I knew what was going to happen to Jonnie, but I also knew that I wasn't going to be the one to do it. Corporal punishment is as common as rice at lunchtime here in Heqing. Foreigners are often stunned that it is so prevalent, and relate the idea back to Catholic school in the mid 20th century. Hitting students that don't do their homework, misbehave in class, fight, or otherwise don't follow the directions is accepted and recommended. On one occasion, I threw Soto and Jeremy out of my class for chatting repeatedly while I was talking. I just told them to get out, and at the time I wasn't sure if that was OK. After the class ended, I went up to the head teacher, kind of nervously, and asked, "I threw two kids out of class today. I'm not sure how you guys typically punish the students. I hope that was alright." She kind of laughed, shrugged, and said "you just have to hit them a few times," but the way that she said it, the sentence would be better translated as "just smack 'em around a few times and they'll get the picture."
I'm not going to hit any students. Do I feel like I'm taking a moral stand? Perhaps. I think it has more to do with the fact that I was brought up in a system where that type of behavior could get a teacher fired, and is thus extremely alien to me. Here, however, the teachers kind of laugh it off, and kind of enjoy it, it seems. To them, kids that break the rules should be screwed around with and should be shown who's boss. It's kind of sad in a way, I mean, certainly there are other ways to instill order in a school, but the thing is, it works. The students in other classes are much more obedient than when I'm standing in front of the class. Sure, I manage to keep them from killing each other, but it's no way as smooth as the other classes. What's difficult is that because corporal punishment is accepted and common, other forms of punishment (staying after class, copying words) have little to no effect. Some standard forms of punishment in the US, such as detention, are impossible because there is no "after school" when students are in class from 7 AM to 8:30 PM. Others, such as pulling on the students' heartstrings, are hard because it's impossible to make a compelling, emotional, Braveheart speech in a non-mother tongue language (I never took that Chinese course). It's just difficult to maintain an imposing presence in front of these kids when you refuse to hit them. They know my revolver is empty, or at least they are ever so gradually making that realization.
School, family, society in general - all more strict here than where I'm from. Changing the system is damn near impossible (in China, that can only happen from the top, not the bottom, or at least climbing from the bottom up to the top and then getting approval and making your way back down to the bottom), and integrating into it presents moral issues. What to do then? My approach thus far has been to be as imposing as I can, and just say, "oh, sure, OK" when the other teachers suggest I smack the kids around a bit and then walk away with a false expression of enlightenment on my face and no intention of doing so.
The kids, however, are used to being hit. If Jonnie escaped the day without being hit, here at our school, he would have won. Here, anything less than corporal punishment would have been unacceptable, it would have upset the system, and Jonnie wouldn't have learned that his behavior was wrong. Now, you might say that's rediculous, but you have to consider the environment, the culture, the expectations of the students and teachers. Jonnie was expecting to be hit. And that's the real issue: once hitting students is an accepted and expected form of punishment, it lessens the effect of other forms of punishment, thus encouraging more hitting. What I'm taking a moral stand against isn't a behavior, but an ideology, a mindset, and I know I can't change it. All I can do is stand on the outside and with a dumb smile on my face not participate. It's a battle that I'm slowly losing, too. The kids continue to push and push, to test the boundaries of what they can get away with. Sooner or later, I'm going to have to be content with leading more kids to "the office" and turning my back. Perhaps that's only a small step above hitting them myself, but it's one step I'm not willing to give up.
I led Jonnie towards the headmasters office and walked towards a group of teachers standing outside. "He hit another student," I mumbled, motioning with my fist up to my nose. "Hit another student?" One of the teachers said. "You go back to class, I'll take him in to Teacher Li." I knew what fate Jonnie would meet inside of the office, but I just turned back towards the classroom and walked away. As I walked back, one of the teachers smiled at me and with a shrug waved her hand back and forth in front of her face. It was the classic, "why didn't you just smack him around?" gesture.