Funny you should ask ... Tim Gamble

Did you ever get in trouble at school as a child?

I was a precocious child, gifted in many ways, incorrigible in others. I didn’t have a difficult time going to school or with schoolwork. I liked school. Preceding me was my older brother and sister. They were excellent students involved in all the right extracurricular activities plus church groups and scouting. They set the standards, a high bar which I was compared to by everyone who’d had any association with the two of them. I can safely say I disappointed absolutely everyone. Not on purpose, I just started thinking for myself. You could tell me what to do. You could tell me what the consequences would be if I didn’t do what I was told. You could even beat me like a rented mule but, if I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t do it.

I’m sure you’ve all heard the cautionary adage, “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump too? Of course not!” My response would be, “I thought you wanted me to be a team player. I’m getting mixed messages here.” I would always test the veracity of the person who wanted something of me, mostly with smart ass remarks. I came by it, naturally, at a very young age. I was trained to fight back with the only tools I had, my words, my attitude. I saw my parents as older versions of my brother and sister, equally overbearing.

The question is about school. I’ll limit it to grade school. High school would be an entirely different story. I do recall a couple of incidents. At Hopi Elementary School in Phoenix, there were a couple of “heavy weights” in charge of keeping the boys in line, the shop teacher, Mr. Snow, and the P.E. teacher Mr. Schmidt. Their job was to get me to knuckle under or break me.

I was 12 years old in the seventh grade, all of 5 foot tall and 100 pounds. Some of the other kids were already hitting puberty and growing like weeds. For football, we were divided into two groups by weight, those under 120 pounds and those over. I was on the teams with the smaller kids. I played hard, rougher than the coach wanted me to be in practice. “Save it for the game!” he’d say. “Go easy, these are your teammates!” During one game with a rival school, we were getting trounced. Flag football was supposed to keep the game safe. No tackling. Contact between players was forbidden by the rules for anyone other than the offensive and defensive lines. Normally when I would “down” a player I would crash into them head-on and grabbing the flags from both hips, a perfectly legal play. I’d been cautioned a few times to dial it back. I was playing defensive safety on the right side. The kid from the opposing team, who was tearing us up, took the ball and headed down the right side, going for another touchdown. I had the angle on him and instead of pulling his flag I shoved him out of bounds. I shoved him so hard he flew down a 4-foot berm onto a basketball court and broke his arm, a perfectly legal play. I was thrown out of the game.

The next game we played the coach put me on the team with the bigger kids. I thought great. “What position coach?” I asked. He answered, “Left tackle.” On the first play I hit my guy as hard as I could, and he just knocked me over and blew through the line. The same thing happened on the next play and every other play. I was getting the snot kicked out of me. Finally, I didn’t get up. I couldn’t get up. I had the wind knocked out of me. The coach came running out onto the field and quickly rolled me over onto my back and pulled me up by my belt. On the sideline, as I regained my breath, he asked me if I was alright. I told him I was fine and ready to go back in. He said, “No, not in this game. I’m putting you back on the other team.” When I asked why he explained that he just wanted me to get my ass kicked so I would know what the kids were feeling when I was kicking theirs. I could have told him I know what it’s like to get my ass kicked. I have an older brother.

I had a few other run-ins with the coach over his methods of teaching and disciplining. He was the authority and didn’t like being challenged. Whenever discipline was exacted, it was in the form of corporal punishment, swats, in the equipment room with another teacher as a witness. He had a great big paddle with holes drilled in it for maximum effect. “Bend over and grab your ankles,” was the command, then a series of whacks designed to help you get your mind right. All he ever got from me was a carbon copy of another letter to the school board.

It was spring and time for softball. Every waking moment was spent playing catch or in a pick-up rotation game. It was after school. A group of us were playing softball. Mr. Snow’s job was not only to teach shop class but to supervise the playground after school until all the kids went home. He decided to play umpire behind the catcher. I guess that’s okay. It was my turn at bat. I hit a foul ball down the third base side that veered off into a grapefruit grove next to the baseball field. “Strike one,” he bellowed. The third baseman and the left fielder went into the grove to retrieve the ball. I hit the next pitch to the exact same place. “Strike two.” I hit a total of 17 foul balls in a row, each one landing in the grapefruit grove. “You’re out!” he said with a disdainful tone. I said, “Bullshit, this is our game, you’re out!” We got into a discussion about profanity, school property and who’s the boss to the point he tossed me from the game. I got on my bike, went around to the other side of the back stop, and lit a firecracker off behind Mr. Snow. Poor judgment? Maybe, but it was hilarious. He hit the ground and came up screaming at me, but I was behind the fence. He couldn’t get to me. He chased me around the backstop until he gave up and said he’d deal with me in the morning. Which he did. No more swats. The school district told them to stop beating on me. Instead, I was tasked with writing a thousand-word essay on firearm safety.

When my father got home, he found me pecking away at my essay on the old Smith Corona typewriter we all shared. He had some work to do and asked me how much longer I’d be. I told him what the assignment was and that it was due tomorrow, or I’d be suspended from school. He asked me why such a punishment for not getting a homework assignment done. I told him the circumstances. He told me that was a bad plan. I told him I really didn’t plan anything. He said, “Exactly!” I told him I was copying most of the words straight from my NRA handbook. He admonished me about copying someone else’s work and that I should use my own words. I told him that wasn’t the assignment. The assignment was to write a thousand words, but it didn’t say whose words it had to be. Frustrated, my dad said, “Move.” He took the NRA handbook and typed a thousand words and handed me the paper saying, “No more firecrackers at school, understand?” I thanked him and agreed. Normally my dad would not have let me off the hook so easily, but he had a lot of work to do. He was quite the disciplinarian himself and had long since quit trying to talk to me about my missteps. He preferred letting his belt do the talking. I used to joke about being the only kid in school with a western tooled design on my back.

The disciplines never took. It was like a smallpox vaccination. Everyone had a pock mark on their arm but me. When I was much older, maybe 30 years or so down the road, my sister brought it up in a conversation. She said she still had nightmares about the beatings I took when I was a child. I was a little surprised. I told her it was just a blip in time, so long ago. I haven’t thought about it since. I probably deserved it. She said, “Nobody deserves that!” I told her, “Let it go. You can’t let what happened to me hurt you more than it hurt me.” She asked, “You’d never hit Jeremy like that, would you?” I said, “No, there’s one thing I’ve learned from getting whooped on is that it punishes the whooper not the whoopee. Dad told me it haunted him too, and he regretted ever laying a hand on me. I told him the same thing. It was a moment in time, and I haven’t thought about it since, and neither should he.”

It all comes down to choices. The consequences of our decisions are what informs us. I’ve told my son I only have two rules, forgiveness, and humility. First, you must allow everyone including yourself to make mistakes and forgive those mistakes. It’s how we learn. We just don’t want to learn the same lesson over and over so pay attention. And second, we don’t build our own self-esteem from the mistakes of others. We’re all on the same journey. We may just be taking different paths, so help if you can and be nice about it. Anything else will not serve you well.

So, did I get in trouble in school as a child? Perhaps, but isn’t school all about learning, some lessons are just harder to learn than others.

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