Friday, May 24, 2013

Third Grade: The Failed Soap and Rope System

Miss Winkelman was strict and unsmiling.  I learned plenty in her third grade class, but none of it was academic.

She kept an Ivory Soap Chart on the wall.  We placed our hands on our desks, so she could check for clean fingernails.  We had to produce a spotless handkerchief or a packet of tissues.  Hair had to be neatly combed.  She recorded her findings after each inspection. 

Perfection in all areas received a tiny Ivory sticker after your name.  One demerit was an orange circle sticker.  Serious failures of personal hygiene received a red sticker.  Our grooming history hung there for all to see.

Over time, I noticed something.  Soaps remained soaps.  Red and orange alarm stickers never varied much either, although I did note that oranges were likely to become reds.  I never saw a red improve to soap status.  I wondered about this.

I also remember Darrell, a boy who could not sit still or remain quiet.  He was a whirlwind from 8 am to 3 pm.  Whenever Miss Winkelman left the room, he was up and running in circles and climbing onto his desk.  Kids laughed and clapped at his antics.  I worried.  She’d return and haul him down to receive his paddling in the cloakroom. 

He never shed a tear.

He never changed his behavior.

Finally she brought rope to school and tied him to his chair when she had to leave.  He was bound at the ankles and wrists.  Yes, he was still, but he never stopped talking or yelling or laughing during her absence. 

When I told this story to my husband, who has been in elementary education for forty years, he was horrified.  He talked about danger and liability.  But mostly he talked about the damage to a boy who needed help.

I see now what puzzled me in that classroom.  The inspection chart, a Procter & Gamble marketing campaign, did not really improve children’s lives.  At our school, it labeled social conditions.  It created embarrassment.  We lived in a working-class neighborhood in that steel town.  Most of my classmates had parents who were shift workers, mothers and fathers who passed each other in the night.  Their children walked home to empty houses after school.  There was no money for pocket-sized tissues.  No one had time to comb or braid hair in the morning.  As my mother would say, theirs was a “catch as catch can” life.

And Darrell needed support, not ropes.  He needed parents who had time for meetings with counselors and teachers who could offer sympathy and lessons in behavior modification instead of punishment.  Surely someone knew that fifty years ago.

I checked Facebook to see if I could find him.  Sure enough, there he was—smiling for the camera and holding a gun.

I wonder if he was thinking of Miss Winkelman.   


  1. OMY>>The story makes my heart ache...
    At times our world can seem so cold,
    but the positive seems to be that,
    maybe situations like that have improved.
    Hopefully today a teacher would put such
    a child in the direction he needed.
    The art teacher....

  2. I have to believed we've all learned a lot about what NOT to do for children. By the way, I've done some more researching about Darrell and discovered something wonderful about his life. I hope to blog about it soon.