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What Kind of Classroom Abuse Occurred That Day?

May 27, 2014

Could you call it abuse of a student?  Or would you feel that the teacher had been wronged?  Let me tell you the story and then you decide.

This incident took place in the classroom, but this event takes you way back. This happened when I was a freshman student at Delmar High School in Delaware.  A quick check of my math would put this in the year 1974.

For the sake of my story, I want you to get of how far back this was.  This was the year imagethat Nixon resigned the Presidency.  Chrissy Evert and Jimmy Conners dominated the world of professional tennis, a sport that had a recent explosive growth in popularity.  A first class stamp was eight pennies.  You could put a gallon of gas in your car for fifty-three cents.  So, you get the idea that this was a long time ago, right?  Now, let me continue with my story…

One of my classmates and a good buddy of mine – let’s call him Matt – was sitting two rows away from me in our History Class led by a tall war veteran whom I’ll name Mr. Saunders.  Matt was a stand-up guy, always there for me whenever I needed him.  We were teammates in high school football and baseball, and I was his campaign manager when he successfuly ran for Student Council office.  He would goof around in class, to be sure, but a warning from a teacher would ususally set him back in line.  Although he’d get his ears pinned back once in a while, I don’t recall him getting very many detentions.  He knew how to push and when to back off, if you know what I mean.

The History course was a pretty decent offering.  I freely admit that I did more than tolerate the class time; I actually enjoyed it a bit.  Mr. Saunders was a good solid teacher who would often step aside from history to give us an anecdote or two about his life in the military or his love for short wave radios.  He was never far off topic, but he kept the class interesting.  We all got along with him, but he also made it clear that he would brook no nonsense.

Oh, and another thing.  He really had a dislike for guys with long hair.

Matt had long hair.  About down to his shoulders.

Mr. Saunders kind of didn’t like Matt.

It wasn’t overt, but you could see the tension on Mr. Saunder’s part.  Matt had no problem with the teacher; in fact, I think he was unaware of Mr. Saunders’ dislike of him, for that matter.  A few of us could tell, however, whenever Matt would ask a question and receive a curt reply and a flat stare.  If Matt tried to make a light joke, Mr. Saunders would clench his jaw.  Matt’s bushy seldom-combed mop of hair spoke to Mr. Saunder’s in a way that I couldn’t explain, but you could tell that the teacher looked at it with a faint malevolence.

Yet, for most of the year, everything was normal.

Then came That Day.

On That Day, Mr. Saunders had been going over the plight of the Southern troops at Gettysburg, giving us quite a stirring rendition of Pickett’s Charge when he was called out of the room by a fellow teacher.  As in generations past of public high school students, we all knew the routine:  once the instructor leaves the room, chat if you will but don’t let the volume rise enough to make the teacher look like he/she can’t keep a room under control.  This truce has been going on since the American school system has been in place, and we freshmen knew the age-old unwritten code of enjoying some relaxing down-time while still letting the teacher keep his/her dignity.

But there always has to be one troublemaker, doesn’t there?

Jeff Baker was the goof-off who set things in motion on That Day.

After the first few minutes of relative calm, Jeff tried to grab attention by making duck noises.  Although he grew louder in volume, we had seen his routine before and remained unimpressed, continuing with our quiet banter.  He stepped up the game and  went into imitating flatulent explosions, but that was ignored as well; it had run its course in junior high. He went to his ace-in-the-hole:  making bomber noises while throwing hastily-made paper airplanes at Lynda Crabtree, who squealed her annoyance.

He had just about achieved maximum attention when Mr. Saunders burst into the room.  And was he mad.

You know a teacher is mad when they march, right?  Well, Mr. Saunders was marching. Jeff ducked down and cowered.

The teacher strode in, his eyes afire.  The noise has traveled out into the hall and The Rule had been broken.  He was made to appear that he didn’t have control over his classoom.  He had been embarrassed and someone was going to pay dearly.  By the look in his eyes we could tell he was going to blister the culprit. Matt found this quite enjoyable; he had a faint dislike for Jeff for some reason – it may have been competition in the romance field, but I cannot remember.  I do recall, though, that Matt harbored ill feelings for Jeff, and this was going to be a prize moment for Matt as he watched Jeff get walloped.

But there was, shall we say, a wrong assumption made.  Jeff had clammed up and cowered quickly enough that he became anonymous.  Mr. Saunders marched into the room and grabbed the student’s long hair, yanking him straight back.

Matt’s long hair.

Let me repeat what Mr. Saunders did, but with more detail.  He marched into the room, his teeth clenched so hard I thought he would break his molars.  He stormed down the middle aisle towards Jeff, but stopped short at Matt, who had tucked his head into his chest, chuckling.  To our utter shock, he grabbed a handful of Matt’s thick hair and yanked straight back, snapping Matt’s head back so that he was looking directly into the teacher’s eyes.

“Where do you get the idea that you can start goofing off the minute I leave the room?” he roared into Matt’s face.  Matt was dumbstruck.  “Answer me!” the teacher shouted.

“Uh, Mr. Saunders?” said Jeff meekly.

“What do you want?” snapped the teacher.

“It w-was me with the noises, not Matt.  I’m sorry,” said Jeff.

Mr. Saunders paused, realizing what he had done. He gathered himself as best he could and pointed at Jeff.  “You,” he snapped, “get out in the hall.”  He looked down at Matt.  “I’m sorry, son. I-I made a serious mistake.  I’m really sorry,” he said.

Matt just looked straight ahead.

I need to interject at this point and mention that Matt had become a Believer just over a year prior to That Day.  He had made a decision for Christ and had been coming to my church a few times while looking for a church of his own.

When I talked to him outside of school that day, though, he was fighting a rage.

“He did apologize, man,” I said.  “I mean, he did something stupid, but he seemed really sorry about it.  We all saw his embarrassment.”

“Yeah, but it was me he grabbed,” spat out Matt. “I’m the one he went after.”

“You gotta let it go,” I said.  I was a new Christian myself.  “You know what’s right, Matt.  We just learned about this, you know, forgiveness.”

Matt got up and walked away.  “No,” he said over his shoulder.  “Not for him. ”

Fast forward eleven years later.  I’m visiting the folks in Delaware and I run into Matt at the local mall.  Matt was doing well in the communications industry in Baltimore. He was loose and happy as he talked.  After some joshing and reminiscing, I threw in a tease:  “So, I still remember when Mr. Saunders grabbed a handful of your hair.”

Matt got the old glare I remembered.  He set his jaw.  “I’ll  never forgive him for that.”

I was so thrown that I sputtered.  “B-but, man, that was over a decade ago, and I do remembered he apologized!”

Matt shook his head.  “I’ll never forgive him for that.”

Fast forward to our twenty-fifth reunion.  I stood on the yacht’s deck with a collection of old buddies.  Ah, it was good to chat and relax.  All of us had careers that were favorable to us; all of us shared pleasant memories of school.

Danny Banks had just been talking to us about his exploits in the field of education, including returning back to college for advanced degrees.  He suddenly changed the subject and nodded towards Matt.  “Well, dude, did you finally get over that hair-pulling incident that day?  You know, the Saunders incident…”

Matt let loose a stream of curse words that stunned all of us.  “That miserable little creep…” he fumed.

“Whoa, Matt, ease up,” said Stewart, leaning on the boat’s railing.  “Saunders died last year.  He’d been battling cancer for some time and really had it rough.  I think you could cut him some slack after twenty-five years.”

Matt glared out into the night.  “If I would have been here at his funeral, I would have laughed.  Even more than that, I would gone to the viewing and spit on his body.”

The guys around me were too stunned for words.  The little group broke up clumsily, with each of us remembering the bitter words we just heard.  Twenty-five years of bitterness…

And I ask myself: have I been that unforgiving to someone?

A quick check of the calculator tells me that it’s been forty years since I graduated from Delmar High School.  I have not seen Matt in over a decade.  Yet the incident burns deep within me.  Was he wronged?  Yes.  Was he humiliated?  Of course.

But…

…as a Believer, should he forgive?

… and taking it one step further:  is there someone in my life that I should forgive?  Have I harbored unforgiveness?

That’s for my next blog entry.

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2 Comments
  1. Shawn Brittingham permalink

    Brad, remember our time at DHS very well. Go Wildcats! Oh yes Mr Saunders did not like long hair.

    • Shawn, so good to hear from you! Man, it has been a long time. You remember this incident as well as I do…really stuck with me. Are you into teaching as a profession now?

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