Why the world could use a few more push-ups

MANILA, Philippines – When I started 7th grade at St. Vivian’s School, our teacher, Mr. Reker, had a unique means of discipline. No swats. No essays. No detention. No cleaning the toilets. Nope, when we had a fight in the schoolyard, or we acted up in class, or were late with an assignment, we all got the same punishment: Push-ups. Lots of them.

I can poignantly remember having to get down “in position” and count out my push-ups, side-by-side alongside my best friend Brian whom I was talking to, when I should have been listening in class. I recall all the push-ups on the playground, following some over-the-top “trash talk” on the basketball court that Mr. Reker just happened to overhear.
I remember at the time they were tough, and painful in a sense, and I certainly wanted to avoid having to do more. This was obvious learning. What wasn’t so obvious was how effective this teaching technique really was. It was punishment without horrible aftereffects, and on top, with my growing muscles came a confidence and self-esteem in my 12-year-old body!

Two years later, I started high school with the Jesuits at the esteemed St. Xavier in my hometown of Cincinnati. There were 21 of us from St. Vivian’s there. One of our first essays was to write about a teacher who deeply affected us, who made us better. All 21 of us wrote about the same man — Mr. Reker. That tough guy who NEVER let us get away with anything, who had everyone doing push-ups for every little transgression, had made all of us better. And with the passage of time, we all started to recognize what a special educator we had. He wasn’t always nice. He wasn’t always easy. But he did what we needed to learn simple lessons. The lesson that there is a consequence for every choice we make, and we must accept these consequences. Personal accountability. The lesson that mistakes can be made, and to learn from them. And even the lesson, in a sense, of “a strong mind in a strong body.”

I kept Mr. Reker’s unique system in mind, and years later, I became a father, now five times over. I always believed discipline to be important. But instead of the belt, or the grounding, or the endless chores, I took a page from Mr. Reker’s manual. When one of the kids needed disciplining, well, they got to do push-ups. Lots of them.
We’d always start at 50. If they kept fighting, it went up by 50. And 50 more. And we are talking full, real push-ups here — full body weight and nose touching the floor. I can remember times when one of my more stubborn kids would be doing 300, 400, even 500 push-ups, and taking hours to do them all while I patiently watched. All to make them better, and to teach them important life lessons. To take accountability for their actions.
The job of raising a child is never done, but the heavy work is behind me now. My eldest children are now in college and post-college. They are well-adjusted, happy, successful, and I’m very proud of them. They’ve made their own life. And my girls can still do more push-ups than any guy they have ever dated!

I am now teaching leadership at Ateneo and UP on Saturday mornings. I made quite a stir when I announced to the classes on day 1 that I expect them to be professional, and to be on time, and that means 8:30 a.m. sharp. Not 8:31 or 8:40. And if anyone is late, they owe me 50 push-ups at the end of class. And I was very fair about it. I warned them, I gave clear expectations, and if they really didn’t agree to the “contract,” well, they can drop the class! But that’s the rule. And I don’t do any young student any favors by letting them cut corners, and learn that it is OK to be late. My job is to prepare these amazing students to be competitive on a global level. Punctuality is a norm in a professional environment. And I would rather have them learn this lesson now, when the price is 50 push-ups, than later, when the price might be their job.

A few weeks back, a young lady, who is one of my most attentive and engaged students, came in to class a few minutes late. Afterwards, she accepted her penance with honor and lined up to do her 50 push-ups. It was hard work for her, probably more push-ups than she had done cumulatively in her life! It took her a good 10 minutes to do 50, doing them in groups of two or three at a time. And when she was done, her arms hung limply at her sides.
Last week, I asked her what she thought of the push-ups, after the passage of time. She first told me she was sore in her arms for a few days, and then her muscles recovered and she was fine. Then she told me the sentence I was so happy to hear: “Sir Jim, I can tell you this, I won’t ever be late to anything important, ever again in my life.”
Now that’s a pretty important lesson to learn, for an outstanding young Filipina.
And all for the bargain price of 50 push-ups.