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Learning the hard way how to be kind

Lay of the Land

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'Not knowing when a teacher would literally lash out added to the terror' (Stock image)

'Not knowing when a teacher would literally lash out added to the terror' (Stock image)

'Not knowing when a teacher would literally lash out added to the terror' (Stock image)

Summer - when the living is supposedly easy - is well and truly over for the children in this country town, who are once more busy learning. But even if oversized bags weigh them down, at least getting thrashed by teachers doesn't feature on the timetable.

For such was the experience of education that many of their grandparents endured, back when teachers in this county were issued a leather strap, bamboo shoot or a ruler, along with some chalk and a duster.

As one local remembers: "It was common for pupils to leave school at the end of the day with bleeding hands or split lips."

Some teachers turned their backs on these perverse tools of pedagogy - but only because they favoured using their fists.

Not knowing when a teacher would literally lash out added to the terror. "They slapped you for anything or for nothing. Some days were worse than others."

While the uncomfortable truth is that those who should have cherished children the most often colluded in the cruelty.

"You never mentioned the slaps at home or your parents would give you another few, and maybe worse ones, for good measure."

Nor was it only religious orders that behaved in this ungodly fashion. Plenty of lay teachers vented their frustrations. Such as the teacher who quit smoking for Lent and "flung a bundle of books at us with all his might. Then he picked up a leather with one hand and a bamboo rod with the other, and he ran down between the desks, striking to the right and to the left like a cavalryman at the Charge of the Light Brigade".

The so-called fair sex could be just as ferocious. One national school teacher in the 1940s used to "tear around the classroom with a shoe in her hand, hopping sometimes to avoid getting a splinter from the floorboards. She'd hit us on the head, the hands, the shoulders - anywhere she could reach. By God, did it hurt. Many of us were covered in heel marks from that shoe".

A sick sense of humour sometimes accompanied the abuse. Like the teacher who hanged a boy from an iron hanger on the classroom wall, close to a large crucifix, and left him dangling by his braces for a quarter of an hour. When he finally went to take him down, the teacher turned to the class and jibed: "Well now, lads, was he the good thief or the bad thief, what do ye think?"

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Of course, he didn't expect a reply. Though probably those children would have been too traumatised to articulate one, if their sensibilities weren't already blunted by the brutality. But hopefully they saw that a bad thief was asking the question, for he was robbing them of both their innocence and confidence. Realising that would have restored some of the latter. And if the former was forever gone, at least it was replaced by the determination to be decent to anyone as vulnerable as they once were.

Then the school of hard knocks would have taught them a valuable life lesson.


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