The other day I was flicking through the local newspaper when my attention was caught by a photo of an old man standing beside a group of boys in uniform at a prize-giving ceremony. The school is not far from where I attended primary school.
Back in the late 1970s this man, I'll call him Mr Jones, had taught my class and me for two consecutive years. He wasn't a great teacher, he was really only learning the ropes. Before the European Community directive of 1982, Mr Jones was entitled to control all 50 of us with what the grown-ups called corporal punishment and we 10-year-olds called smacking.
He had the latest wooden ruler with a steel insert for regular transgressions such as not doing your homework and he had his fists for the spontaneous stuff like talking behind his back or that dreadful threat to civilisation -- laughing.
One day he took a swing at a perfectly harmless, hard-working and decent boy, put too much effort behind the downward thrust and the boy's head made an excess of contact (more than the usual amount) with the desk and he came back up with his nose pouring blood.
Cue shock and regret written all over Mr Jones' face and embarrassment on that of the boy. The poor kid was mortified because of all the fuss that would surely follow.
Years later in secondary school I was hit so hard for writing down my homework in my journal after having been told to, but then didn't react fast enough when the teacher swiftly changed his mind, that the teacher knocked my glasses clean off my head.
Another teacher literally beat up another boy in front of the whole class for not having a book and for smiling and saying, "I'm the new boy!" His best friend later told me that this boy was an innocent and gentle sort and that he had expected some kind of a smile and a word of welcome.
Many of us in Ireland who got our schooling in Ireland right up to the late 1980s have stories like these to tell. As a modern teacher who would never dream of assaulting a pupil, I understand that at that particular time, and indeed right up to then, it had been normal to brutalise kids this way. People tend to go with the norms of the day.
In extreme examples such as Soviet Russia and in Nazi Germany, all government employees knew they had to do as instructed or face losing their jobs or worse.
On the other hand, in my school days there were plenty of individual teachers and even whole schools that out of principle never hurt a single child. It is they that oblige us to judge the others with hindsight.
Today in 2011, as government officials sign off on cuts in learning support for vulnerable children and take away medical cards from people with terminal cancer, they should bear in mind that they too will be judged someday.