A Moron Row, Knuckle Raps, and “Dunce Caps”

I started school in 1958 in a classroom in a house in the little town of Lost Creek, West Virginia.

According to my mother, I was ready for school two years before I could start because I set about mastering the set of skills necessary for students to learn before entering school that were listed on a pamphlet she had obtained my older sister, Susan.

I’ve been told that I was able to do higher-level subtraction and addition problems in my head before I started school.

I was so excited about starting school! I learned to read, to know left from right – as long as I was facing the front of the room, to skip backward, and I became friends with a wonderful girl named Cathy.

I also learned to be afraid of making mistakes, to fear being made fun of, and I developed intense anxiety that stayed with me throughout my life.

There are parts of my first-grade memories that have always been available and parts that have not. My mother has helped fill in some of the missing pieces in the past several weeks.

My excitement about school did not extend beyond the first day. One of my parents took me to school that day. After that I walked to school, but I would stop at the end of the pathway from the kitchen to the garden gate and cry, not wanting to go any further.

I remember that the first day of school the children from the poor side of town or the kids who were allegedly not as smart (but how would the teacher know who was smart and who was not?) were put in a “moron” row along the left side of the room.

After that, other children were moved there if they made mistakes or misbehaved.

Ms. Hardway carried a ruler which she used to rap students’ knuckles for various infractions.

I had a vague memory of “dunce caps.” I just recently learned the real story about these “dunce caps” from my mother.

Since Susan was able to attend school only half days in first grade as she was recovering from rheumatic fever, my mother had the opportunity to be in the classroom briefly each day.

During one or more of these times, she observed Ms. Hardway’s disciplinary practice of having a student stand, raise both arms above their head, then Ms. Hardway would place a paper grocery type bag over their head and make them stand in the closet. I had buried that memory!

I remember having a stomachache whenever I didn’t know the answer or when I was not sure if I knew the answer to a question. And I worried every time that happened. And I questioned myself; I was so afraid of getting the answer wrong.

Simple things, like being told to write the alphabet was enough to start my stomach hurting, because I couldn’t remember if alphabet meant a,b,c or 1,2,3.

So, when there was a possibility that I would make a mistake, I raised my hand and said I didn’t feel well (which was true); and I was allowed to lay down on the couch in the next room. I received special treatment because I was the minister’s daughter. Other students received the knuckle rap, moron row or “dunce cap.”

But the special treatment did not protect me from the trauma of that classroom, the effects that I’ve carried with me my entire life.

Even in the 1950’s the moron row was not normal, and the discrimination faced by my classmates was blatant and extreme. I don’t remember how frequent the knuckle rapping was.

The fear I developed has never left me, even though I never was moved to the moron row, never had my knuckles rapped and never had to stand in a closet with a bag over my head.

Trauma impacts everyone who is exposed to it, bystanders as well as the individuals who are directly impacted.

And for children, whose brains are still developing, trauma changes the normal development of the brain. And their world is rocked when they cannot trust an adult who is in a position of trust.

Today’s seclusion rooms and restraints are the “dunce caps,” knuckle raps,” and moron rows of yesterday. Our children need safe environments with caring adults to learn and thrive. Please join the effort to help see that every child feels safe at school.


  • Beth Tolley

    Beth retired in 2018 from a leadership position in Virginia’s lead agency for early intervention for infants and toddlers and is a mother, grandmother and advocate.

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