I grew up in one of those wonderful little hometowns we nostalgically read about today that once dotted the landscape of 1950’s America. My hometown was Campbell, California. The grade school I attended in Campbell was called San Tomas Elementary. I attended that school for six years – from Kindergarten through sixth grade.
The principal of the school was Mr. Jack Fischer. I liked him even though he was a very visible authority figure. In the late 1950’s my father learned to play golf. Dad got so good at golf that in 1961 he won the California State Amateur title in his handicap at the famous Pebble Beach golf club. During that time my father had met Mr. Fischer on a local golf course and they played a few rounds of golf together.
In grade school, I wasn’t a problem child. Apart for clowning around from time-to-time, I never got in much trouble.
One of my best friends at school was a First Nations boy who was a foster child. His foster parents had a great yard filled with fruit trees. One of the trees was a pomegranate. I remember crunching down on my first taste of a pomegranate that was handed to me over the fence by my friend.
Playgrounds are interesting social environments. There seems to be a pecking order and established social classes that are maintained by little people who really don’t know what is taking place sociologically. Playgrounds are places of friendship and love and at other times they can become places where prejudice and hatred become visible.
One morning during recess a group of boys began to pick on my First Nations friend. They called him names I had never heard spoken before and I had no idea what they meant. From the look on my friend’s face I knew the words were bad. My friend was getting shoved around. Since he was my friend, his problem was also my problem. I stepped up beside him and we began to defend his honor and his body from the blows that were coming upon him.
After a few moments of schoolyard combat we heard the dreaded whistle. The teacher assigned to supervise our recess time was running towards us blowing her whistle and yelling, “Stop fighting!” Once she arrived, our “almost a fight” quickly broke up. We were all told to go to the principle’s office.
I heard stories of what happened to kids who had to go to Mr. Fischer’s office. One day I had passed his office and saw his paddle. The whole school told stories about “the paddle”. In those days teachers could paddle kids. This was not just any old paddle – it was a cricket bat. It looked like a baseball bat, but instead of being round it was flat. Mr. Fischer must have known something about aerodynamics because he had drilled holes in the paddle to vent the air flow and increase the speed of the paddle as it approached the butts of young boys who disobeyed.
I was the last of the boys in line to go into Mr. Fischer’s office. To me it felt like I was in line for an execution. As each boy entered the office, I heard Mr. Fischer’s raised voice and then a loud smacking sound. I knew I was about to die.
When I entered Mr. Fischer’s office, I was told to sit down. Mr. Fischer asked me what happened on the playground. I explained the situation. Mr. Fischer had the paddle in his hand. When I finished talking he said something that I don’t remember and then what happened next took me by surprise.
Mr. Fischer went on to tell me that he and my father had played golf together. He told me how much he liked my father. None of this conversation was making sense to a grade school kid waiting to die.
Mr. Fischer said, “The boys outside are expecting you to get spanked. Do you want to get spanked?” The look in my eyes screamed, “NO!” Mr. Fischer said that he would not want anyone to think I was getting special treatment just because my dad played golf with him. He said he would hit the sofa with his paddle. When he hit the sofa he needed me to cry out like I was getting the beating of my life. I was more than happy to oblige.
Whack! The cricket paddle struck the sofa and I let out a blood-curdling fake cry. I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t going to die. Not only was I not going to live, but Mr. Fischer and I now had a secret.
All the other boys who got punished that day looked really serious. None of us ever talked about what happened in Mr. Fischer’s office.
Years after that fateful day, Mr. Fischer died. The school continued on for a few more years and then it was condemned. The entire school facility was eventually torn down and a city park was built in its place. When it was time to name the park, people spoke up and said the name of the park should be Jack Fischer Park in honor of Mr. Fischer. The respect people had for this beloved man was very visible and vocal throughout the community.
I visited the park several years ago. I found myself getting choked up as I stood in the park and watched little children run and play on the ground now dedicated to the memory of this wonderful man.
As I watched the children play something dawned on me. I began to realize I might not have been the only kid who was told to yell and pretend they were getting spanked while standing in Mr. Fischer’s office. The more I pondered what happened to me those many years ago, the more I realized this was probably the modus operandi of Mr. Fischer when it came to disciplining the kids he loved.
While standing in the park, I tried to visualize the image of the long-gone elementary school of my youth. As I saw that image emerge from the fog of my memory, I also saw the prominent placement of Mr. Fischer’s paddle in the school office. As I think about that paddle today, I realize it may have been an advertisement of a threat he rarely carried out. I came to this possibility because many of the voices who asked the park to be named after Mr. Jack Fischer were some of the very same boys who years before were asked to keep a secret while they were given an imaginary paddling.
While Mr. Fischer was not my father, he did bestow upon me an understanding that fathers should give their sons. Sometimes the best correction for a young life is not accomplished through hard corporeal punishment, but rather through engaging a young life in a very unexpected way and winning his respect and admiration. This respect and admiration will last long after we are gone.