Timeout. Until recently, I thought this was a phrase basketball coaches yelled when their teams were down by six points with half a minute on the clock.
Then I paid a visit to my three-year-old goddaughter, Gabriella Marie. Within a few minutes, she was squealing, jumping up and down on the couch, and dumping her toys at my feet; standard protocol for any three-year-old who is happy to see company.
However, her mother, who has to tolerate such commotion on a 24/7 basis, was not amused. She frowned, faced the child and asked, "Do you want to go into timeout?"
"Timeout," I discovered, is actually a punishment; a reproach apparently so terrifying that, upon hearing the word, Gabriella Marie's demeanor changed almost instantly, from that of a frenetic toddler to someone who'd just returned from a nine-hour funeral and found their house burned down. Having had little exposure to children since I stopped being one, I was astonished by the power of this formidable phrase.
Surely, I reasoned, "timeout" must be some heinous brand of retribution involving intense emotional anguish and acute physical torment. I suddenly pictured Gabriella sitting next to Charlton Heston and the other sweaty, whip-scarred galley slaves in Ben Hur as they rise against their captors, screaming, "No more timeouts, you heathen dogs!"
"What is timeout?" I asked the girl's mother, a look of abject terror shadowing my face.
"It means she has to sit in the corner quietly and think about what she did wrong. They do it at schools, too."
"Uh-huh. Okay. And at what point do you start screaming?"
"No screaming, just quiet time."
"I see. I see. And then you start the paddling?"
"No paddling. Just quiet time."
I flashed back to second grade at Our Lady of Pompeii, a nun-intensive Catholic elementary school in the heart of New York's Greenwich Village. The sisters were superb educators, but exacting disciplinarians for whom infractions as benign as chewing gum in class meant a trip to the church confessional and the recitation of every known penitential prayer in the religious universe.
Like Dirty Harry with his .44-caliber Magnum, and Rambo with his exploding arrows, each sister had a weapon of choice. One sported a set of solid-steel rosary beads that dangled menacingly from her belt. She had never actually hit a student with them but when she whacked them against the blackboard, the terrifying sound could induce complete bladder evacuation in under four seconds. Another nun carried a large metal coach's whistle that she would blow with sufficient force to cause stress fractures in the cochlea.
My teacher was the only nun whom the other nuns feared. Her name was Sister Antoinette and she was a Karloffian monstrosity in a wimple. Her chosen medium of terror was a wooden pointer. On seeing this enshrouded gothic icon patrolling the
aisles and slapping wood against her palm, it took extraordinarily little imagination to substitute Sister Antoinette and her pointer for the Grim Reaper and his scythe.
One day, probably as I stared out the window, Sister Antoinette deemed that I had committed an offense serious enough to warrant pointer deployment. I'm sure she meant only to give me a gentle tap to awaken me from my daydream. However, having been born before most of the planets, she had the reflexes and visual acuity of a worn sponge. Accordingly, she applied the pointer to my head at precisely the right inclination and velocity to snap the stick in two.
The top half of the pointer flew end-over-end across the room and landed in the corner. The class stared in awe for a moment and then exploded into peals of hysterical laughter. I responded by wailing in agony as Sister Antoinette began bellowing thunderously at both me and the class. Incited by the clamor, children in neighboring classrooms also burst into laughter, at which point Sister Beads went into a blackboard-slashing frenzy and an apoplectic Sister Tweety blew so hard she blasted the pea right through the bottom of her whistle. The lump on the back of my head had yet to fully form before the National Guard arrived to quell the uprising.
Returning to the present, I watched Gabriella tremble at the thought of sitting quietly in a corner, and remembered the horror of that day. I rubbed the phantom lump on the back of my head and lamented that this concept of timeout had come about 30 years too late. My parents, I then realized, would probably have had as much trouble with timeout as Sister Antoinette.
My father was a man of almost infinite patience. He could sit quietly reading a newspaper as my and my brother's raucous rioting threatened the very foundation of the building. When he finally reached the breaking point, he would spring from the chair and yell, "That's it! I'm getting the strap!" He would then unbuckle his belt, zip it through the loops, and start whipping it in our general vicinity, being careful not to actually hit us.
We tried to bolster his ego by looking terrified, but the pathetic sight of a grown man randomly flailing furniture with one hand and holding up his pants with the other hardly inspired terror. Sometimes we even laughed; a crucial tactical error at this point, because he would then yell for my mother to come and take care of us, cueing the attack music from Jaws.
The sound of the kitchen drawer slowly creaking open shattered the stilted silence. She was going for the dreaded wooden spoon, a.k.a. The Spoon of Many Splinters; Brown Death; The Spank-O-Matic; The Utensil of Sorrow; and Satan's Ladle. We knew immediately that we had roughly four seconds to wedge ourselves into the apartment's most inaccessible crevices or we'd be yanking slivers out of our nether regions well into college.
As though the horror of Sister Antoinette's pointer wasn't enough to give me a lifelong, almost-maniacal wood phobia, I had the compounded misfortune of being born into a neighborhood where no self-respecting Italian mother could hold her head up in public unless she possessed a wooden spoon.
And not just any wooden spoon . Nay, some cheap, flimsy, five-and-dime spoon would never do. Occasionally, a new mother would whip out some pressed-board, two-for-a-buck spoon to threaten her brood and the rest of the mothers would collapse in fits of hysterical laughter. Then they would counsel the inexperienced mom by introducing her to the true wooden spoon: an industrial-strength implement made of the hardest pine, cured by years of submersion in boiling marinara sauce, and tempered by the friction of a thousand spankings. Each spoon, they would advise their colleagues, had to be able to pass The Bus Test; that is, if you ran the spoon under the wheels of a fully loaded cross-town bus and it didn't splinter, crack, or break, you knew you had good wood. Some of the mothers had designated a spoon for each child. Others had spent hours crocheting decorative spoon caddies. Still others had carved into their spoons intricate notches denoting memorable beatings.
One day as school let out, my friend leaned over and, with a mischievous grin, whispered a vulgar word into my ear. Not having heard the word before, I turned to my mother and said, "What does #$@& mean?" Another child heard me and yelled out, "Hey, if he can say #$@& how come I can't say #$%!@?" This provoked several other children to say the word out loud and before we realized what we had done, it was too late. The eerie silence that precedes all cataclysmic events hung in the air like grim death. The mothers were reaching for the mobile spoons they carried in their purses.
Within seconds the carnage at the corner of Bleeker and Carmine streets had traffic snarled for miles as panicked children stampeded in all directions, hotly pursued by tiny but beefy Italian women waving their spoons and shouting the very word they were about to punish the children for saying. A minute later, everything within a 100-yard radius of ground zero was blanketed with sawdust. Sobbing could be heard from distances as great as the Long Island Sound.
Of course, the damage applied to our posteriors was insignificant compared to the damage to our pride. And, to the best of my knowledge, none of the children I grew up with became hatchet murderers, international terrorists, pet molesters, or personal-injury attorneys. (Nor did any of them ever say #$%!@ again within a mile of an adult.) Yet, I can't help but believe that if these women were suddenly transported from the late '60s to today's timeout era, they would probably end up vilified as child abusers before a national audience on 60 Minutes. But back then, they were the legendary heroes of the Great Spoon Beatings of 1968, as a plaque still pasted to the wall of a pizzeria at the site of the massacre still attests.
Gabriella will never know why, to this day, there are some fully grown adults who whimper when they pass the intersection of Bleeker and Carmine streets. She'll never know the overwhelming sense of foreboding that grips me at the sight of a simple pine tree. She'll never understand why I stir spaghetti sauce with a plastic spatula.
Then again, I guess I'll never fully comprehend the horror of sitting in a corner and being quiet.
Originally published in Boca Raton magazine, Nov/Dec 1996. First Place Winner of the 1997 Florida Magazine Association Award for Humorous Writing.
© 2011 Steven Ricci
All material is copyrighted by the author. For information about publishing rights contact