my stuff to me two weeks later, marking the end of the punishment.  My Legos were given back to me in a garbage bag, and yes, my Lego building had, in fact, been dismantled.  I didn’t think much about it at the time, though, because I was just happy to have gotten all of my stuff back.  I quickly went to work sorting through my Legos and getting everything back in order, and then went about constructing a new building.

Looking back, this was problematic in a few different ways.  First, Mom had come up with a punishment that she was clearly excited about carrying out, but didn’t have anything to use it on.  I guess that you might say that this was a punishment in search of a crime.  And it was clear that she had been looking for an excuse to carry it out.  Her justification for finally carrying it out, i.e. the way that I had behaved on our visit to the school, was pretty flimsy, since I had never been told that I was doing something wrong until afterward, when we left school to go home and I quickly learned that she was mad at me.  I had no idea that I was doing anything wrong in the moment, and thus I never had the opportunity to reel it in and correct things.  This was an extremely outsized punishment that was fit for an outsized transgression, and this wasn’t it.

Such an outsized transgression for which cleaning out my room may have been justified might have been what caused me to get suspended for two days for threatening the teacher later that same month.  In that instance, if memory serves, on the day before Thanksgiving, at the end of the day, I said to the teacher, “Now that school’s out, I have the right to smack you.”  My teacher physically pulled me to the principal’s office immediately upon hearing that, and I got suspended the following Monday after the principal called my parents over the holiday weekend saying that she was considering doing as much.  It was clear that this teacher and I were not a good match for each other, and she would send me out of the classroom on a regular basis for the weakest of reasons, either by putting me out in the hallway, or having me sit in the office for a while (and then sending another kid down later to retrieve me).  The time leading up to Thanksgiving was particularly rough, with one occasion in the week leading up to that where I was sent out to wait in the hallway, and another fourth grade teacher that was walking by looked at me and said, “Oops!” in a mocking tone.  But in any case, I was absolutely wrong to say what I did, and should have been punished for it, but it’s worth noting that these sorts of things usually do not occur in a vacuum.  Rather, they are often the culmination of a series of incidents where the teacher had been a participant.  Unfortunately, though, the typical stance of schools is that the school is always right, and therefore, any wrong is automatically the fault of the student, which eliminates the ability for the school to consider that they may have also contributed to the situation, such as with the whole purple binder incident earlier that same year.  In any case, my mother threatened to clean out my room for a second time if such a suspension were to happen, along with other punishments, but she never carried any of it out when the suspension actually happened, though she did tell me that I had completely ruined my life and that I might as well wish that I was dead because of this elementary school suspension (clearly, she was wrong about that).  But in any case, threatening the teacher was certainly an outsized crime for which an outsized punishment might have been well suited.  But she never followed through.  Perhaps, now that she had already cleaned my room out once, the thrill of taking all of my things away was gone?

What I consider to be the most problematic thing about the original punishment, in response to my allegedly poor behavior following the casual after-school visit with my teacher, was the dismantling of my Lego building.  That is where it crossed the line from punishment to just plain being mean, and turning it from a punishment into an act of revenge.  It would have been one thing to take all of my things away (even though the crime really didn’t justify it), including the Legos, but leaving everything intact.  In other words, just make everything inaccessible to me, but take proper care of everything while it was outside of my possession.  Therefore, at the end of the punishment period, I would be made whole again, having learned a lesson from the loss of toys for a period of time, but ultimately moving on.  Dismantling my Lego building went a step further, as that required active effort beyond simply making my things inaccessible to me, as was the alleged intent of the punishment.  Mom made a choice, and chose to put in extra time and effort to deliberately destroy something that I had put many hours of work into and had been rather proud of.  She was very thorough in doing so, as she had separated every single brick.  No two blocks were still joined together in that garbage bag when I got my Legos back.  That sent a message.  It was no longer a matter of, “Okay, your punishment is now over, and you are forgiven.”  Instead, the message was that this was something of an unforgivable sin, because with my Lego building’s destruction by her hand, I could never be made whole again.  Sure, I got my Legos back, and I soon built a new building, but it wasn’t the same.  No amount of work could have brought my Lego building back as it was before it was intentionally destroyed, and I still hold a certain level of resentment for the loss of the old one.  I learned a lesson from all of this, but not the one that Mom likely intended.  Rather, I learned that parents can be very petty and spiteful.

Every time my mother brings up this punishment in conversation, it reopens these old wounds that I would much rather leave in the past.  I have a feeling that whenever she brings this punishment up in conversation, and about how proud she was of it, she doesn’t realize how hurtful that punishment really was, and how much I would rather not have it brought back up decades later.  Some things deserve to be left in the past, and this is one of those things.