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After the photo, most newscasts flipped to footage of the man who'd paddled Erik: Alvin "Boom Boom" Jackson, superintendent of the Classical School for Brilliant Children. At Jackson's own news conference, the private school's kids and their parents massed around him, showing their support. He colorfully defended corporal punishment: "For 300 years, it's been part of schooling and education. It wasn't until the '70s that those dope-smoking psychiatrists came in with this feel-good mentality stuff and decided to control our children with a time-out."
The parents at the press conference rose to his defense. "What they do at the Jackson institute isn't abuse," said Phillip Givens. "It's paddling."
"There's a difference between child abuse and discipline," said Jonathan Hicks.
The question, of course, is where to draw the line. Is corporal punishment ever justified? Who should decide? Who should administer it? And what does it teach kids?
Erik's bruised butt served as a kind of Rorschach test. What the viewer saw in that photo revealed less about spanking than about the viewer himself.
Boom Boom Jackson is a large man -- six feet, four inches tall, around 250 pounds -- and his gale-force personality makes him seem even larger. His voice resonates like a jet engine, then in a flash drops to a whisper, the better to make a point. Despite his size, he dresses elegantly and moves with assurance. When he enters a room, he becomes its center of gravity; everyone else revolves around him.
Often, he refers to himself in the third person, in sentences such as, "Boom Boom being Boom Boom, I don't like anybody to do better than my kids." He once told the Houston Chronicle that he picked up the nickname in college, after two football teammates called him "Baby Huey." He responded by punching them out, one after the other: boom, boom.
In Jackson's life, hitting people has been more than a means of self-defense. It's been a way of gaining respect, an element of male bonding. Jeff Jacober, once the shrimpy white kid who was Jackson's best friend in high school, remembers Jackson as a remarkable athlete who cut quite a figure in their newly integrated high school. Once, when Jackson tried to cadge change for a soda, Jacober refused him.
Enraged, Jackson nearly pulverized him. The episode somehow elevated their relationship. Before, they'd been acquaintances; afterward, they were friends.
Harry Groves, one of Jackson's Penn State track coaches, remembers a time when he got mad at the hulking young athlete; he thinks the episode involved money. "I grabbed him and slammed him against the side of the bus," he recalls. "I thought, 'Oh boy, that's the end of it -- he's going to deck me.' " Jackson didn't. Years later, when Groves was at an NCAA meet in Houston, someone came up behind him. "Two big hands picked me up and spun me around," he remembers. It was Jackson -- and Groves thought he might finally exact his revenge. Instead, Jackson smiled. "You and Swartz [another track coach] were the only two that ever gave a damn about me," he said.
Given Jackson's outsize charisma, it's not surprising that he finds work as a motivational speaker. He spends about half his working hours traveling to corporate gatherings, leading seminars in public schools and selling his self-published book, The Elite Child. (The text of the $49.95 paperback is entirely in italics. The too-too-much effect approximates that of Boom Boom, live and in the flesh.)
Like most inspirational speakers, Jackson draws heavily on his own life story. As he tells it, his mother abandoned him as a ten-year-old, leaving him to be raised in foster homes. But, he says, he vaulted past his painful childhood: At the age of 15, he set a world record in the hammer throw. He played football at Penn State, participating in a couple of bowl games, and he was repeatedly named an NCAA All-American in track. After graduating in 1977, he did graduate work at Xavier University in Ohio and, later, at Rice. While training for the 1976 Olympics at UH, he began tutoring the school's athletes, and found his true calling: reform of the American educational system, which had left the athletes so woefully unprepared. In 1992, after he decided public speaking wouldn't change the world, he began operating a school that would showcase his methods. He believed that his students -- many of them poor, with single mothers and refused by other schools -- could outdo the coddled rich at Kinkaid. He'd instill in his kids a drive that would propel them to M.I.T., Harvard and Yale.
That story has been repeated, with minor variations, in the admiring press coverage that Jackson has garnered across the country. "New teaching method gets high marks from students," said the Tampa Tribune. "Educator: Push kids to 'go for the gold,'" headlined the Cedar Rapids Gazette. "Teacher starts small in quest to redo U.S. education system," trumpeted the Houston Chronicle. Jackson has also appeared on national talk shows, including Montel Williams's and Ricki Lake's, and performs a weekly "Learning Coach" spot for a morning show in Atlanta.