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
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
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
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
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
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.