Froggie and Virgil: A true story about corporal punishment in Indiana

Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash

Why did the Florida principal paddle a six-year-old girl for scratching a computer screen when there were so many constructive, educational, nonviolent alternatives that she could have chosen? Florida laws make corporal punishment of students “acceptable”. The barbaric act of hitting children in schools is still legal in 19 states like Florida and Indiana. The impact on that little girl, and on others who witness classmates being attacked by teachers, principals, and other adults who are “supposed” to care for them can have life-long impacts.

I know. While I wasn’t the one who was hit that day, I still feel the trauma of what I witnessed in my southern Indiana elementary school. It has had a lasting impact on me. One lesson it taught me was that even if children do something that seems logical and reasonable to them, it could be a reason to be assaulted by school officials. It taught me to sit quietly and not to use my agency unless I was 100% sure what I might do would be acceptable to those in power. Don’t take risks. Keep your mouth shut. You can’t even trust even your teacher to truly care about students. And it also taught me that adults in positions of authority don’t care that their inability to control their tempers, especially when they feel righteous vengeance is justified in inflicting violence on the bodies and minds of children.

Recess was a blessed relief, especially on that 90-degree day when I was in third grade. There was no air conditioning and almost no whisper of wind slipping through the cracked windows of Mrs. Bird’s brick classroom. She was a dotty woman who resembled a tall, pink flamingo wearing high-necked flowered dresses. Grasshoppers swarmed up from dirt so dry that grass could not grow. Boisterous boys ran to hang on the monkey bars, screeching loudly when their hands clutched the hot metal bars. The six swings were quickly snatched by girls wearing skirts who yelped when their thighs hit the seats. Requests to wear shorts or peddle-pushers were denied by administrators for not being lady-like.

Most of us clustered near the building where we could find a spit of shade. Virgil, the lanky boy who was by far the tallest in the class, stood with slumped shoulders by himself as usual over near the wall. His pale, sunken jowls make him look like he had a five-o’clock shadow even though he was ten.

“Miss Bird, can I go in?” he asked

“Nooooooo”, she chirped. Her beak was poised at the monkeys hanging from the jungle gym.

Virgil hovered in the shadow. A few minutes later, he asked again. She ignored him.

Finally, in desperation, he reluctantly pled, “I really need to go, Miss Bird. I gotta pee.”

“Hold it,” she ordered. Her mean face conveyed the message that he dare not ask again.

He stood there in the shadows for a few minutes. Then he turned towards the building, walked over to the white ceramic water fountain spurting out from the wall, and quietly unzipped his fly and peed. We saw his shoulders soften as he relieved himself. Then he turned the water on and tried to wash away his indignation.

But third graders are tattle-tellers and snotty LuAnne saw and ran over to Mrs. Bird. “Miss Bird, Miss Bird, guess what Virgil did!”

We watched the flamingo turn on her heel, flap her wings and loom over Virgil. Saying nothing we could hear, we certainly could tell what she said.

The blaring buzzer bell rang and we all stood in our straight line as we walked back into the hot classroom. We were sitting at our wooden desks doing an assignment writing something with our pencils on blue-lined paper when Froggie, the principal whose real name was Mr. Vogt, suddenly stood in the doorway of our classroom. He was holding a 3-foot wooden paddle in his hands, swinging it rhythmically as the wood clapped over and over in his palm. “Come here, Virgil”, he boomed.

The classroom became dead quiet. We dropped our pencils and stared at our principal, who none of us liked and all of us feared. He was nicknamed Froggie because he was tall, skinny, always wore dark green pants, and had a preference for light green shirts that he embellished with a green print tie. His voice sounded like “ribbit.”

Quiet Virgil, who was no fool, did not get up out of his seat. Instead, he slowly wrapped his ankles around the legs of his wooden and metal desk while he put his arm through the slats in the back of his chair. He said nothing as Froggie ordered, “Git over here now!”.

Virgil heaved a big sigh and prepared as Froggie loomed towards him, shoving Betty Sue and Mary in the chairs out of the way. The paddle was raised by his long green arm into the sky and came down with a loud crack as it hit the wooden desk. Virgil ducked his head as Froggie lifted the paddle again and again and again, hitting the desk, chair, and whatever body part of Virgil he could land. The child did not scream as the principal assaulted him over and over. Virgil tried to remain in control of himself as Froggie seemed to have lost that ability as his eyes bugged out and his jaws tightened. It wasn’t enough to beat the boy; Froggie spewed forth venomous language about how awful he was.

We, the spectator students, sat in wide-eyed horror as the man in charge of us and our school screamed at and beat our classmate, who had never bothered anybody. As his chair splintered in pieces onto the floor, we watched Froggie drag the boy into the bathroom in the corner of the classroom near the door and slam the toilet door shut. Then we heard blow after blow hit the child, who then began crying out in agony.

The attack lasted forever, it seemed. At some point, the door opened, and with the paddle in one hand and Virgil’s collar in the other, he dragged the barely-able to stand, red tear-stained-faced boy across the floor out of the room.

My daddy was the mayor of our city back in those days. I was at home helping to set the table for dinner that afternoon when there was a knock at the kitchen door. There was a man standing there with Virgil. He wanted to talk to my dad. I ran to the living room where my dad was reading the evening newspaper and got him. He went outside to the carport and they sat at the table and chairs near the window. I remember sitting on the floor underneath the window, eavesdropping on the conversation. The man was Virgil’s father and he was upset with how his son had been treated and wanted my dad to help. After all, when the principal is the one who accosts your child, who can you go to for help? Superintendents back in that day were not figures commonly found.

“Virgil got his butt beat,” the man told my dad. Virgil’s father had taken polaroid photos of Virgil’s butt, legs, and back. His father asked the boy to “pull down your pants and show the mayor”, but my dad told them that would not be necessary.

After a while, they left. My dad came into the house with the polaroids. He left them on the table as he went to go to the bathroom to pee himself. I picked up the pictures. They showed purple, black and blue bruises all over Virgil’s butt, thighs, and back. There were also bruises on the boy’s shoulders and arms and cuts bleeding from the wood splintering into his skin. It was horrible. And I knew how he got them because I had been there and witnessed his attack.

Going back to school on Monday, nothing seemed different — but we had changed. Froggie was still the man in charge. He and Mrs. Bird refused to move Virgil into another class so the child had to sit there for the rest of the year until school was officially over. The already quiet Virgil became even more reclusive. None of us kids played with or talked to him. We were afraid that if we did, Froggie and Mrs. Bird might think we were like him and they would come after us. We sat in our seats like soldiers, following orders, and hypervigilant, watching for signs that we might accidentally trigger adult rage and retaliation, eyeing the clock for the 3:00 hour when we could escape.

When Mr. Vogt finally retired the school officials and teachers gave him a big party with presents and flowery statements about how great a principal he was and how much he would never be forgotten. I assure you, I’ve never forgotten Froggie and I’m sure Virgil hasn’t either.

If you suspect your child has been abused, be like Virgil’s dad. Report it. Do something.

Find out what the corporal punishment laws are in your state.

The Child Welfare Information Gateway has a list of places that you can report suspect child abuse. Here is their guide for numbers in each state: https://www.childwelfare.gov/organizations/?CWIGFunctionsaction=rols:main.dspList&rolType=Custom&RS_ID=%205

Remember, there is a children’s human rights treaty that states that schools, parents, and governments should always do what is in the best interest of the child. Hitting them is NOT in children’s best interests. There are always other ways to help a child to learn appropriate behavior. Discipline is instructive; punishment, especially if violent, is retaliation and counter-productive.

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Yvonne Vissing

Yvonne Vissing

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