School Abuse: The Horrors

By Mary-Ellen Lang
CBC News [Canada]
July 19, 2006

It is fairly safe to say that abusive teachers are few and far between, but there were far more of them 40 years ago, and they were permitted to do things to students that are forbidden today. In fact, many former students bear emotional and physical scars from treatment at the hands of their teachers.

We've all heard about the horrors First Nations children endured in residential schools. "White" children endured exactly the same sort of abuse in orphanages throughout North America and Europe. Children bereft of protection by adult family members who valued and loved them were virtually helpless when raised by strangers who did not respect them.

A friend of mine who was raised by Irish "Brothers" in a Dublin Protestant orphanage in the 1920s and '30s suffered every sort of physical, sexual and emotional abuse you can imagine, and other types of abuses you can't imagine. I know First Nations people who were subjected to overwhelming abuse as children in residential schools. The effects of abuse may be overcome to some extent, but they never go away completely. Damage is permanent.

The "strap" was a normal disciplinary option when I was growing up (not that long ago). It was routinely administered to children who were active, disengaged, tardy, defiant, "slow" or otherwise a problem from the teachers' point of view. I got the strap once in Grade 5 because I had not done my spelling corrections. We were supposed to write out the correct spelling 10 times for each word, and I was caught with a paltry two. The teacher got out her ruler, and whacked away at both my hands. I was thoroughly humiliated.

That was a minor event, however. Virtually everyone over age 40 has heard of or suffered much worse in the normal course of events in schools.

Abuse knows no religion

I have Roman Catholic friends who tell horror stories about some of the nuns who taught them back in the 1950s and '60s. While some nuns may have been candidates for sainthood, others behaved as if they were more in synch with the devil. Women who threatened to cut off the ears of children who talked out of turn, or who assured them that they would burn in hell if they dropped their sacramental wafer at communion, or who would hit them when they made a mistake in arithmetic, could not possibly have understood anything about love or respect, to say nothing of education.

My mother is 83 years old. As if it were yesterday, she remembers the day in 1936 when she bounced a ball against the wall while waiting in line to enter the school, and was hauled off to the principal's office where she was strapped. She also remembers the apparent pleasure the person doing the strapping took in his efforts to make her cry.

This is consistent with reports spanning several centuries, from Charles Dickens to the present. The hitter wants to make the victim cry, and will continue until this desired outcome is accomplished. If the victim is successful in not crying, the hitter gets really mad.

Speaking of the 'un-strappable'

A school friend of mine, unbeknownst to me, was being strapped all through school for being witty, talkative and observant, and reports that all the men who strapped him enjoyed their task. One Friday afternoon, he made an astute and unappreciated comment regarding a particular teacher's spelling assignment, was marched to the principal's office to be strapped and then sent home "un-strapped" because the man was too busy. He was told to expect a strapping Monday morning. That weekend, after earnestly praying for a miracle, the boy slipped in the snow, and broke his arm badly enough to require a cast from thumb to shoulder. To this day, he regards the broken arm as a lesser ordeal than getting the strap. Forty-eight years later, he can recall the look of disappointment on the faces of the teacher and principal when he lumbered out of his father's car Monday morning with his plastered arm rigid and un-strappable.

Worse than the strap, however, was the emotional abuse and humiliation students suffered when they were targeted as "dunces," stupid or slow. While I'm sure there were many teachers years ago whose compassion and understanding superseded the thinking of their day, the sorry truth is that many people thought that shaming a student would somehow inspire them to smarten up. Students who were ridiculed, stood in corners, assigned seats at the back according to academic ranking, made to carry signs or set upon with dunce caps suffered serious assaults on their humanity, dignity and self-worth.

Also, students who were sexually assaulted or interfered with years ago were seldom believed on the rare occasion when one of them would try to tell someone what happened. Typically, either adults would not believe the child, or they would not sacrifice the career and reputation of a fellow adult on the strength of a child's testimony.

While most parents 50 years ago apparently agreed with a teacher's right to hit their children, and did not necessarily even recognize emotional brutality for what it was, they never would have condoned sexual abuse. Unfortunately for thousands of children and young adults, this sort of abuse was a better-kept secret than it is now. Children who were molested generally did not tell, or if they did, were dismissed.

One would hope that in this country, at least, times have changed.


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