22 October 2023


When my daughter was about 15, she had a problematic teacher, someone who would stand very close behind the female students, bending over their shoulders looking at their work, breathing down their necks, that kind of thing. Other parents, mothers had warned us, he's a piece of shit, they said. One day, my daughter told me that she had to stand up and keep standing until she figured out how to answer one of his questions, which she could not and thus remained standing during the entire lesson. I was enraged and told her to walk out of class and come to me if he ever did that again. And he did, my daughter appeared at my office the exact moment I got the call that she had left school unexcused. We went to see the head mistress the next day and to cut a longish story short, probably destroyed the man's career, because suddenly other parents started to complain until one day, he was gone.

When I was in primary school, aged seven, the local protestant priest, a jolly elderly man looking like Santa, was responsible for teaching us things like the ten commandments and catechism. There was a lot of rote learning and reciting involved and if you failed, he would call you to the front desk, make you lie across it on your belly, pull down your pants and hit you with a rubber stick he produced from his briefcase. He only did it to the boys. On Xmas, he visited the families in his parish and my mother always had a plate set for him. I remember his jolly laughter booming across our dining table.

Later, when I was maybe 14 or 15, we had a young teacher who was clearly challenged by us, this snotty, noisy, entitled gang of teenagers, and his method of getting our attention was to throw his set of keys at you. When one day he hit me across the forehead, I admit that I purposefully did not duck, I walked to the headmaster's office and complained. There was an inquiry, witnesses were interrogated, it took a while before any of the adults actually believed us and stopped blaming us for enticing his reaction on purpose, but he was eventually transferred. I did not feel any remorse.

This morning over breakfast, I asked R about his experiences as a pupil of this posh Irish catholic boy's school. Not for the first time, because whenever another report surfaces about sexual abuse in religious institutions in Ireland, I run to him so he can reiterate and reassure me that, no, he never experienced any of that. So today I asked him if he was ever afraid of any of his teachers and he said, in a matter of fact way, oh, all of them all the time. How many would use corporeal punishment I asked. Almost all of them, every day, he said. Usually a stick, a belt, across the hands. But the geology teacher didn't hit us, he was a nice man.

Later we danced to Bruce Springsteen in the kitchen.


ellen abbott said...

amazing how much violence and sexual inappropriateness/abuse was (is still?) perpetrated on kids by teachers and church people, the very people you were supposed to trust. tales of English boarding schools and Catholic schools. Catholic schools here too, the ruler smacked against knuckles. I don't recall any corporal or inappropriate behavior by teachers when I was in a religious private school but maybe I just don't remember, Episcopalian. later in public school I know the bad behaving boys would get swats on their butts with a broad board but I never heard they had to pull their pants down. by the time my kids were in public school a parent had to sign a consent form to allow corporal punishment and if you refused then you would have to leave work to pick your kid up from school if s/he misbehaved that day. I always refused but my kids weren't juvenile delinquents so I never had to go get one. the most trouble I ever had with my son was that he refused to do homework. there was no punishment that would entice him to do it. he would ace tests and classwork and then a string of zeros for homework.

Marty said...

Good God. Horrifying tales. Gotta say, as a public school teacher for 20 years, I can't recall any such stories in the schools I taught in. Sure, creepy substitutes every now and then, and I imagine there was the occasional outlier permanent teacher, but I hope such things were few and far between.

NewRobin13 said...

I don't ever remember any teacher hitting students when I was in school. I just asked Roger, and he didn't remember any of that either. When students misbehaved they had to sit in the corner with their face to the wall. If that didn't work they were sent to the principal's office. It really surprised me to read about this kind of punishment for misbehaving students. I'm glad you and R danced to Bruce Springsteen after those memories.

Ms. Moon said...

I do not believe in hell but I do believe that those who abuse children, sexually, emotionally, or physically, deserve to go there.
When I was in elementary, Jr. high, and high school, corporal punishment was the norm. At home and in schools. Kids got paddlings all the time. My mother was my third grade teacher. She had a paddle. She used it. I will never come to grips with that fact. No one thought twice about the outrageousness of an adult hitting a child with a wooden paddle on the ass- in front of the class. I still see people on Facebook who brag about how hard principals hit them when they were in high school. And they always say- "And I turned out fine."
No. They obviously did not.
And no one spoke up about any of it. Just as I did not speak up about the sexual abuse I suffered from my stepfather. And a few others but that was "mild" compared to what I experienced in my home.
You were brave.

am said...

Your post is timely. I'm reading Rememberings, Sinead O'Connor's book. Like Sinead, you learned to stand up for yourself and others. Although I don't remember children being hit in my public school, I have not forgotten that one of the boys in my Episcopal Sunday School class was molested by one of the priests. The priest was simply relocated to a different state.

My mother was the hitter in my life. I was hit until I didn't feel the pain. I stopped my mother from hitting my youngest sister when I was old enough to do that. My middle sister claimed that our mother only hit her once and that, in her words, "she deserved it." I remain horrified by my sister's words.

Now I'm turning to Bruce and Patti, picturing you and R dancing:


37paddington said...

The stories children can tell. I hold some of my own. I applaud how you supported your daughter, and how before that, you stood up for yourself. These tales are horrifying, and the way you tell them, matter of fact, makes the horror all the more stark. We all need to share these stories.

am said...

Additional thoughts. I'm aware now of intergeneration trauma. Who knows what my mother experienced in her childhood. She did not want to be the kind of mother she became. The story began generations ago. Time out of mind.

Roderick Robinson said...

I wonder how you'd have reacted had some of details of this cruel experience been altered to fit the temper of other places at other times (Ie, late forties, early fifties). Corporal punishment was rife at the fee-paying school where I failed to be educated. But perhaps corporal punishment, with its implications of ritual, doesn't fit some of the extremes that were explored. A choleric teacher of short stature (perhaps he was compensating) with a very strange Welsh name was wont to reach over a pupil's desk from the front, seize handfuls of flesh from either cheek and proceed to pull the unfortunate lad out of his seat and forwards over the desk. By his cheeks! It happened to me once and it made me realise there was greater pain to be had than from more traditional forms of torture like being struck on the hand with a ruler held sideways.

The greatest compliment ever paid to me occurred when I was introduced to some senior journalists on The Times (then a daily newspaper of substance) as an auto-didact. It's a process I joyfully applied in rendering the paragraph above.

Pixie said...

I was fortunate with teachers, never any violence or abuse. But I have been sexually assaulted numerous times (ex husband, date, doctor, stranger). It makes me angry just writing about it.