Due to tragic circumstances, I lived from age 9 to age 12 in a Baptist children’s home located outside Greenwood, South Carolina. The name was Connie Maxwell Children’s Home; we called it Connie Mack. It was the safe haven I needed after an abusive past. My stay there gave me some special experiences that continue to shape my adult life more than 30 years later.
I can still see the hundred-year-old brick library surrounded by lanky pines shading the road bisecting the campus. The swimming pool was nearby. So were the new administration buildings, some sagging old farm buildings—and the unit where I lived. It was a two-story ranch called Cox Cottage. Each unit had “cottage parents.” Ours were Mom and Pop Holmes. I liked them. They were a loving couple in their late 40s. Sometimes they were given time off, to get away for a night or weekend. Then the retired parents came—they were the dreaded disciplinarians of the 5 a.m. roll call. One special lady, Miss Willis, zealously embraced two beliefs: the Bible and the gospel of liver! Blah!!
Our lives were regimented, but we were cared for. I discovered my gift of music. I composed my first songs. And I smoked my first cigar—yuck! I quit long ago!
I also endured my first fistfights. I got into some trouble, and some bad things happened to me. After all, we were at Connie Maxwell because our families were not working as normal ones do. Our dormitory-style bedrooms were full of troubled kids—like me.
But I treasure my three years there. I was safe and loved—and I was blessed to benefit from one of the most profound positive parenting moments of my youth. I learned this from the hands of Bill Clyburn.
Connie Maxwell had three farms. As residents, we helped to raise chickens, cattle and vegetables. All kids were required to work after school and during the summer. Mr. Clyburn was overseer. He was boss. He was king. And his word was law. I vividly remember my first time picking strawberries. The work was backbreaking. I hated it! The field seemed to stretch to the horizon! But I remember thinking, “If I eat the big red ones and pick off the green ones, then I won’t have to do this anymore!”
Well, that worked about like eating the blueberries. One hoped one wasn’t caught when the guilt was obvious! When one was caught, the penalty was immediate. Once I saw Mr. Clyburn sitting on his throne—an elevated chair with tall legs in the middle of the berry patch. He apparently saw one of the kids “hooking,” which was sneaking a bite. Mr. Clyburn called the culprit over to him; then he proceeded to discipline him right there, on the spot. Remember, this was 40 years ago! As I stared, I silently hoped I never ran afoul of Mr. Clyburn—he was mean!
Later, I met his grandson. We became fast friends, sneaking treats when “Granddaddy” wasn’t looking. Somehow, we never got caught. And we always sat together in the front seat of the old pickup when Mr. Clyburn let the oldest kids shift gears and steer.
One day, I got into trouble. I don’t recall why. Mr. Clyburn took me inside his little house. I was scared. Out came the wide belt, and I knew I was “gonna git it.” Yet I can still hear his voice.
“Son, I could spank you. But you see that book there?”
I swallowed back my tears and nodded, looking where he pointed. There, on the old couch by the front door, was a book.
“Now I can spank you or I can spank that book. And when I do, you better cry out like I did spank you, or you will get it!”
Well, he spanked the book, and I cried out. And I didn’t know why he let me off. But he did. And I never forgot it. Many years later, as a young parent with two small children, an event caused me to remember and replicate his mercy.
One Saturday afternoon, I was napping. My children were then about 4 and 6. They were downstairs making a terrible racket. (I called it quibbling.) Finally, the noise level escalated where I could no longer sleep. I was aggravated, and I had had enough. So I stomped downstairs to find the kids playing by the baby grand piano. “What’s going on?” I demanded.
My daughter, the youngest, responded, “The…piano bench…it—uh—hit me!”
“You mean to say that the piano bench jumped up and hit you.”
Well, I desperately tried not to laugh, but while I knew it to be a lie, I was confronting a totally different issue at the time. Camouflaging my mood with a gruff voice, I cried, “Wait here!” Then I sprinted up the stairs.
By that time in life, I rarely spanked, usually resorting to other means. And I never used a belt, only my hand. But I was sick of the sibling quibbling. I wanted them to get along. So I grabbed a belt and came back downstairs. When the kids saw me, their blue eyes widened. They were in trouble and knew they were “gonna git it!”
“So let me get this straight. The piano bench hit you?” They both gulped and nodded.
“You didn’t provoke it?” They shook their heads.
“Alright then,” I exclaimed. And at that moment, I started wailing…on the piano bench! Now their eyes bugged out. I am sure both thought Daddy had lost his mind!
I stopped, letting the moment sink in. Pointing and glaring at the bench, I announced in a stern voice, “Now let that be a lesson to you!” I looked at the kids, didn’t say a word; then I walked slowly up stairs. Once behind the closed door to our master bedroom, I collapsed in laughter! My adult children and I laugh about this to this day.
Bill Clyburn must have known about my past. The bruises had faded. But heart bruises take a lifetime to heal. And when he spanked the book, he began healing my heart. And many years later when I spanked the bench, I showed I had broken the cycle—one I was statistically destined to repeat. Bill Clyburn set into motion a ripple effect, which affected me and saved my children. His kindness now reaches out to you in the retelling of this story. He was a special man.
Now I don’t recommend running around taking out our aggressions on inanimate objects, it is no way to solve personal issues, but this incident was an example of the change in my life.
As one saying goes, we cannot go back and make a new start, but we can start now to make a new ending. Bill Clyburn helped me—and countless scores of others through the years and up through today—have a better ending. Now you are the recipients of his kindness. Like him, you may never know the good you can affect or the lives you change. Now you can, to quote the movie, “pay it forward.”
So here is the moral of the story—love conquers hatred. The story of Bill Clyburn is a celebration of the power of love. He loved me. I learned from him and, in turn, I loved my children. The mercy of Bill Clyburn is passed on. So spank the book, heal the heart!
(Note: Proper punishment is biblical and is not an expression of hatred, but abuse is never appropriate. Our booklet Marriage and Family: The Missing Dimension covers proper discipline in the chapter “Bringing Up a Moral Child.”)