Vision 1958

The old way of learning and discipline still may be the best method of education.(If only we could grasp that damned
pluperfect tense…)

Illustration by Dale Stephanos


I have my own vision for education reform, which is quite different from the high power and resources of Delaware’s Vision 2015. I call it Vision 1958.

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With 2015 you get the best and the brightest of Delaware unleashing an irrepressible torrent of commitment and creativity. With Vision 1958, you pass over the best and the brightest of St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana: a guy who sold Gulf shrimp from the trunk of a car and a one-armed man who sold vegetables from the back of a truck. Together, their irrepressible commitment and creativity never quite made it past shrimp creole and jambalaya.

Vision 1958­—my vision—had nuns,  specifically the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who, pound for pound, could just as accurately have been named the School Linebackers of Notre Dame.

They were led by a large German-bred nun—Sister Rottweiler, I believe her name was—who taught fourth grade world geography with such fervor, authority and threat that, by the end of the term, most of her students were prepared to overrun Europe. To say that a medieval, almost Inquisitional form of discipline was taught in those years of elementary education is to understate it. If sparing the rod spoils the child, I can say, unequivocally, not one of us was spoiled.

The only people who were more afraid of those nuns than we kids were our parents. To be punished at school (meted out for an almost Talmudic listing of indiscretions, ranging from failing to maintain your desk alignment on the correct tile crack in the classroom to sneaking peeks at the swings on the girls’ playgrounds during recess) was to be punished twice: once after school, and again when your parents learned you had displeased Sister Rottweiler or one of the other Linebackers.

In those halcyon days, were you to have received corporal punishment from one of the Linebackers—a whack across the back of the legs with a pine branch for merely glimpsing in the direction of the swings on the girls’ playground (my friend Dan) or a public pillorying and spanking in front of the entire first grade class for eating an egg salad sandwich during class time (your faithful correspondent)—news of the physical justice did not send our parents screaming to our legal defense. Another spanking awaited you in the safety and comfort of home.

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Yet we learned. The method of learning is what I came to call the Or Else method, but it was just as effective as any other we’ve come up with since. If the School of Hard Knocks was the classroom of the playgrounds, it was the School of Raw Knuckles that reigned supreme within the classroom itself.

Nothing could be more foreboding than the sight of Sister Rottweiler steaming down a row of desks like the Battleship Bismarck, yardstick or hickory pointer locked and loaded, her girth pushing away any misaligned desk as she headed straight for Frankie Mistretta, who had just finished blowing up a condom into a balloon, which he resolutely, but, alas, ineffectively, defended as his science project for next period.

But when we finally graduated elementary school (perhaps “commuted” or “paroled” is a better term for our commencement), we certainly knew not to dangle our participles or split our infinitives, and we understood well the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs, gerunds and the subjunctive case.

Those of us who would occasionally return during our high school years to update our former masters on our academic progress had learned something else, too. We saw the sparkle in those nuns’ eyes, their surprise and sheer glee at seeing one of their former students again. And we realized just how much they were devoted to their profession and how much they loved us as their own children.

As Vision 2015 looks far ahead as it should, we shouldn’t overlook where we once were. 

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Reid Champagne still occasionally diagrams a sentence and aligns a chair to a tile crack in Newark.



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