Corporal punishment: real life fiction?

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Sept. 13 was Roald Dahl Day, a holiday in honor of the late children’s author. I’ve loved Dahl’s books since I was a boy, including classics like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach” and “Matilda.”

But my favorite book is the lesser-known “The BFG.”

The story opens with our young protagonist, Sophie, caught in the archetypal childhood nightmare — snatched by a giant from the safety of her own bed! There are other child-devouring giants, including the terrifying monster known as the Bloodbottler.

But Sophie is greatly relieved to learn that her captor had no intention of having her for supper. He explained he is the BFG — Big Friendly Giant.

I did not believe in giants (friendly or not), but I recognized the real friendship between Sophie and the BFG. Dahl taught me to read fiction to understand the truth inside ourselves, even through the lens of an imaginary world and its creatures.

As an adult, I’ve read Dahl’s autobiography, “Boy: Tales of Childhood.” In his descriptions of abusive teachers at his boarding school, I can see how Dahl’s fiction is based on his real-life experience. He was not eaten by a giant, but Dahl was beaten mercilessly with a cane by the monstrous headmaster at his school.

When he was the same age as Sophie, Dahl accidently broke his pencil. He asked his classmate for a new one and his teacher flew into a rage, first accusing him of cheating and then of lying when Dahl protested his innocence. As punishment, young Dahl was given six “stripes,” or lashes across his backside: “The pain is so frightful you try to grab hold of it and tear it away.”

This is a tale of adult monsters who were giants of cruelty and injustice. I wish I could say this story was a relic of the past. Corporal punishment in schools is actually legal in 19 states, including North Carolina. The vast majority of school districts ban all forms of physical punishment. Yet, a school district in Missouri recently made national headlines because of its desire to abuse — I mean “discipline” — its students with wooden paddles.

Arguing against corporal punishment, Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribute cited the 2016 book “Raised to Rage” that cites overwhelming evidence that children who suffer physical violence grow up to become violent adults. You reap what you sow.

But this is also true of sowing good deeds.

After his lashing, Dahl’s classmates surrounded him with their sympathies: “Small boys can be very comradely; even more so when they feel an injustice has been done.” Dahl remembered one child named Highton. Knowing that Dahl’s father had died when he was only 3 years old, Highton promised to write to his own father in protest. Highton insisted that he would try to make it right.

“Of course, nothing came of (Highton’s letter to his father),” reflected Dahl. “It was nevertheless a touching and generous gesture from one small boy to another, and I have never forgotten it.”

There are frightening things in the real world. That much is true. Yet, we have a choice in how we respond — with violence or empathy. We can choose the story we write.

Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church. His newly-published book is a collection of his columns for the Chatham News + Record titled “Hope Matters: Churchless Sermons.”


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