Spare the Rod

I watched a TV series recently that triggered some less than happy memories for me. The television drama was set in a post-war English village and the particular scene, a young boy and his teacher in a classroom drama. Growing up in the 50s and 60s, the incident shown reflected my own school experience.

At six years old, I had just started to learn ‘joined-up’ handwriting along with my class. I was progressing well when a change of teacher brought my development to a sudden and violent stop. It would have an impact on my entire education. Picture, if you will, a small boy intent on forming his letters on the lines of an exercise book, when he suddenly feels a sharp pain, accompanied by a loud crack. Startled, he looks up to see his teacher holding a twelve-inch ruler, the same one she has just used to crack across his little knuckles. Unable to understand his crime, the six-year-old fights tears in an attempt to be brave, but it’s an incident that will stay with him for life.

That was to be my first taste of physical punishment and it came because I was left-handed. It was quite common practice in those years to force children to use their right hands, even when they were natural lefties like me. It certainly wasn’t the last time I felt the ruler on my knuckles and I did not respond well to the campaign to change me. Persisting to fall back on my left hand, the fight became a battle of wills. My general schoolwork suffered as a result. In time, I knew what to expect and when the ruler fell, I was ready and braced for impact. As time went on, my resistance was interpreted as deliberate rebellion. I was a troublemaker and other teachers picked up on the label. I was expected to be a disturbance in class, even before a teacher had a chance to know me. As I moved through the years, the ruler became a cane and my school life became a battle to the very end when I was expelled, age fourteen.

It’s hard enough to imagine how an adult could use a ruler on a child, but that a full-grown man could take a metre-long piece of bamboo and use his full force to beat a child is now beyond belief. Before I was ten years old, I had become a regular victim of corporal punishment. The headmaster of my primary school had an umbrella stand with a variety of canes of different thickness. The worst were the thin ones that whipped through the air with a loud woosh before finding their mark. Welts would last for days, followed by bruising. I never told my parents when beaten. It just wasn’t done back then. It didn’t take long before I rose to my teacher’s expectations and gladly gave good reason for punishment. If they wanted trouble, I was, by then, happy to oblige. As I grew older, the canings were directed at hands rather than buttocks. I often wonder if the arthritis I now feel in mine is the result of the regular beatings. All these thrashings did little to change my ways, at least not in a good way. Trouble followed me always and I took pride in being able to take my punishment without giving the satisfaction of signs of pain.

I know I’m not alone in these experiences, and there are many of my generation who will say that it did them no harm. Some even say it’s what’s missing in schools and would be glad to see it returned. ‘It did me good.’ I’ve heard some say, looking back. Did it do me any good? I think it probably made me stronger as a result. A little headstrong maybe, willing to take risks because I never feared the consequences. After being expelled from high-school I spent a lifetime playing catch-up on my education. I certainly don’t see myself as a victim of my school years, but I’m sure that it shaped my life in ways I could do without and made things harder. And I could easily have continued on a path to destruction. But I’m thankful that after leaving school I had people around me that influenced me in positive ways. None more so than my wife, my family and friends, others that came along and showed me the way. These are the angels that guided me.

My wife, family and friends; these are the angels that guided me

Did the beatings work at all? Well, they did eventually succeed in making me right-handed, but even to this day I have a phobia about writing with pen or pencil. My awful script is an embarrassment and I develop an instant case of dyslexia if I have to write when someone is standing over me or looking on. In fact, any handwriting causes me to feel panic and a sense of dread. In other ways it set me back years, causing me to rebel in the first place. But in the end, I did come good, a responsible adult and productive member of society (I hope). Who do I have to thank for that? Well, I believe it was Mum and Dad, not my teachers, that taught me right from wrong. The strong influence they instilled in me, ultimately brought me back on track. As I write this blog, I’m thankful to them for their love, to word processors, and that I don’t have to write this in pencil.