The first day of Grade 6, Mr. Riley introduced himself and then proceeded to show us what would happen if we didn’t behave.
He opened the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled out a thick strap that he promised would be administered if we....what? Talked back? Threw chalk at the board? Wrote dirty words on the display boards? Didn’t finish homework? What would earn the strap was never clear but one of my classmates got it. So many years have passed that I can’t remember for what reason he earned such a physical punishment. It was frightening, not going to lie. Mr. Riley was fierce and while I don’t think he got a thrill out of beating 10-year-olds, fear of the strap definitely stemmed any outright defiance on my part.
Fast forward 25 years and my oldest son gets called into the office for peeing on school property. The principal was both serious and had a chuckle. He recognized that farm boys have all the space and freedom to pee where they want en route to the barn. However, it’s “bad manners” for little boys to do it behind the shed on the playground. Both my son and I were given a talking to and the matter was closed. There was no threat of strap for that offense or any of the others my six kids were culpable for in their tenure at Huron Christian school.
Not so for my publisher, a woman of my generation, who attended public school in Springfield where girls sat on one side of the classroom and boys on the other. In this area populated by Mennonites, the sexes had separate cloak rooms, lunch rooms and even separate staircases.
“Well, when you keep boys and girls separate that much, you can imagine how that makes the other side of the playground more attractive,” says Deb Sholdice.
So it came to pass that during one session of tag, during the time of stretchy polyester pants, a brave posse of girls pulled down the pants of an unfortunate boy. What they did not know was that the principal was watching from a classroom window.
Out came the strap. However, only the boys involved in the game were given the punishment. The girls were spared until one early feminist suggested it was sexist and, perhaps not thinking it all through, said girls should get the strap as well.
It was the threat the strap represented that kept so many of us well-behaved in our strict classrooms.
Times were different, of course. Strapping a child now could be considered abuse with all the court marshalling such an action would entail. However, Section 43 of the Criminal Code says “every schoolteacher, parent or person standing in the place of a parent is justified in using force by way of correction toward a pupil or child, as the case may be, who is under his care, if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.”
Again, so much leeway! So much room for misconstruction!
So it was titillating to see Bonnie Sitter’s photo of a volunteer serving as a teacher at Perth’s Brocksden Schoolhouse “administering” the strap to a guest student. It’s a great shot that I suspect will have readers reflecting on past misdemeanors. Now that the sting is long past, I hope they share their stories with a grin and hey, just a little bit of pride for their bad-ass shenanigans back in the day.
I’m not advocating or cheering on criminal activity here. Or actions that deliberately hurt others. Adulting requires I set a good example.
Obviously, there were students who misbehaved but use of the strap raises all sorts of thoughts. Is there still merit in using the strap in school today? The use of physical punishments is an ongoing debate, as are reflections on individualism versus collectivism.
Ultimately, I think, what earned someone a strap was that their individual motives didn’t comply with the teacher’s sense of law and order. Using inherent risk assessment tools, like those of us who occasionally speed use (what are the chances of getting caught?), many students of yore took their chances and figured the thrill of disobedience was worth the looming danger of being strapped.
I never got the strap. I did get a slap across my head from my catechism teacher who didn’t appreciate hearing all my thoughts and opinions during his class. I suspect I deserved it for my obnoxious behaviour but I can tell you I never respected that man again.
For most of society, words work.
Anyway, I think it would be a hoot to run a “I got the strap” collective of stories in a future issue. Share these stories of the young whipper snapper you used to be and get your listeners to write them down. Then lay it on me at rveditor@ northhuron.on.ca. ◊