Monday, February 19, 2007

It was dangerous to walk on the grass!

I read recently that its 25 years since slapping was abolished in Ireland's schools. So anyone now under about 30 years old never experienced it. Here's one vivid memory...

In our Dublin Primary school in the mid 1960s there was a tough deputy headmaster. His commanding authority was absolute and philosophically he was slightly to the right of Attila the Hun. His class was the quietest and most disciplined in the school. I'll just refer to him as Mr. C (in case he is alive and still dangerous!).

Some of Mr. C's star pupils were trained to supervise the schoolyard at lunchtime. In particular they stood at the edge of the yard to watch with laser beam accuracy if any kid put a foot off the concrete yard on to the nice green school lawn. Such an offence was serious in the eyes of Mr. C.

When the bell sounded to end lunchtime each class formed their own line at the front of the school yard. An additional line - suitably segregated to one side - was for all the pupils who had stepped on the grass during the break. Mr. C stood at the top of the steps and made a short but powerful speech to the entire school assembly on how those in the special line were bad and had no respect for the school lawn. He then blew his whistle and beckoned this special line of kids to march up the steps into the school and into his classroom in full view of the rest of the school.

I had the misfortune once to be in the special line and found myself with the other suspects lined up for a kangaroo court session in Mr. C's class. The prisoners stood at the top of the classroom facing all Mr.C's silently seated pupils. Mr. C paced up and down the courtroom giving a general introduction to proceedings and then asked each person in turn to give an explanation as to why they stepped on the grass. The excuses were variable but the typical ones were...."I only put one toe on the grass"....."Yer man pushed me".... "I just slipped"..."I didn't do it" etc.

Each excuse was repeated in a cruel burlesque fashion by Mr. C and was seasoned by satirical remarks to amuse the courtroom. His class was allowed a gentle laugh to support Mr. C's witty performance but if it went even slightly too loud to suit his taste he would hiss "SILENCE!"

The court case facade was all a part of the humiliation and for Mr. C's unmistakable enjoyment - as nobody ever escaped unpunished anyway. When Mr. C was finished verbal proceedings he went and sat behind his desk and there followed a deliberate solemn silence - a bit like private prayer before ending a funeral mass. This was more psychological punishment of course.

The silence was eventually broken by Mr. C standing up with military formality and slowly saying a single word...."Murphy".

This was a signal for Mr. C's star pupil to get up from his desk and walk across the front of the class past the now convicted criminals to a locked press. There, following jingling keys echoing prison-like in the otherwise icy silence, Murphy retrieved a long nasty wooden cane. He brought the cane across the room past the criminal line - whose transfixed eyes and heads followed the cane like synchronised swimmers - and presented it to Mr. C. The teacher then walked up to face the first criminal in line and asked him to step forward. In the cold sombre atmosphere it left like all that was missing was one of those dull church funeral gongs sounding every 2 seconds.

The next few minutes was a spectacle of slaughter with cries of agony as each boy received six vicious cane flogs on each of their hands. Often the child found it hard to put his hand out to take the second and subsequent blows. Mr. C then had to wrestle their hands out straight and hold them as he administered more swishing heavy blows. It was a terrifying orgy of violence and heart wrenching pain.

When the dust all settled Mr. C observed the scarred battlefield of shaking and tearful pupils. Panting from his exertions but with the faint smile of a triumphant gladiator, he took a handkerchief out to wipe sweat from his brow before combing his ruffled hair into place. When suitably composed he then made a final speech about the precious lawn and everyone was dismissed to their classes.

Ah, school days!


Omaniblog said...

You were kind enought to send a comment to my blog. While trying to moderate it into existence as a comment I seem to have deleted it.
Please re-send it.

I haven't yet read this post of yours but it's good to have it to look forward to.

Paige A Harrison said...

Do you know which subsequent career Mr C took up? Minister for Justice or Catholic Archbishop?

John of Dublin said...

Hi Paige. Indeed, one wonders. I suspect he would have been ejected from the Klu Klux Klan for being too radical. But actually I think I heard that he had died some years ago with heart problems, though I'm not certain.

What I was trying to get across was how seriously he took even small offences. Anything serious and it was like Hiroshima.

Claire said...

Thankfully, though I was already well into Primary school 25 years ago, I think my school must have been ahead of its time and didn't allow corporal punishment.

I've often wondered what the other teachers thought of their obviously unhinged co-workers (since every school had them). Was it just a matter of saying nothing and presenting a united front.

Omaniblog said...

John of Dublin, I think of you as my direct line to James Joyce.

You might be interested to know that on Sinead Gleeson's blog, I have just posted:

“I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church; and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use - silence, exile and cunning.” (Portrait of TAAAYM)

The Gearharts said...

My guess is the "infamous" Mr. C had so much stress in his life that he cashed a check his body couldn't write. It may have been common but... how horrible! God put the grass on this earth for us to sit on, enjoy, walk on.. etc... By the way I would hate to see the hands of the gardener.

I read your posts about the Altar Boy and the Bubble Car and enjoyed them much. I am the husband of Amy G, who is a friend of Claires... if you were wondering who this Jeff guy is?

Jeff G.

John of Dublin said...

Hi Claire, you make a good point about co-worker teachers. Our own teacher was brilliant and the very antithesis of Mr. C. See..

I could tell from our teacher's body language that he reckoned Mr. C. was weird.

John of Dublin said...

Hi Omani, thanks for your kind words - and that's a good and appropriate Joycean quotation!

John of Dublin said...

Hi Jeff, nice to hear from you.

You know I think you are right - Mr. C. was too strict and stressed for his own good. I'm about 70% sure he died from heart problems, maybe stress was a factor.

Thanks for the nice feedback on my posts, I must check yours out later.

Omaniblog said...

Thank goodness I made the effort to come back to read this piece.

I think we need a book which documents all the punishings which used to be meted out by trained teachers.

The Jesuits were more sophisticated: we used to have to thank our "Prefect of Studies" - a priest with long black wings - after the beating by leather.

There, in the Comments, I find "Mr. C had so much stress in his life that he cashed a check his body couldn't write."

What a marvellous way of putting it by Jeff G (the gearharts)

John of Dublin said...

Hi Omani. Yes, anyone much over 30 could tell many interesting tales of woe on slapping in Irish schools. A comment from gingerpixel helped me recall that I think girls got away with less physical punishment from teachers. I might be wrong.

Omaniblog said...

I think the nuns had their ways too.

Perhaps there is a nun out there reading this...

John of Dublin said...

True, I heard the nuns could be tough.