MY five-year-old grandson, Cooper, just started primary school and it’s great to see him skipping out the door to school in the morning, happy as Larry without a care in the world. Delighted with himself.
I was minding him recently and we had a chat about his classmates, his teacher and what work they were doing in school, and he was very positive and full of enthusiasm.
The most notable aspect of his account was the lack of fear. He didn’t once mention being afraid of his teacher or the environment, and that’s good because school wasn’t always like that.
I am delighted for him because that’s how it should be, unlike years ago, when primary school wasn’t a wonderful experience for everyone.
Corporal punishment featured prominently in my early school days and I’m sure many others of my vintage will have similar stories to tell.
The Presentation Brothers were responsible for my early education and I don’t have too many happy memories of those times.
I’m thankful that Cooper and his buddies won’t have to deal with the reign of terror that was inflicted upon us by those who should have known better.
Modern schools have done away with blackboards. It’s all white boards now and electronic tablets so there’s no need for dusters anymore. That’s good, because these things were regularly used as missiles by brothers anxious to restore order in a classroom.
Dusters were made from timber and were about the size of a modern mobile phone, only thicker, with material on one side to wipe the chalk off the board.
If you got a slap of one of those on the head, you’d know all about it, especially if you were struck by the wooden side.
We had one brother who liked to pinch the locks of hair by your ear and lift you up from the seat until you were standing on your tiptoes and he would keep pulling until your eyes watered.
Getting a slap on the head from a brother as he passed behind you was nothing unusual either, and this behaviour went on every day.
The principal was responsible for carrying out the real punishment though. I can still picture him standing there in his black robes and it didn’t seem to bother him too much that he was hurting young children.
His favourite weapon of torture was a piece of a cane, which as far as I can remember was about two feet long. He would raise it in the air, then bring it down across the palm of your hand with enthusiasm. Three of these on each hand and you would certainly feel the pain.
If you moved your hand while he was in mid-flight, the stick would catch you across the tips of the fingers and that was particularly sore. If you flinched and pulled your hand away altogether, the punishment was increased.
There was often a queue in the hallway outside his office and the noise of the stick coming in contact with the skin of the current offender would filter back to the rest of us,adding to the tension and mounting anxiety.
I remember having to face him a few times and I have no idea what my offence was, but I’d be surprised if it was anything serious because I wasn’t a bold child by any means.
There was no point in complaining because it wasn’t a democratic process. There was no point in saying anything to our parents either because in those days, members of the religious orders were beyond reproach.
After receiving the punishment, we would have to make our way back to our classroom, usually with our arms folded and our hands tucked tightly into our arm pits, trying desperately to make the stinging sensation go away.
Then there was the shame of having to face the teacher as the newly-branded terrorists we had become.
I remember being in school one day and there was a story going around the playground that one of our tormenters had died. Many of the children cheered.
The fact that children celebrated the death of an adult in such a way does help to explain the atmosphere that existed in our school at that time.
We were lucky enough to have had some good lay teachers and, at the end of every school year, it was always tense, waiting to see if you would be lucky enough to get one of those for the following term.
The alternative meant having to face another year of misery, and behaviour that would now be classified as assault. Happily, those days of oppression are long gone.
There is a completely different approach to educating children these days. In my time, those who couldn’t keep up were considered lazy and troublesome and were often the ones who suffered the most.
Now, there is more awareness of children with specific academic needs and there are supports available to them.
I sometimes wonder how many children in primary school in the 1960s were beaten and abused without having the slightest idea why they were being punished.
Children with learning difficulties were never going to improve their capacity to learn by being slapped with a cane but that was the only solution our educators could come up with.
Some argue that the education system has gone too much the other way now and children are not being reprimanded which is making life difficult for teachers.
Maybe so, but I know which system I want Cooper to grow up in.