Slap-Stick Education

IntimidationWhen I was eight years old our family moved from Twenty-Eighth Street in North Vancouver to a new subdivision in Richmond so that my father could be closer to his office, which was at the north end of the Oak Street Bridge. In 1959 Richmond was still predominantly farmland; our house and the new-ish houses in the neighbourhood sat incongruously on that rural landscape like a flashy new wristwatch on the arm of a stately old woman. For my siblings and me this southern suburb might as well have been the dark side of the moon.

We had moved from a street on which our neighbours had lived for as long as we could remember, which was two blocks from the small parochial school we attended, and which served as a year-round playground for the gangs of kids who lived there.

There was no Catholic school for my brother and me in Richmond, so our parents enrolled us in Cartier College (not the school’s real name, for reasons which will soon become obvious), a venerable all-boys school in town which was run by the Christian Brothers of Ireland. The school, where I spent my fourth and fifth year of elementary education, offered classes for grades one to twelve, with class sizes of about fifty.

For a timid and sensitive boy, Cartier College was a frightening and intimidating institution.

My grade four teacher was Brother B., a jock in a Roman collar who later left the brotherhood and became a well known football coach at a local Catholic high school. In fact, Brother B. ran his classroom as if it were a year-long football practice. I recall that during that school year of 1959-60 I sat in the first desk in the second row nearest the classroom door; Brother B’s desk was closer to the window, opposite the door. Late in the afternoon one day, during the heavy quiet of study period (there seemed to be a lot of study periods in this venerable institution), I suddenly felt something hard strike me in the head; the hard object turned out to be a golf ball thrown by my sporty teacher. I had apparently fallen asleep and provided the reverend brother with an opportunity to practice his aim.

My grade five teacher was Brother O., a young man with a serious mien, not nearly as sporty as Brother B. In the autumn of that year, 1961, the giant old deciduous trees in the school yard dropped their customary load of colourful leaves, leaving them in lovely heaps around the trunks, soft mounds that invited nine-year-old boys to frolic in them. During one particular autumn lunch hour, a few of us grade-fivers engaged in a leaf fight – a contest essentially consisting of our throwing leaves at each other – which in retrospect seems a sufficiently safe and innocuous recreation for timid, non-sports-minded boys (such as I was) to engage in. We soon learned, however, that Brother O. had issued a secret interdiction against leaf throwing by grade five boys in the school yard in the autumn, and my fellow warriors and I were punished with the leather strap carried by all the collared and cassocked denizens of this venerable institution.

Fortunately, my parents must have been as unhappy in Richmond as we were and we moved back to North Vancouver after a year in exile. One year after that I was allowed to once again attend the school attached to our parish and remained there until the end of grade eight. In grade nine I was sent back to Cartier College following an unsuccessful venture into studies for the priesthood at the Seminary of Christ the King in Mission, B.C. I thought the elementary school regime was frightening and severe, but I was utterly unprepared for the brutality of high school.

Not long after I again began attending classes at College, I was told that my home room teacher, a celebrated member of a local professional sports team, had whacked a student so hard on the butt with a bolo bat that the poor fellow sailed head first into one of those old-fashioned heavy metal heating registers, suffered some kind of head injury, and was sent to the hospital. If he did return to school, I think he must have been placed in another home room.

My grade nine math and science teacher, Mr. M., who later became a renowned coach for another Canadian professional team, bolo batted half the class one day, including me, for failing to do their homework. The whacking noise was so loud and lasted such a long time that the Latin teacher, an elderly and corpulent brother with an Irish accent, an unpredictable temper, a penchant for wearing Old Spice after-shave and for hugging boys he liked (I was good at Latin), and whose classroom was next door, registered a grumpy complaint with the sporty and energetic – and equally Irish and grumpy – Mr. M. A brief Irish verbal altercation ensued before the bolo-batting resumed.

The grade nines occupied four classrooms at one end of the large classroom building of Vancouver College. During the last period of the day, which was (what else?) a study period, secretaries from the school office acted as classroom monitors. If a student misbehaved he was sent out into the hallway to be dealt with by the patrolling Brother M., a swarthy ape-like man who was reportedly a former professional wrestler. When a poor unfortunate was cast into the ring with the undefeated Brother M, all was quiet in the grade nine classrooms as every student had both eyes glued to his books and both ears tuned for the sound of the next slap or punch or the loud report of a body hitting a locker. There might have been a drop kick or two but these moves could not be accurately identified by sound alone.

In the school year 1965-66 I was in grade ten. One of the students in my class, who always sat in a corner at the very back of the room, was in a rock-and-roll band, so his hair was appropriately long. Our mathematics teacher, a short, stout brother whom we called Magilla (Gorilla) and who never smiled – in fact, I do not recall any of our teachers smiling unless the smile was ironic, in which it case it usually appeared on the brother’s face when he was in the midst of administering some form of corporal punishment – took exception to the length of this young man’s hair and ordered him to get it cut. When the student showed up for class the next day with his hair uncut Magilla went down to his desk and slapped him hard on the face. The following day, his hair still rock-star length, he received two hard slaps to the face from the solid, grim-faced brother. The next day the boy came to school with his hair freshly cut. Perhaps he wore a wig for the band’s gigs after that.

One day, during the lunch hour, when a crush of boys was proceeding through the halls to the cafeteria, I pushed my way through a hallway door ahead of the oncoming Brother A. The angelic-looking brother grabbed me before I could take another step, slapped me sharply across the face, told me to get some manners, and strode off down the hall. Much laughter and finger-pointing ensued among my classmates who were watching this little drama.

The cadre of grade ten teachers, then, was as brutal as the grade nine crew, but we were shocked to discover which of our collared masters was the most explosively violent of all. Brother B. was a young man, likely in his late twenties, with brush-cut hair and thick spectacles, who “taught” us Latin, the teaching consisting of his coming to class, assigning work, sitting at his desk for a short while, and then leaving the room for most of the rest of the period. It was rumoured that he went down to the school canteen for a milkshake or outside the building for a smoke.

Brother B. never raised his voice to us or disciplined any class member for real or imagined infractions. He even, as I recall, had a sense of humour and smiled on occasion. One day, however, a day on which he did not leave the classroom during our Latin block, Brother B. asked a student who was sitting in the desk directly in front of the teacher’s desk to go to the school office on an errand. The student replied, “Do I have to?” The young brother, our friend, leapt out of his chair like a mad dog and pounced on the student, dragging him from his desk and knocking him to the floor, whereupon he set about beating and kicking the boy in a fury. The rest of us watched this shocking drama in fear and amazement.

I remember nothing of my days at Cartier College following this incident. I subsequently convinced my parents to allow me to attend the local public school for the last two years of my secondary education and College became a dark memory. In the public school, corporal punishment was not unknown but it was administered exclusively by the principal and was applied only in what were considered the most serous cases.

If my father were alive to today and read this account of my “education” under the care of the Christian Brothers, he would most likely say, “Good discipline in those days if you ask me. Anyway, you survived, didn’t you?”

I guess it all depends on what you mean by “survived,” Dad.


Image Credit

“Public School 9” by Vlad lorsh. Flickr Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.







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  1. avatarGab says

    I attended a Catholic school as well but only got the strap once, afterwards the teacher cried and I had to console her. Corporal punishment wasn’t a big part of it, although we all knew which teachers were more inclined (usually the nuns). I was lucky to be a girl because there were a couple of male teachers who took an interest in the boys.

    • avatar says

      Hi Gab: I am glad that you escaped your Catholic-school experience relatively unscathed. Perhaps boys-school culture, along with the questionable recruitment standards of the Christian Brothers in those days, made for an especially volatile combination in the school I attended.

  2. avatarMichael Lebowitz says

    A true telling, well told. Or so it seems to me. the Catholic “Parochial “school in my neighborhood was named , ironically “The Queen of Peace. It was across the street from PS 164 My memory of the Queen is that every day at the final bell a horde of uniformed thugs stormed onto the street under the invisible guidance of the various Brothers and the Sisters. The “rites of Passage were engaged. Apparently we public school kids were descendants of the sworn enemies of the eternal Mother Church. There was no peace to be found in the No man’s Land as we called the innocently named 164th Street. which separated the two schools. In retrospect it was not an easy time for any of us. In later years when we met up it turned out that the ferocity of the encounters on the street began early in the school day, much as you describe them, Ross.

    • avatar says

      Thank you, Michael, for an interesting “PS” perspective. I am not sure what the regime was like in the public schools where you were but I am sure that the psychological profile of any of the collared clan we were exposed to would disqualify them from a teaching position today.

      • avatarMichael lebowitz says

        We made it out alive and only marginally scarred. Some of us, me for one, found escape in the form f embracing the forbidden in the name of freedom. “what a long strange trip it has been.”

        • avatar says

          Michael, it is wonderful that you found the courage to embrace the forbidden. Because I was otherwise being fairly severely bullied, much of my life was spent in fear. I am writing an extended essay on the long-term effects of childhood bullying; perhaps I could impose upon you and ask you to read and critique it when it is done?

          • avatarMichael lebowitz says

            the fear that you allude to is at the heart of my decisions about drugs and alcohol and Vietnam and they lasted nearly a lifetime. A trifecta of escape and delusion. i am delighted to read whatever you write about childhood bullying or anything else for that n matter let me know, when and where. My pleasure to participate in any way you would like.

  3. avatarmartha says

    Hi Ross,
    Well, that was a very eerie story you wrote, one that I suppose resonates for a lot of young men across the country. I feel as though our educations system can not for some reason find a healthy balance? It must have been a very difficult experience for you growing up having to go to this place every day. It sounded more like prison than a school. I am glad you survived… your Dad would say.

    • avatar says

      Thanks for your comment, Martha. It was a particularly difficult experience as I was a rather sensitive, timid child. I don’t think that those teachers had any idea of the long-term effects of their brutality on not only the victims themselves but of the “onlookers” as well.

      • avatarMartha says

        Hi Ross, how are you doing? I definitely know what you mean about being sensitive. I was also exposed to some behaviors in the school i went to that were not really very ” Christian “. People are people and bring all kind of baggage with them in every profession.

        • avatar says

          Indeed they do, Martha. One just hopes that our education system has become a little more vigilant in terms of what’s inside thew baggage and how the contents get revealed.

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