Sometimes I feel like I’m a member of the last well-mannered generation—that is, the last generation to know swift discipline. No one was swifter than my mom. I can remember when she used to snatch me up in front of the whole congregation for no good reason other than to inspect the shrubbery outside the church. Back then, I always thought it was unfair to have a momma with a green thumb, and by green thumb I mean she could snap a privet switch with a mere pinch. A few pews ahead of me, Johnny could do jumping jacks and taunt me with funny faces and his mom did nothing. However, I could barely contort my face in self-defense before I was yanked up and escorted to the hedgerow.
My mom does not suffer fools. Never has, never will. Maybe this explains my fondness for writing foolishness, as it’s perhaps the one way I can smuggle foolishness past her. She was a high school English teacher, and she always seemed more concerned about the grammatical correctness of my sentences than their content. As long I put my commas and periods in the right place, then the subject of my sentence could slip on the object of the preposition, say a banana peel, and do five flips for all she cared.
My mom also taught me the grammar of southern living, meaning manners. These rules were so indoctrinated in me that even now I convulse when breaking them. Back then, breaking the Ten Commandments might get you a stern talking to, but breaking the rules of southern etiquette got you a temporary tattoo on the posterior. The rules, as I remember them, were,
- You do not brag. Ever.
- You say, “Yes, sir. No, sir. Yes, mam. No, mam.”
- You say “Please” and “Thank You.”
- You do not talk back to your parents or teachers. This was called sassing–if you got caught doing it, it was more or less the death sentence.
- You never wear a hat at the table.
- You sit as still as a statue in church.
Back then, these were the communal standards for children. Of course, maybe Johnny’s mom didn’t get the memo, but it seemed like most other kids in school had a similar set of dictates set down by adults in their life. And it’s not like I went to some fancy private school. I just went to your typical rural public school with trailers as overflow classrooms and paddles hanging on the wall of the principal’s office.
By that point, the paddles were mostly a decorative scare tactic, a vestige of a barbaric age when principals were feared and respected. Corporal punishment was well on its way to becoming taboo, at least in schools. In private homes, not so much. Although I felt my mom was stricter than most, she was at least lenient in her preference for switch wielding. My neighbor’s mom used a blunt force wooden spoon, and I knew several kids whose dad’s used a leather belt.
Eventually, all forms of corporal punishment were lumped together in a catch-all term called spanking. Then spanking was linked to some sort of Freudian sexual repression and shunned by society. However, I just linked it to pain, not a lot, but enough. Enough for me to realize if I didn’t want to get my legs switched, I’d better behave.
This isn’t to say that we should bring back spanking—I wouldn’t touch that topic with a ten-foot wooden spoon. It’s just to say that Southerners of my parents’ era may have been sexually repressed, but their children had good manners.