A Visit to the Principal’s Office

Crime, punishment, and a visit to the Principal’s office…
Let us remember those golden years (The Nineteen-Fifties) when there was none of this modern crap about being sensitive to children’s “needs”. I mean, gimme a fuckin’ break, “needs?” The only recognized need a kid had in those days was for the bathroom. If something else was troubling your little ego (like, for instance, neglect, abuse, gender confusion), you were expected to deal with it yourself. Continue reading

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Portrait of my Elementary School Principal
(no, no… actually this is a close-up of the portrait of a “prominent” New Yorker from the early 19th century—in The Museum of The City of New York).

…But the look on this woman’s face really did remind me of the look on our principal’s face if you were caught loitering in the hall without a hall pass or if you came in a couple of seconds late from recess. Yes, it took me back to those golden years (The Nineteen-Fifties) when there was none of this modern crap about being sensitive to children’s “needs”. I mean, gimme a fuckin’ break, needs? The only recognized need a kid had in those days was for the bathroom. If something else was troubling your little ego (like, for instance, neglect, abuse, gender confusion), you were expected to keep it to yourself.
If you weren’t writing something or drawing a picture, you were supposed to keep your hands folded on top of your desk and PAY ATTENTION. And if the school alarm bell suddenly went off and the teacher yelled “duck and cover,” you had to assume a fetal position under your desk or risk horrible injury from an atomic bomb blast.
You had to understand all these things were for your own good—that they created a healthy mind in a healthy body; good mental and moral habits, not to mention a total absence of radiation burns.
But if you were an incorrigible juvenile delinquent—a real degenerate; if you had a habit of talking in class, passing notes, not paying attention or just being generally truculent (not to mention running in the hallways or whacking some other kid out in the school yard) you were in danger of being sent to the principal’s office. And that was VERY BAD.
The scene unfolded thusly… The teacher stopped what she was doing and told you to come up to her desk. While you stood there, she wrote out a note, folded it over and handed it to you. “Take this to the Principle’s office,” she said.
And even though this was America, the land of free, this whole process followed the Napoleonic Code (guilty until proven innocent). You walked in shame (and/or faux defiance) to the class door—every pair of eyes in the utterly silent classroom fixed on you, every kid in the class saying a prayer of thanks that it wasn’t them heading for a beheading. You walked down the empty hallway, filled with foreboding. And with each step closer to the office, your pace slowed, your heart thumped louder and your mind grasped (vainly) for excuses.
You opened the office door, told the secretary that your teacher had sent you to speak to the principal and sat down on the wooden bench, awaiting the moment of JUDGEMENT.
After several years of anxious waiting, you were told to go in. You went in, handed the principal the folded note and stood there while she opened it up. She seemed to take forever to read it, pursing her lips and shaking her head. Then… Then…
Then what usually happened was that you got a cold, hard stare, the threat to tell your mother and a wave of dismissal. Maybe you were ordered to sit out on the bench for fifteen minutes so the true weight of your crime took hold of your conscience (and also made the kids back in the classroom wonder what horrible tortures you were enduring). Then you got up, walked back to class and made your way to your desk—trying to pretend you were invisible.

Actually, my elementary school principal, Mrs. Flinker (her real name), was a small, kindly lady and never really had cause, in our relatively well-behaved lower-middle class community to ever dole out any serious punishment. The worst that would happen is that she might take out her fountain pen, write a note to your mother, seal it in an envelope and tell you to give it to her as soon as you got home. Now there you could be in real trouble.
Never-the-less, the expectation of judgement and your sense of public shame (depending, of course, on just where you were on the shame continuum) combined to make this walk to her office a kind of a kid’s version of the last mile.

So the portrait I saw in the museum brought back, not the actual, kind, grandmotherly face of my real-life elementary school principal, but the emotional experience of being singled out in front of the whole class and sent to her office. Thus our memories are sculpted… much less from facts than from feeling; accumulating over decades into the great volume of our personal mythology.

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8 Responses to A Visit to the Principal’s Office

  1. During my recent years as a NYC public high school teacher, the usual procedure was to fill out a dean’s referral for a misbehaving kid after class, after the relevant dramatic moment of offensive behavior had passed. Sometimes I could get a dean to pull a kid out right then and there with a desperate phone call to the office, but usually the deans were so busy reprimanding the ever-present pool of offending students that they had to pick up referral documented kids whenever the deans’ schedules would allow during the school day. The principal would rarely step into this full time job of dealing with recalcitrant kids. If a student accumulates a quota of deans’ referrals, the teachers can request a 3 day class suspension, and get some relief from a particularly disruptive knucklehead. This stuff is what often consumes a teacher’s time and attention. On the other hand, when I was a kid in 1960s…Once I got over being intimidated by the threat of visits to the principal’s office in response to my own juvenile offenses, I embraced these occasional visits as a means to file grievances with management against my blockhead teacher. However, the teacher was right and I was a snotty squirt.
    Hey Mike, looking forward to your forthcoming tributes to Supreme Scalia. Now that blowhard would have made a good principal! Who will now speak on behalf of Clarence Thomas?

  2. Tom Elliott says:

    Early 60’s St. Francis De Sales Detroit, trips to Mother Superior were rare nuns would direct you to the cloak room at the back of the classroom order the class to do something then head to the cloak room to settle the disruption.

    Their was one particularly attractive nun I tried so hard undressing her in my fifth grade mind but could never quite do it.
    Not because of any moral trepidation, there was just too much on outside I didn’t understand how it all went together.

  3. Mary-Louise Burt says:

    Its around 1966, I am like a sophmore cheerleader in the “old gym” practicing after school hours with the team. Need to go to the bathroom. I bound up the cement steps to the closest bathroom ..its the men’s but school is out…and in a hurry to get back to the group roar thru the door but come to a dead halt..there standing and peeing at the urinal is Mr Holley, our principal. My feet are frozen in place, there is a moment of terrible silence, and in a few octives higher than usual he says “MISS BURT” but mostly to my back cause I left. The next day in English class, knock on the door and the school secretary called me out of class. I know exactly how many years I too sat in that chair waiting to go into Mr Holley’s office. But actually he had been collecting offenses and called me out for skipping class on such and such a date and I was told to never do it again and I left.

    • Mike Feder says:

      Great story. Thanks…
      Yes, the dread power of principles. They were (still are probably) like living forms of the super-ego; they were the arbiters of what was moral and immoral and also the judges who handed out the punishment.

  4. Carol says:

    Picture Perfect! (In every sense)

    Could this be the same Mrs. Flinker, who was good friends with Mrs. Chesler? Mrs. Chesler, who wore her black hair pulled back in a bun? My ‘three score and ten’ memory believes it is.

    Speaking of pictures … You paint pictures with your words, Mike. Be they written or spoken. I sincerely thank you for all your “Hard Work”. [intended]

    • Mike Feder says:

      Yup, that’s her. And I sure remember Mrs. Chesler.
      Actually, Mrs. Flinker graduated with my grandmother from Hunter College waaaay back in the day. They knew each other–had been teachers together in the NYC school system.
      So Mrs. Flinker was always pretty understanding with me.
      Thanks for the compliments, Carol.

  5. Victoria says:

    My Catholic grammar school principal, Mother John was at least 6ft. tall. The boys used to sing the Jommy Dean song, “Big Bad John” as we lined up I. The schoolyard. In class, we had to stand and say “Good morning, Sister.” We took our slaps on the hands with a ruler like champions, never cried and never laughed when another kid was getting hit. Those schoolroom ethics have come in handy.

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