Sunday, January 25, 2009

Oh, Miss...

I've been inspired by one of the comments on yesterday's post to reflect on what led to punishment - and in particular corporal punishment - in my schooldays. Bun, for example, recalls being belted because she and her friend were singing "Bobby's Girl" and banging the desk (presumably twice) for rhythmic effect, on the last day of term when no work was being done. She was also belted on several occasions for talking by (and this is where insider knowledge comes in) the Depute Head of the Primary school we both attended. He was a quiet little man, I remember, a BSc of Glasgow University, probably in his early 50s at the time. I was never belted by him.

But I was belted twice in my time at school. In Primary school I was singled out for bouncing a tiny ball in the sewing class (never did like sewing) and in Secondary for - yes - talking. In Maths, in S1. The young woman who was trying to teach a class of 40 bright girls in our selective school was foolish enough to tell all who were talking at that moment to put their hands up. At least half the class obliged, and she lined us all up on the floor and belted us, one after the other. By the time she reached me she was exhausted, though I suspect she would have saved more energy had the first victim, a tall girl called Lindsay, not whipped her hands back and said "Oh, miss, not me first!" And then she laughed. Fatal.

See how we remember? It was half a century ago and I can remember it exactly. So you might think it worked, as a punishment - but you'd be wrong. I remember the incidents because of their absurdity, an absurdity which I recognised even then. For the misdemeanours were so trivial and so absurd that they merited ... what? And perhaps this is the problem. What do you do to suppress inappropriate behaviour in a classroom? Hitting someone actually does stop them doing whatever it was for a while - I didn't go on bouncing that ball, and I maybe didn't chatter again in that maths period. But I despised both teachers at the time. Did they not have any jokes up their sleeves with which to put us down? Did they never laugh at us?

I think it's probably magic right enough. If a pupil respects/likes/is interested by a teacher, they want to please him or her. The idea of my beloved Latin teacher even saying he was disappointed in something I did or didn't do was so horrifying that I worked my socks off in his class, and it was that memory that spurred me as a teacher to ensure that I wasn't boring. Because much of my education was incredibly boring, now I think back, and it was the sheer ability of the best teachers to transcend the potentially stupefying nature of the curriculum that kept me from expulsion. When I think of the hours spent copying out notes - off banda-ed sheets or from the board - I realise what an essentially douce bunch we were, and I recall the tedium of the periods in English where I sat in the very back corner reading a book under the desk and eating Mintolas. What kind of teaching was happening there?

I went to a respected selective school in Glasgow. We all passed the Qualifying to stay in the Secondary department. The potential in these classes was immense. But in my whole time there, the highlight of my school week was the orchestra practice after school on Fridays. The rest, as you might say, is silence.

Except for the chattering ...


  1. Verbal put downs can have a much more devastating long-term effect on the recipient than corporal punishment.

  2. Chris, I was taught as a little one that "children are to be seen and not heard". My father repeated those words over and over. (Ukrainian upbringing?) Anyway, I loved to chatter on and on. (yeah, you would never guess, eh?) When I was in school, I lived by every rule, fearful of being punished. But, I had some VERY stupid teachers along the way....

    In Kindergarten, I was placed in the corner for not being able to use my scissors properly. HELLO? (I was left-handed and to this day, I still abuse scissors...even the "modern" left-handed ones!)

    In eighth grade, I was told by our band director that I would have to "perform" in our "Spring Sectionals". This was huge. Now, going back, in sixth grade, I missed a month of school, due to a surgery for a cyst behind my knee. I missed all the teaching that month for clarinet. Well, truth be told, I never did "make up" for the school I missed, and in 7th and 8th grade, I played totally "by ear". In the sectionals, a student had to go into a room and play a sheet of music randomly selected, and then be scored! Holy mackeral! One CANNOT do that "by ear"! When I told the band director I could not do it (remember, I also LOATHED (and still do!) competition) he told me I needed a note from home. My mother supplied necessary note and upon giving it to the director, as I exited the room, he threw his baton at the door as it closed behind me! (This guy also tried to commit suicide a few years later, and ended up as a bitter quadriplegic)

    The icing on the proverbial cake, however, was yet to come....
    In high school, although I don't remember WHICH grade (10,11,or 12) I was in study hall one afternoon. This was a HUGE study hall with probably about 50 kids in it. I went up and asked Mr. Thomas if I could be excused to use the restroom. He LOUDLY exclaimed for all the kids to hear, "Fifty dollars a night?". The room was, of course, ignited with hysterical laughter, all at my expense. I was so humiliated, I went to the restroom with tears burning my eyes. If I had had half a brain, I would have reported that jerk, but I never wanted to rock the boat.

    I guess some teachers are just not cut out for the profession and not being competitive really made me a "target" many times. The outcome was that I hated school. I loved a few of my teachers who taught English. It was my favorite subject, and they were the only teachers I remember that ever encouraged me! In college, I took English courses and did well. I always dreamed of doing public relations or journalism, but neither panned out for me...

  3. I followed the link from your son's blog. Beauty! I went to Catholic schools for 12 years in California; 8 of those with Irish nuns whose first language was Gaelic, and who brooked no disrespect, whether real or perceived. Great stuff, ma'am.