LONDON, ONTARIO – I regaled some friends this week with the story about the time I got the strap and I was struck anew by a couple of things. One was the remarkably convoluted chain of events that led to my persecution at the hands of my public school principal. And the other is the aura of fascinated horror that now attends such accounts; the appalled disbelief, particularly pronounced in younger people, that we ever allowed our schools to dispense corporal punishment.
Believe it or not, they didn’t have to send a note home first to get permission from one’s parents. They didn’t even have to check in with their own superiors in the Board of Education’s bureaucracy. They had complete autonomy to act as they saw fit and if some kid in their charge was being a complete pill, then it was okay to lay into him with a leather strap.
Even as a 12 year-old victim of the strap, the thrill of having gone through it and lived to tell the tale, far outweighed any pain. It was almost akin to a kind of initiation rite; yes, I was glad when it was over but I felt a certain pride in the way that it set me apart from others. Many people regard strapping today as an act of abuse. Unquestionably the strap was an instrument of pretty rough justice, but kids, particularly young boys, aren’t very refined creatures and the threat of it, I believe, brought some attentiveness and decorum that are absent in most classrooms today where way too much time seems to get pissed away in trying to jolly everybody along.
However, I know the strap has gone the way of the dodo and won’t be coming back any time soon. I first realized how completely attitudes had changed about 27 years ago when my then seven-year-old son asked me one night at the supper table: “In the old days, if you were bad, did the principal hit you with the strap?”
“He sure did.”
“You mean he hit you?”
“He sure did.”
This simple admission elicited a gaze of filial homage such as I’d never received before. I think I looked at my Dad that way when he let me root through his top dresser drawer and I came upon his army service medal. “What did you do to get this?” I asked him.
“Hosed out garbage cans,” he said and for years I believed he was just being modest. He wasn’t.
“What did you do to get the strap?” my son wanted to know.
“It’s hard to say. I think I got it because I smashed a bottle on the road.”
“A liquor bottle?” he asked, hopefully.
“Come on, I was in grade seven. No, it was just a Coke bottle. But as I say, it might not have been the bottle. It might have been another incident involving a firetruck.”
The kid loved firetrucks. His gaze had dimmed a little over that bottle business but the firetruck brought him right back. He had to have the full story then.
It was one p.m. on Allowance Day – a Thursday – in the late fall of 1964. I was walking back to afternoon classes at Mountsfield Public School, sucking on a Coke which I’d just purchased at Dreyer’s Variety. On this particular day, Western civilization had just scraped a new low with the introduction of nonreturnable, glass pop bottles. By the time I reached the corner of Ridout Street and Mountsfield Drive, my Coke was one dead soldier.
Ordinarily, I’d hang onto the bottle and cash it in for a piece of red licorice on the way home. But this particular bottle wasn’t worth zip and because I was an ignorant little savage who loved the sound of breaking glass, I threw it in a high arc, grenade-style, so that it exploded in the middle of Ridout Street. The noise was fabulous and brought one nearby homeowner out onto her porch to scowl at me and make ‘tsk tsk’ noises. Not knowing who she was, I assumed she didn’t know me either and blithely carried on up the road to school.
It was going to be a great afternoon. All classes had been scrapped for students in our year and a nurse was going to be lecturing all the grade sevens about the facts of life. As usual the Board of Education was addressing such concerns at least three years too late. We figured we already knew everything there was to know but piled into the gymnasium/auditorium – boys and girls together – for the fun of watching a self-conscious adult grapple with that most magically awkward of topics. There was sure to be lots of whispering and giggling and louts standing up to ask unnecessary questions just for the pleasure of watching the poor nurse squirm. She’d even brought along a projector loaded up with gruesome slides of the fallopian tubes, sperm cells and all the pertinent parts. When she opened her talk by saying, “Sex is not a dirty thing,” some Wisenheimer a couple rows back couldn’t resist blurting out, “It’s two dirty things”.
The overhead lights had been switched off and the first batch of slides was glowing away on the screen beneath the basketball hoop, when the door at the back of the gymnasium swung open. We all turned around where we sat cross-legged on the floor. Squinting a little we saw our principal and a policeman in full uniform (wearing those bulgy motorcycle pants), standing in a brilliant square of sunlight flooding through from the hall; their forms bigger and blacker than real life; near silhouettes of authority and intimidation.
“Somebody’s going to get it,” we thought, delighted in the certainty that it wouldn’t be us. The principal rolled some papers into a makeshift megaphone and called out my name . . . my real name . . . my birth name . . . “Stephen Goodden”. My friends all stared at me, amazed and aflutter. But . . . but . . .
My legs like unwieldy tubes of cold jelly, I somehow scrambled to my feet and walked toward my inexplicable doom. “What did I do?” The nurse fell quiet. The only sounds to be heard were the flap of my sneaker soles on the linoleum floor and the hum of her stupid projector. “It’s gotta be a mistake . . . or else my parents have been killed in a car accident and they’ve just come to break the news . . . they could be a little nicer about it.” By the time I stood with that terrifying twosome, blinking in that sun-bleached hallway, I wondered if maybe that lady on her porch somehow knew who I was and phoned in to report my breaking that bottle.
But it was much worse than that as I found out when they frog-marched me down to the principal’s office and introduced me to the fire chief from our neighbourhood station. A fire engine had been on its way to a call when it ran over the shards from my bottle, blew a tire and skidded over to the side of Ridout Street where the lady on her porch (who turned out to be the mother of a girl in my class) told them everything they needed to know.
“So that was when you got The Strap?”
“That was it.”
“You deserved it, didn’t you?”
“I suppose so.”
“Did it hurt?”
Oddly enough, no; not much. I didn’t enjoy it but I didn’t cry. I remember being amazed that I wasn’t crying, and spotting a trace of that same amazement in the usually fastidious Sam McKay’s eyes as he brought the leather strap down onto my palm again and again, sweat beading on his forehead, looking to me for some kind of response that wasn’t forthcoming and then bringing that strap down again. It was all so preposterous and embarrassing and awful that I seemed to slip into a protective numbness where the poor duffer could flail himself silly; I wasn’t going to feel it.
The rest of that day is a blank. I don’t remember if my parents were called in or how I passed the time until dismissal. Maybe I just sat and rotted in Sam’s office. I certainly didn’t get to return to the Facts of Life symposium and later planned to pass along any paternity suits I sustained to the manufacturers of nonreturnable pop bottles.
I didn’t get stuck with any bills for the new fire engine tire but a week or two later, (by a casual pre-arrangement that I find charming in retrospect) I did serve a six-hour shift of community service, putting storm windows on the fire chief’s house. It was a bitterly cold Saturday, my coat was too thin and that night I came down with one of those deep chest colds where it feels like your lungs are lined with barbed wire and you incessantly bark like a seal. So, in one way or another, I suppose I paid my debt to society.
By this point the dinner table was absolutely silent yet still, I felt, something more needed to be said. Some kind of summation or moral perhaps. Something to really put this thing in a context that would help my son in his journey through life. Yet it was my son who then spoke up: “Well, Dad,” he said, carefully considering his words, “that was a pretty stupid thing to do.”
“Hey,” I shot back defensively, “Nobody ever said you got the strap as an award for intelligence or merit.” But the kid was no longer listening and who could blame him? I’d said too much. I’d over-explained in the futile hope of extending his initial admiration to a permanent condition. Next time, I decided, if there ever was one, I’d take a lesson from my own Dad and keep it simple and enigmatic. “Hosed out garbage cans,” I’d tell him no matter what he asked. That one kept me going for years.
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THE AQUINAS LECTURE
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