Months after the spanking, Erik Vidor's bruised butt made the evening news on six different stations. Some showed a whole wall of bruise photos, arrayed in rows at a press conference. Most showed close-ups of the snapshot, and Channel 2 drew nearer still, filling the screen with one mottled cheek at a time. Viewers could see for themselves the red, purple and brown splotches that covered the 13-year-old's backside and crept upward toward the small of his back.
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.
But at least some of his much-repeated story doesn't check out. According to Penn State's registrar, though Jackson was enrolled there from 1972 to 1977, he never graduated. Despite his constant references to his football days, he didn't letter in the sport and his photo does not appear in Penn State's football guides. Neither Penn State's sports department nor its archivist can confirm that he ever played the sport. Groves, Jackson's old track coach, says that Boom Boom trained with the football team but rarely played because he was almost constantly injured.
At Xavier, Jackson didn't do graduate work in journalism, as he claims, but a semester of undergraduate work. There, too, the registrar says he failed to receive a degree.
Jackson says that he began M.B.A. studies at Rice, but didn't complete the degree. According to the director of admissions at Rice's Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Administration, Jackson never even enrolled.
Apparently, Boom Boom has managed to transcend such troublesome facts through the power of positive thinking. As he himself wrote in The Elite Child, "The wonderful thing about the brain is that it does not know the difference between imagination and reality."
In late February, Boom Boom's high-powered attorney, Mike DeGeurin, fretted that his client's nickname wouldn't sit well with the grand jury that would consider the spanking case. Otherwise, DeGeurin would say little about the case. But Boom Boom himself was happy to show off his kids' achievements.
The Classical School occupies about half of a grim little office building on Richmond, between Greenway Plaza and the railroad tracks. After a visitor is allowed inside the school's locked doors, the walls of the entryway testify to Boom Boom's greatness. A plaque displays a laudatory clipping from the Houston Chronicle, complete with a picture of the young Jackson in an athletic pose. And a cluster of poster-size photos bespeaks Boom Boom's association with a motley assortment of celebrities: He grips 'n' grins with Vanna White, Montel Williams, Patrick Swayze, Dave Thomas of Wendy's and even Hulk Hogan, the aging blond star of the World Wrestling Federation.
Around 3:30 p.m., parents began trickling in to pick up their kids. All praised Jackson to the skies; several said that he'd saved their children. Almost all of the Classical School's 50 or so pupils are black, and most, Jackson says, live with a single parent. Money is often tight for these families: Though tuition is only $17 a day (less than $400 a month), Boom Boom laments that he sometimes loses students for financial reasons.
Kids loitered in the school entryway, waiting for their rides. Boom Boom snagged a small group, snapped his fingers, pointed to a 14-year-old and said, "Presidents!" The boy rattled off, "WashingtonAdamsJefferson Madison...," progressing all the way to Clinton in less than a minute.
"The presidents," as the ritual is known, is a student's initiation to the Classical School. Jackson says he first greeted this boy as he did most new students: by presenting him with a list of the country's commanders-in-chief, and informing him that when he'd memorized all 42, he could go to the restroom.
"When did you get it done?" Boom Boom asked.
"Not till ten at night," said the boy.
"When you did it, what did you think?"
"That I could do anything."
That, said Jackson, is the point: to raise the child's self-esteem, and his estimation of his capabilities. The ploy has never failed, even with the toughest kids. He recalled one particularly stubborn girl who started the routine at 2:30 p.m. and didn't finish until 4:30 the next morning. "The bathroom," he said impishly, "was calling real hard about midnight."
Jackson admits that such methods can sound harsh, but he maintains that they work. He believes in absolutes and quick conversions, and shamelessly preaches simple solutions to complex problems. For instance, the school requires all kids to make 100 on every test. If a child misses a question, he has to re-study the subject and take the test again until he's mastered every shred of knowledge it covers -- no matter how long it takes him, or how many attempts he has to make. Thus, all of Boom Boom's kids are A-plus students.
The kids in the entryway carried textbooks by E.D. Hirsch, What Your Fourth Grader Needs to Know and its equivalent for other grade levels. Jackson commanded a kid to hand him a book. He opened it at random and fired off questions, snapping his fingers and pointing to the student he wanted to answer.
"Who was Eleanor of Aquitaine?"
"She married Henry II."
"What's eight times eight?"
"Which president was Jefferson?"
And so on: rapid-fire question followed by rapid-fire answer. Like Boom Boom himself, the kids displayed impressive self-assurance and speed.
Not that they always got the right answers. Jackson corrected the boy who asserted that nuclear fission was responsible for the dinosaurs' extinction. But unchallenged, another boy maintained that manifest destiny had something to do with China, and that Guinevere "was a very rich queen, the daughter of the king of Europe, I forget what year." Likewise, a spelling test Jackson showed off was marked as perfect, but shouldn't have been: "Exchager" and "curiosness" were clearly missing letters.
Jackson bragged that his students study five languages, and the kids were quick to throw out phrases in Japanese and Russian. But pressed for more than a standard greeting, the kids couldn't deliver. Jackson explained that he teaches them only a few phrases, just enough to whet their appetite for each language.
Upstairs, in his office, he proudly displayed the books and videotapes that have influenced him: Education on Trial, The Learning Gap, some of Tony Robbins's motivational books. He described ideas he'd lifted from Japan, Korea and other countries, nations whose students trounced Americans on standardized tests. He saw no reason to heed the "pedagroggy" that condemns U.S. schools to languish.
With no warning, Alvin's six-year-old son, Aaron, burst into the office, crying and clutching his stomach. "Mr. Brown pushed me right here," the child said. (Mr. Brown -- Kareeam Brown -- is the teacher who held Erik Vidor while Jackson paddled him.)
Boom Boom took the boy out to the hall, and after a couple of minutes returned alone. Outside, Aaron was still crying.
"It's nothing," said Boom Boom, shrugging to dismiss the incident. "He slammed his finger."
Kim Vidor, Erik's mother, still holds the Classical School's academics in high regard, and remembers that the first time she encountered Jackson, his ideas impressed her mightily. In early '95, Jackson's ad in the Houston Chronicle caught her eye. As a "learning coach," he promised "extraordinary results in motivation, grade improvement and self-esteem" -- precisely what she wanted for Erik, a bright child with attention deficit disorder. She signed up for a Saturday "SuperLearning" seminar.
"You've got to get control of your son," Jackson told Vidor. "He's got control of you."
She enrolled Erik and his two sisters in the school's summer session. The girls didn't like the place -- they said the teachers yelled too much -- but Erik thrived. In January '96, he signed on for the school's regular session.
Last May, when a neighborhood newspaper ran a glowing story about the Classical School, Erik appeared as one of Boom Boom's success stories. The Village News reporter picked a question out of a textbook: What two modern inventions were designed by Leonardo da Vinci in his notebooks? "The parachute and the glider," Erik answered.
According to Kim Vidor, Jackson and his wife Debra, a school administrator, said that Erik was doing well, and she believed them. Like all students at the Classical School, his report card was perfect.
In the fall, though, Erik ran into trouble. A teacher said that he called black classmates "nigger"; other students remembered his involvement in fights, and that some kids flashed a Nazi salute when he walked by. He was smaller than his classmates, and he didn't socialize with any of them outside of school. For ADD, he was supposed to receive a midday dose of Dexedrine; later, Erik revealed that the school's office often didn't administer the capsules. (Jackson believes that ADD kids don't need medication, but should instead be taught to stand still.) The lack of medication couldn't have helped Erik's behavior.
In September, his parents got their first inkling of his problems. On a rainy afternoon, he ran away from the school and surfaced, sopping wet, at his parents' house in West University. He told his mother that his teacher, Kenneth Kossie, had spanked him with a board. Kim Vidor called the school and spoke with Debra Jackson. Debra, she says, told her that Erik had lied, that he hadn't been paddled.
A few days later, Erik ran away a second time. At home, he told his mother that Kossie had hit him on the hands and feet with a ruler, and had pushed him up against a wall, with his hands around Erik's neck. He also said that Kossie had escorted him to another classroom, and there had thrown him against a wall.
It wasn't the first time that Kossie had thrown a child into a wall. Erik described another incident in which the teacher had flung a problem child named Rudy so hard that he left a Rudy-size hole in the wall. (Kossie would later explain that he and the boy had been wrestling, "classroom clowning.")
Alarmed, the Vidors met with Boom Boom. They say he apologized, explaining that Kossie, a young ex-Marine, had gotten a little rough, and would never do it again. But during the talk, Jackson emphasized that corporal punishment was a crucial element of the Classical School's regimen. The Vidors agreed that if necessary, Jackson -- and only Jackson -- could give Erik "a pop."
On the morning of November 12, Erik found himself in the cafeteria with Aaron, Boom Boom and Debra's son. The two traded grade-school taunts -- your mother's an elephant; your father's a rhino -- and began to fight. Erik pushed Aaron against the wall, with his hands around Aaron's neck. The hold echoed one that Erik said Kossie had used -- only this time, Erik was in the more powerful position.
Debra Jackson broke up the fight. Shortly afterward, when Boom Boom arrived at the school, he spoke with Erik in the hall. Erik's classmates watched through the classroom's open door.
Holding a fraternity paddle, Jackson asked, "How many pops do you deserve?"
"None," said Erik. "I didn't do anything."
"Then this is for nothing," said Jackson, and swung the paddle. When Eric writhed to escape, Jackson pushed him to the ground, where he pinned him. Teacher Kareeam Brown held the boy while Jackson paddled him.
Erik returned to his desk and put his head down to cry. Jackson then summoned him back into the hall and paddled him again, this time for not doing his work. In all, he struck Erik somewhere between two and eight times.
Half an hour later, Erik drew a picture of himself shooting Boom Boom in the head. In the drawing, a smiley face adorned Erik's shirt, and a speech balloon emanated from his mouth: "NO MORE MR. PADDLE."
The drawing was the last straw. Boom Boom returned to the class, and asked the other students, "Do you think what Erik did was evil?" The students voted unanimously to remove him from the school.
Erik's dad came to pick him up. At home, Erik discovered that his butt was woefully bruised -- bruised so badly that his parents made the photos that would be all over television a few months later. To establish the date, his dad held up that day's issue of the Village News -- the same paper that had once portrayed Erik as a Classical School success story.
The next day, Kim Vidor reported Erik's paddling to Children's Protective Services, which dispatched an investigator.
Boom Boom said that Erik couldn't be believed, calling the boy "very depressed, suicidal and a pathological liar" and adding that in the past year and a half, the school had disciplined him 42 times. Erik, Jackson said, was "evil": He hurt other children "to be mean," and he'd attacked Aaron "with the intent to murder."
Boom Boom further told the investigator that Erik had confided that his father beat him and his sister, and that his dad had broken the girl's arm and was responsible for a gash on Erik's knee. If that was true, Jackson said, Erik probably deserved it.
Jackson also told the investigator that Erik's dad, William Vidor, was intent on destroying the Classical School. CPS, Jackson said, should consider the source of its information.
CPS dutifully investigated the Vidors, even removing their six-year-old daughter from her elementary school class to ask about her broken arm. No, she told the investigator, she'd managed to fall off the family Suburban without her father's help. And no, her father didn't beat Erik or stab him in the leg.
At the school, Erik's teacher, Kenneth Kossie, told the investigator that he'd never heard that Erik was physically abused at home. In fact, Erik had told him that his parents didn't hit, that he was only grounded, and never grounded for very long. CPS concluded that the Vidors hadn't abused Erik.
But it concluded that the Classical School had. Even so, CPS could do little about the matter. Most often, the agency investigates parents or guardians, not schools. If a parent is found to have committed abuse, in one time out of ten CPS will recommend removing the child from that home; nine times out of ten, it will require counseling for the parents and will continue to monitor the child. Had Erik's parents abused him, the next step would have been clear.
But the Classical School was a school -- and an unusual one at that. With most private schools, CPS would have filed its report with the accrediting organization that monitors the school, and assumed that the accrediting group would keep an eye on the matter. But Texas law doesn't require a school to be accredited, and the Classical School wasn't. No one but the Jacksons oversaw it. For CPS, there was no official next step. Though the agency found that Erik had been abused, there was no reason to think that his spanking would be the school's last.
After Erik's paddling, two more students left the school: Charlie Hanna, 15, and Stephen David, 14. Charlie had his own tale of heavy-handed discipline. He said that in December, his teacher, Kareeam Brown, threw him against a wall for eavesdropping. Later, when Brown left the room, Charlie sneaked out of the school, escaping via a fire escape. Brown found him standing at a nearby bus stop on Richmond and angrily threw Charlie's books into the busy street. To retrieve them, Charlie darted in and out of traffic.
Stephen David hadn't been the subject of such treatment, but he'd seen Erik and other children disciplined harshly. Charlie Hanna's story convinced Stephen's mother to remove him from the school.
Erik, Stephen and Charlie are all white; Boom Boom, like almost all his remaining students, is black. Even so, none of the parties claimed that racism -- either black or white -- lies at the root of the problem. A racist white parent wouldn't have placed a child in the Classical School; and by all accounts, black kids were punished as severely as white ones.
The racial divide, though, reflects parents' attitudes toward spanking: In general, black parents are more likely to approve its use. Of the 13 schools in the Houston Independent School District that allow corporal punishment, 11 are primarily black.
Some parents feel so favorably toward corporal punishment that the photos of Erik Vidor's bruises served as a kind of endorsement for the Classical School. Jackson says that after Erik's spanking made the news, the school logged more than a hundred phone calls from parents requesting enrollment information. So far, he says, the school has added ten new students because of the publicity.
Kim Vidor is a registered nurse at M.D. Anderson, and knows better than most mothers how to report evidence of child abuse. She checked with the state agency that licenses child care facilities to see whether she could lodge a complaint against the school. She found that the Department of Protective and Regulatory Services didn't oversee the school, though it once had. In 1995, a parent had complained to the agency that a teacher had squeezed a child's face. Debra Jackson responded that the agency didn't have jurisdiction over the school; since Classical only handled children during school hours, she argued, it didn't need a child care license. (The department is now trying to verify the school's hours.)
The district attorney's office seemed reluctant to prosecute Erik's case, and Kim Vidor began searching for help. She felt her son had been victimized, and that the perpetrator was getting off scot-free. A victims' rights advocate referred her to Jimmy Dunne, the head of People Opposed to Paddling Students. Dunne is a graying, soft-spoken former teacher who used to paddle students himself, but found that it didn't work. Spanking, he decided, planted the seeds of violence, teaching children that might makes right and that strong people have a right to abuse weaker ones. Eventually, he founded POPS, and from a tiny office on the west side distributed newsletters, fact sheets, posters and stickers -- all aimed at stopping corporal punishment.
In Erik Vidor, Dunne had found, literally, a poster child for his cause. On February 12, POPS called a press conference and distributed photos of Erik's bruises to the media. Texas, Dunne said, needed to ban corporal punishment to prevent such abuses.
Later that day, Jackson saw the photos for the first time. "My God!" he told the Chronicle. "If I did that, put me in jail! No way!"
At his own press conference, Jackson admitted that he'd paddled Erik, but denied that he'd inflicted those hellacious bruises -- if, in fact, the bruises existed. You can't believe photographs, he said. Erik, he claimed, had a history of lying. And besides, Jackson had reported the boy's parents to Children's Protective Services. He implied that they might have bruised the child themselves, or that they might be seeking revenge.
Obviously, some of those statements contained logical problems. If Jackson struck Erik repeatedly with a paddle, he couldn't be certain that he hadn't bruised the boy. Jackson hadn't reported the Vidors to CPS until after the Vidors had already reported him. The parents' rage couldn't reasonably be construed as payback.
Nor did the allegations hinge on Erik's own truthfulness. Jackson himself confirmed that Erik had been spanked that day, and accounts from two of the school's teachers generally supported the boy in the details of the incident.
Such niggling questions, though, didn't interfere with television's cutting to the quick of the controversy: Is it okay to paddle? Does sparing the rod spoil the child?
When Channel 51 put the question to its viewers, the results were not what Jimmy Dunne might have hoped. Sixty-seven percent of callers supported spanking. Later, Dunne would lament the attitude of most Texans: "It's a beat-'em-up kind of state."
On March 17, Erik's case went before a grand jury, and Boom Boom was no-billed. His lawyer, Mike DeGeurin, declared that it was time for everyone to move on, that continuing to examine the incident was "not fair to the boy."
Denise Oncken, the assistant D.A. who tried the case, seemed anxious to move on as well. "The grand jury didn't find sufficient probable cause," she said, to indict Jackson for injuring a child. "That's all I can tell you. It's a secret proceeding." She cautioned against jumping to conclusions after looking at photographs: "When people see spanking cases, they think, 'Oh my God, injuries!' But it's not that simple. You've got to see whether the child has done something to deserve it, what the child's behavior is otherwise, whether the child has to be restrained, whether the child is large or difficult to control -- those kinds of things."
Jimmy Dunne interpreted the case as one more instance in which Texas law had failed to protect children. In his files, he keeps a copy of the broad statute that regulates school punishment. According to Texas Penal Code Statute 9.62, an educator who "reasonably believes the force is necessary to further the special purpose or to maintain discipline in a group" is justified in using "force, but not deadly force."
"So," concluded Dunne, "it's okay if they put the kid in a coma."
The Vidors were outraged, and turned to civil court. On April 16, they sued the Classical School, Boom Boom and teachers Brown and Kossie. They accused the school and the three men of being responsible for assault and battery, negligence and gross negligence, and they accused Boom Boom of slander, charging that he maliciously misled CPS by saying that Erik was abused at home.
At the Classical School, business continued as usual. In April, Jackson still welcomed a reporter, cautioning only that questions about "the nasty stuff" would be referred to DeGeurin. "I'm still selling books and giving speeches to pay for that man," he joked.
In his office, Jackson talked excitedly about his expansion plans. Already, the Classical School has an outpost in Dallas, and Jackson is now planning to open others in Albuquerque, Tampa and Las Vegas. Dreamily, he talked of finding a financial backer who'll help him open a "Boom Boom-style" high school.
A small, light-skinned black child ran through the hallway outside Jackson's office.
"Samson!" Jackson bellowed. The child stopped, and stood uncertainly in the doorway.
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"What kind of kid did you used to be, before you came to this school?"
"A bad kid."
"What did you do?"
"Fought the principal. And ran out of class."
"Do you do that here?"
"Ever even thought of doing that here?"
"What is it about the environment here?"
"Did they give you pops at your old school?"
"Let's say you ran a school. Let's say that when you get big, you're the future Boom Boom. What would you do at your school?"
"Give 'em pops."
Research assistance by Lauren Kern.