In the supermarket, a mother was having a dispute with her son, who looked to be about nine years old.
"I said that's it, I don't want to discuss it again, ever! And don't bring it up again!"
This was the kid talking.
He stormed out of the cereal aisle, followed by his mother, who-looking equal parts frustrated and embarrassed-told him he had a "time out" coming when they got home.
Little Johnny's tirade brought to mind the ongoing debate I have with friends regarding parental discipline. I happen to be one of those archaic souls who think that, just sometimes, physical discipline is in order.
I don't have kids, but I used to be one, and I learned early in life that there was a price to be paid for my actions, and sometimes it wasn't simply verbal.
Had that been my mother, "time" would have stopped right there on aisle 5. With rows of cornflakes, Cocoa Puffs, the Trix rabbit and Cap'n Crunch all bearing witness, a child would have had a revelation. To be honest, I can count the spankings I got at home. My four siblings and I were never what you'd call cutups.
Marjorie Ivory was a gentle woman, not the kind of ear-tugging, verbally abusive parent who gives discipline a bad name. Usually, she'd simply give you a certain gaze, and time would stop. When all else failed-and there wasn't much "else" beyond a second or third "I thought I told you not to do that"-she sent me out into the backyard to pluck the tool of my punishment. In my childhood ingenuity, I never realized that it was the skinniest, puniest branch that stung little brown legs the most.
If, on the rare occasion I did "show out" in public, naked eyes simply saw a loving mother calmly taking her child by the arm; onlookers didn't know Mama had a kung fu grip.
This kind of lovin' extended to school. Were there any teachers in my elementary and junior high schools not packing heat-a rubber hose or a souped-up wooden paddle-in their desk drawers?
Certainly there was the odd parent in the principal's office, raising hell about the teacher who "laid hands on my child." But right or wrong, physical reprimand was as much a part of school life as fish sticks on Friday.
Under the weight of such a looming threat, classroom conspiracies caved in swiftly and mercilessly; if the culprit didn't come forward or wasn't offered up to the teacher by his classmates, the classroom door would be closed, the whole class would be lined up and everyone would pay for the jive of a few. The lesson: While authority is away, you will govern yourselves and order will prevail.
Carter Woodson Elementary's Miss Townsend was the mother of all disciplinarians, a tall, lean proud black woman who ran her classroom the way Khrushchev ran the Soviet Union. You'd peek into her room and see the biggest bully sitting with a halo over his head.
She'd get your attention with words or with a textbook flying in your direction. Today, a teacher could be locked up for such antics. I'd say it was Miss Townsend who ultimately kept a few hardheads out of jail.
Of course, there is another side to all this. There are youngsters whose problems are not remedied by the proverbial spanking, children who need and deserve the loving care and attention of professional help. And there are those parents and teachers who, under the guise of discipline, methodically abuse children. They too, need professional help-and maybe some jail time.
I'm talking something else here, about putting a train back on its track. About presenting consequences to create a sense of responsibility.
At first I considered Little Johnny lucky that he didn't have to deal with the likes of Marjorie Ivory-and then immediately felt sorry that he doesn't know that kind of attention. Because every now and then we all need someone to put us back on track. Someone who loves us enough to do so.