“Read the confessions, the memoirs, the court room transcripts. There is always a line the scoundrel steps across and becomes a wanted thing.” — Leif Enger, So Brave, Young and Handsome
Last month, through the wonders of social media, I learned the sad news that my middle school vice principal had died—Steven Van Horn, or Mr. Van Horn to you and me.
It had been well over half my life since I last thought of him, but seeing his picture there beside his obituary brought back a crystal clear memory of what had to be one of the more formative moments of my young life. It was the day that man paddled me.
It happened when I was in 7th grade, during Mr. Fratus’s math class. Mr. Fratus had left the room for some reason, and while he was gone well over half of the kids used that as an opportunity to get out of their seats and move around his classroom with a kind of cavalier leisure that Mr. Fratus’s generation regarded as a corporal offense. Schools were meant to be places of order and respect for authority.
When the lookout (a necessary thread in the fabric of youthful scheming) warned, “He’s coming!” everyone rushed back to their seats and did their best to act causal. When Mr. Fratus walked back into the room, he regarded us for a moment and said, “Everyone who was up out of their seats while I was gone, out in the hall.”
So far, I had not stepped across any line to become “a wanted thing.” I belonged to the few who had not gotten out of our seats. (I tend to choose the side of compliance more than rebellion. But don’t mistake that fact for anything too gallant. I assure you my reasons for cooperation are often more self-serving than noble.)
Mr. Fratus’s invitation to go out into the hall—that was when I stepped across the line. See, in my middle school, getting sent out to the hall usually meant you just had to sit out there for the rest of class. And while I didn’t get into a lot of trouble, on those occasions when I was sent out into the hall, I really enjoyed the time. So when Mr. Fratus stood beside the open door, I took his attempt at discipline as an opportunity to take a pass on my least favorite subject—math. I rose from my seat and went out into the hall. Only one other kid joined me.
There we were, two young rule-breakers scoffing at the law—the other boy for the transgression Mr. Fratus had named and me for one he hadn’t, both of us certain we were getting away with something. We hung our heads as we left the room because that was part of the code—don’t let the teachers know hallway time is fun. But as soon as he closed the door behind us, we both grinned, knowing most of the kids on the other side of that door were jealous of our quick thinking.
But not less than a minute later, Mr. Fratus stepped back out into the hallway, looked at the two of us and said, “I’ve had enough of this. I’m going to let the vice principal deal with you.” And off we went.
We bypassed the receptionist and were led straight into Mr. Van Horn’s office where we sat like a couple of disorderlies waiting to be booked while he and Mr. Fratus conferred. Mr. Fratus left and Mr. Van Horn came in, sat behind his desk, and explained to us that our disrespect had earned us each a paddling.
His paddle, which hung on the wall beside his desk, was a long board cut from a sturdy piece of hardwood, with large holes drilled in at a slight angle for—legend had it—enhanced aerodynamics.
The other kid went first, which gave me time to think about the jackpot I’d gotten myself into. What could I say? “No Mr. Van Horn. See, I actually didn’t get up out of my seat. Ask anyone. I’m innocent!” Then why was I in the hallway? “Well, see, I like the hallway. I thought it would get me out of class.”
My alibi was even worse than my alleged offense. I was as guilty as any kid who had ever sat in that office, except my crime felt almost white-collar, the sort of thing you use words like “fraudulent” or “crooked” to describe. That’s when I reckoned that whatever was about to go down in that room, it was between me and my Maker before it was between me and anyone else.
Before his paddle hit my backside I was in tears, because that’s what I do. I cry. Yes, I cried because I was afraid it would hurt. But looking back, mostly I cried because I was self-righteous. Up until that moment, there were two types of kids in my world—those who knew the sting of Mr. Van Horn’s paddle, and those who didn’t. More simply—there were good kids and bad kids. I was a good kid, and proud of it.
God used Mr. Van Horn to break it to me that just because someone doesn’t see the true nature of my transgression, that doesn’t make me innocent. The Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:3-4, “What you think about me doesn’t matter. And what I think about me doesn’t matter either. Only what God thinks about me matters.” And He thinks I need both discipline and grace. Neither come cheap. And both come from His hand.
It’s funny how after all these years, seeing Mr. Van Horn’s name in print brought me back to that day. I commented on the Facebook page where I saw his obituary that he was the only person ever to paddle me, and that he was right to do it. As I scanned the other comments, can you guess what theme emerged? Other adults remembering when he paddled them, and how thankful they were for his discipline, and how they seemed to regard it now as a kind of grace.
I didn’t know Mr. Van Horn as a man. I didn’t know anything about his family, or his faith, or his hobbies, or any of that. All I knew was that he was a man charged with the responsibility of disciplining young hearts to respect authority and care about learning. Sometimes that led kids to fear him, and other times to dislike him.
But at the end of his life, there we all were: grown-up kids respectfully laying comments like flowers upon the memory of his impact on our lives, with little but reverence for the aerodynamic sting of that paddle.
It couldn’t have been easy for Mr. Van Horn to be the school disciplinarian. He had to take a lot of scorn from us kids, and no doubt from angry parents too, due to the role he filled in an era where kids got paddled at school. He didn’t do it often, and wasn’t known for taking any pleasure from it. I imagine every time he used that paddle it stung him a bit too, so there had to have been something in him that understood he was not fighting with us, but for us.
So rest in peace, Mr. Van Horn. Thanks for the paddling. It never felt like punishment; only discipline, and now all these years later, grace. You have my deepest respect.
[Author’s note: I realize that some of what I discuss in this post (paddling at school) is a sensitive subject—no pun intended there—and as such, the practice has been largely done away with in the US. It is not my intent to be making a comment one way or another about that issue in this post, so please let me off the hook from discussing what I think about the morality of paddling. And I humbly ask that you not use this forum to debate that issue either. There are plenty of places online where you can weight in on that if you want! 🙂 The goal of this post is to honor a man who showed me both discipline and grace in the years I knew him. It just so happened that we knew each other in the context of a time and place where corporal discipline was an accepted practice. This is a true story about being guilty of more than anyone knows, and of how necessary both discipline and grace are for a sinner like me. And it’s a story I’m thankful for.]
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).