Discipline Problems

In this account, which was originally the first digital story that I created all on my own, I experiment with how to be curious about an object—my first grade report card—that serves as one of the few material objects of my kid-existence that I still possess. Through the process of being curious, I’m able to reclaim my troublemaking self and rethink how I understood my story—from someone who was constantly underestimated and devalued as “trouble,” to someone who managed, in spite of much adversity, to hold onto my passion, curiosity and troublemaking spirit. 

This is my first grade report card from the 1980-81 school year. My teacher was Josie Miller, my principle Carl Seitz. I attended Clyde Campbell Elementary School in Hickory, North Carolina. It’s one of the few artifacts that I have from my elementary school years. We moved around a lot when I was kid. In fact, I went to 3 different elementary schools: this one in North Carolina and two others in Virginia.

As a kid, I didn’t care about holding onto a lot of stuff, especially old report cards. So, most of my school papers, my pictures and other material objects of my kid-existence got tossed. What I do have was presented to me in a purple box adorned with butterflies on the lid, by my mom, just a few years before she died. Amongst random photos, some newspaper clippings, and a swimming report, I found my first grade report card. While it doesn’t look like much, after examining it, I was surprised to realize how many questions and reflections that it prompted for me.

This report card makes me very curious. I like being curious. Perhaps a gift from my mom, I have an almost unlimited capacity for wonder; I’m always wondering about the world and the various ways in which we imagine what it is or could be. Since the report card doesn’t offer that many details about my first grade year and since I can’t ask my mom because she died in 2009, I want to use this report card as a source for wondering, questioning and imagining.

Who was I in first grade? Why did I miss 4 days in the fourth set of 6 weeks? A prolonged sickness? Vacation? Why did my parents request the parent/teacher conference that is noted on the inside? Was it because they wanted to make sure that Mrs. Miller wouldn’t treat me like my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Von Dohlen, who put me in a box as punishment? Or, because they wanted to strategize how to handle my already overabundance of physical energy and lack of self-discipline?


  1. Sara has made a good adjustment to first grade. She has some progress to make in some areas but has made progress in these areas lately.
  2. Sara has made some improvement in the area of self-discipline. We can tell she is trying but she still has quite a few days in which she seems to have little control over herself.
  3. Sara has made a lot of progress in her self-discipline this 6 weeks.
  4. Sara’s progress is great. She has been overly active this 6 weeks in the area of self-discipline.

So many of the teacher comments on the back are about my lack of self-discipline. How did my mom handle my so-called lack of it? Did she agree with my teacher’s assessment? Did she lack discipline when she was a kid?

I don’t need to ask how my dad handled it; he sat on me. Ha! I used to think that his approach was ridiculous until I had a mini-me. I’ve never sat on my daughter, but when her wonder and curiosity become overwhelming, I can see how someone might feel desperate enough to just sit on her.

I wish I could ask these questions about my 7 year old self to my mom; she might just remember what I was like in first grade. She might even remember what the parent/teacher conference was about. Or, she might remember why I had trouble having self-discipline.

What was she thinking as she signed her name to my report card, in 3 different ways: Judy Puotinen, J.C. Puotinen and Judith C. Puotinen?

I wonder, though, if she were still alive, would she really be able to answer my questions? She liked to embellish stories, enhancing the details and shaping them in ways that made them more meaningful and that fit with reality as she wanted to see it and live it. I wouldn’t call this lying or twisting the truth, but creating new and sometimes better truths through storytelling. Would she remember the details of an event, like the parent/teacher conference, if it didn’t fit in with her story of me as a kid? A story that presents me as full of positive energy and joy, who would wake her up every morning by saying, “good morning! you look beautiful today!” And a story that seems to ignore the evidence, occasionally provided by my sisters, that I couldn’t have been such a positive ball of energy all the time. I was also…trouble and an exhausting, never-tiring, always-questioning, ball of energy. My nickname, given to me by my dad, a third generation Finn was the Finnish Tornado, after all.

A lack of answers about my 7 year old self, provokes a broader curiosity: What is self-discipline? How do we define it? And, what does it mean to not have it? Is it to be too impulsive or unruly? Disruptive? A disciplinary problem? Unfocused? Lazy? After doing a quick search, I came up with some vague answers.
Self-discipline means:

    • Being in control of your body and focused in your actions
    • Being dedicated and responsible
    • Being respectful and listening well
    • Doing what’s right and always improving oneself
    • And my personal favorite: Doing what you don’t want to do. Ha!

As I look at my marks for “social and work habits” on the back of my report card, I’m a little confused. While my “practices self-discipline” marks are the lowest, and don’t improve, but decline by the end of the year, almost all of my other marks are very high. If lacking self-discipline is about listening to others, then why is my listens attentively score so high for most of the year? If it’s about being too unfocused, then why do I get consistently high marks for “works neatly and orderly,” “follows directions,” “uses time wisely,” and “completes assigned tasks?” According to this report I also have high “respect for school policies and property,” so I’m not disrespectful of authority. I accept and share responsibility, so I’m mindful of others.

So, what was it that made me lack self-discipline? And, why was that such a problem for my first grade teacher and, if I recall correctly, many subsequent teachers? Without more explanation, I’m left to imagine what my lack of self-discipline was really about: a curious, wondering, exuberant child who was struggling to figure out how to stay that way in an environment that wanted her to calm down and conform. Sure I can appreciate the need for being calm (trust me, as a mom to my own Finnish tornado, I can really appreciate the need for it), I’m less thrilled about the ways that that calming down seemed to frequently involve a command to stop questioning, just follow directions, and conform to what I was expected to do.

While I could dwell on the damage that that need to calm down and conform did to me, I don’t want to. Instead, I want to take a minute to celebrate the 7 year old self that was full of life and passion and curiosity and wonder and managed, in spite of much adversity and resistance, to hang onto it for 30+ years. I started making trouble at an early age (mostly the good kind!) and I’ve stayed in it for all this time. I think that’s pretty cool.

As I was working on the digital story, I was bothered by my failure (or refusal?) to provide a larger context for my “undisciplined account.” It seemed significant to me to understand what being self-disciplined, and what the consequences for failing to be disciplined, meant in the very racially-charged 1980 North Carolina community where my school was located. Instead of trying to incorporate these facts into my original story, I decided to offer them up in an additional blog account, intended to be read beside the digital video. 

Beside/s: The Context

I am troubled/unsettled/curious about my lack of context for my account above. While I briefly mention that I went to school in Hickory, North Carolina, I don’t provide any details about the town or the state. Since I’m interested in the ways that calls for self-discipline have disturbing implications for folks who don’t fit the mythical (White) norm, it seems important to mention that 1980s North Carolina, particularly in the part of the state that I lived, near the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, was a racially charged and extremely poor area (at least, right outside of the city of Hickory). It was also in a school district where corporeal punishment, in the form of paddling, was mandatory (I need to do some more research on that, but I’m pretty sure that I remember my mom, a junior high learning disabilities teacher, struggling with how to resist/reject this regulation).

One more note: less than one year before I was in first grade in Hickory, a violent massacre of anti-racist activists occurred less than 2 hours away, in Greesburo, South Carolina.

Just shortly before starting this account, I wrote a comment about the need to contextualize my self-discipline narrative. Here’s an excerpt:

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my whiteness and its impact on how my lack of self-discipline was handled by my teacher. As much as I can recall, I didn’t really get in that much “trouble” in that first grade class. Even though paddling was encouraged, I was never paddled. (It might have even been mandatory for teachers; I went to elementary school in the 1980s in North Carolina, at least partly known for its poverty, racism and corporeal punishment. I think I recall my mom, who taught in a different school, saying that she was told that she had to paddle misbehaving students).

I wish I could remember more of my mom’s stories about her teaching experiences in North Carolina. I think she would have a lot to say about how non-white/poor white students were punished as troublemakers with corporeal punishment and by being placed in learning disabilities classrooms like hers.

After posting this comment, I decided to quickly look through one of my mom’s notebooks (the same notebook where I found her reflections on throwing darts at the Censor and her poem about the dragonfly). In it, I found some of her research notes for a presentation on Creativity and Weaving: “My Experiences in Taylorsville, North Carolina–the 80’s.” Jackpot! Well, not quite, but it’s a start.

In these brief notes, my mom provides some context on 1980s North Carolina and a little bit of information about her experiences as a teacher during that time. She was a special education teacher (I remember that she called herself an LD–learning disabilities–teacher) at West Jr. High School “in the middle of the country in Alexander County, then the 2nd poorest county in the state.” She notes that the KKK was a big presence (with at least one teacher claiming membership) and that there was a sharp contrast in wealth between “the richer city of Hickory” (where I attended school) and her extremely poor students in rural Alexander County.

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She also briefly describes “discipline in the schools” as: “paddle–woodburned names, classroom chart with 3 demerits than a paddle.” I remember that from my first-grade class! Only once was I almost paddled. I had made it through the entire day without a single demerit. Then, in the last few minutes of school, I managed to earn three! For some reason, Mrs. Miller didn’t paddle me. Did I ever see her paddle any other students? I’m not sure. How did my mom handle the paddle rule in her classroom? Did she ever paddle her students? Did she refuse? If so, what were the consequences of that refusal? How did she manage her role as a teacher who was supposed to discipline students (and who was frequently given students who didn’t really have learning disabilities, but were just deemed “disciplinary problems”) with her role as a mother of someone who lacks (self) discipline? Did she witness any differences between how discipline functioned in “rich Hickory” and “poor Alexander county”? What did she think about these differences? Did they shape how she handled my disciplinary problems?

Continue Reading: My First Act of Resistance