I spent a lot of my early years on the move. After an education in Africa, I settled more or less permanently in Britain, by which time I was well-travelled, and a practised observer of cultures. I had never been to America, but I had a sharp ear and eye for peculiarities of American life. Things like the following, for instance:
Naturally, then, I've always prided myself on being a penetrating observer of American culture. And my confidence wasn't dented when I saw a movie a few years ago called "The Dead Poets' Society", which contained a scene where a student was hit on the backside six times with what looked like a chopping-board with holes in. Or it wasn't dented much, anyway, unlike the boy's backside. Because the movie was set in the 1950s and it portrayed life in a high-class school in that Anglophile corner of the East Coast where they can never quite let go of the idea that British is best. It was just about plausible that privileged Anglophiles in the 1950s would put up with that kind of barbarity when nobody else would. It was the only film I'd ever seen where the existence of corporal punishment in American schools was even mentioned, never mind acted out. You couldn't take it too seriously.
My education on this point was a long time coming, but it began two years ago when a book I read aroused my suspicions that English customs like those were still going strong at my old school in Zimbabwe, when I thought they had long disappeared. Planning a letter to the school about it, I began researching the subject of corporal punishment to arm myself with some facts. Although the practice had already disappeared from state schools in Britain, it had been exported by the British during colonial times to huge areas of the world - notably Africa and Asia - where it flourishes today with the same riotous freedom that existed in Victorian England.
In the course of my research I came across some American material, to which I paid hardly any attention. Possibly I was half asleep at the time, or else my long-established notions about American society got in the way of my comprehension, because I dismissed this material as unimportant. Minor league, I thought. I was gunning for the Brits - or, rather, for the inheritors of their traditions, like Zimbabwe.
I have to apologise for that now to all those Americans who have put so much time and commitment into organizations like PTAVE, but I believe I have a good excuse for this misfiring of the brain.
When I was growing up in colonial Africa, I was absorbing two very different cultures simultaneously. As I child I read a lot of comics, and most of of them were British products, like the good old Beano and Dandy, and Beezer and Topper, whose cartoon characters frequently included the stock headmaster with his swishing cane. In those publications, the mention of corporal punishment as an everyday fact was commonplace, not to say obsessional. This was also true of the movies of the time, especially the comedies. If school life came into it anywhere, the cane was bound to be mentioned sooner or later. It was an achievement of British society to turn corporal punishment into a subject for endless amusement, and its language is still with us long after the practice itself is gone. Phrases like "six of the best", "bend over, naughty boy", "They were totally caned" (defeated) are still commonly heard.
But it looks as though I got over-clever in my deliberations, and fell victim myself to a more straightforward kind of deception. In my childhood we had American comics too, and American films - lots of them. So I got to know quite well what life was like in "High School". It was quite different from "secondary school", not only in sounding grander, but looking grander. In the British tradition schools looked dingy and dilapidated, because they were supposed to. The more expensive the school, the more sure you could be that the heating didn't work, that the facilities were antiquated, and the whole place hadn't been painted in fifty years. At the extreme you had the super-elite Public Schools, like Eton and Harrow, and so on, where the atmosphere of oppression was deliberate and self-perpetuating. And it didn't come cheap. They were called Public Schools because anyone could go there except the public. In those days real deprivation cost a lot, and shelling out enough money to have your son treated like a dog could leave you destitute.
But in America none of this applied. For me, growing up in the '50s and '60s, the imported comics, magazines, movies, the occasional TV programmes, painted a quite different picture. For one thing, they didn't have "schoolboys" and "schoolgirls" - the vocabulary of inferiority. They had "students". And "students" didn't have uniforms - the symbol of obedience to a higher power. No, they wore civilian clothes, just like real people. They drove their own cars to school - great big ones with chrome fenders and tail-fins - and they had a dizzying social life, what with taking Sally Ann to the "Prom", and going to the "soda fountain" and the "drive-in" and the "drugstore". And whereas we had "homework", they had "assignments", which sounded much more serious and respectful. But to a fanatical athlete like me, it was the word "coach" that had the finest ring. As far as I knew, a "coach" was someone who trained you for the Olympic Games. And they had one at High School! Unbelievable! "Gee, coach, how do I improve my stamina?" "Well, Chuck, quit spending so much time at the soda fountain..." All we had was a "Games Master", and you called him "sir".
Yes, it was a different world. That atmosphere of coercion that invested every part of our education seemed to be entirely missing from theirs. They were in many ways like miniature adults, and their privileged life could only make mere "schoolboys" like me poisonous with envy.
Of course I knew there was an older America. In the time when cars were painted black, and had square fronts instead of round ones, home discipline was a threat of a kind, especially down on the farm where "Paw" could take his "belt" to you in the "woodshed". I'd even heard of something called a "paddle", though I didn't know what it looked like. It was a Victorian weapon that, for some reason, I associated with "Maw". Paw had the belt, but Maw had the paddle, and could chase you round the shack with it.
But that was in the bad old days. The idea that this antique "paddle" could have survived into post-war America was laughable. An American school wasn't just a school; it was a school environment. It was affluent and modern. By 1961, when I first went to boarding school in Zimbabwe, I had digested a ton of American cultural products. Versus British culture, the case was closed. The polished smile of John F. Kennedy set alongside the sad-dog countenance of Harold Macmillan told you all you needed to know about who was really in front.
One day a classmate said to me "In Sweden if a teacher hits a child on the arse, they get taken to court". It was much more serious, he assured me, than if they'd only hit them on the hand. Naturally, in a school where they battered your arse as a matter of daily routine, I was bound to ask why. But he didn't know. Sadly, I was well into middle-age before I started looking for an answer to my own question. But one thing I was sure about: if the kids of 1961 were protected in Sweden, that would be even more true in the U.S.
But still, maybe I'm being a bit tough on the Brits. Because they did actually treat girls as miniature adults. You couldn't use the cane on them. Well, you could on working class girls, sometimes. But only if you hit them on the hand, not on the arse, because....well, nobody quite knew why, or wouldn't say. When very occasionally it happened, it always stirred up a storm. People were indignant. Beating girls on the arse just wasn't funny, even if doing the same thing to boys was very funny and worth a good laugh any day of the week. It was just understood that there was something suspect about it. Maybe only the Swedes knew why. But it could only happen in the most backward of the state schools. Above that social level, you couldn't even hit them on the hand, and if you were one of those who was lucky enough to be upwardly mobile, then as you ascended through the social ranks things got better and better for your daughter, whereas they got worse and worse for your son. Her arse disappeared altogether, while his went on getting bigger. It was just something he had to carry around with him all day long in case anyone wanted to hit it. Of course this "reverent" attitude to girls, signifying their inferiority in practice, was politically incorrect, but I doubt that it arouses too much condemnation in us now. I mean, we don't feel our indignation rising, do we?
But in the U.S it didn't matter what their social class was. Girls never had arses in the first place - or even asses - and neither did the boys. Because in that country respecting human dignity needed no distinctions between the sexes. They were all miniature adults. That much at least was hard-wired into my brain by the time I was fourteen. As I said, the case was closed.
And so were my eyes, apparently. At least I assume my preconceptions were the reason I was half asleep when I came across the U.S. material in the course of my research. I was doing it all from books, most of them long out of print, and after a while it made your eyes swim. Since the practice, I assumed, had all but disappeared from the industrialised world, I never bothered with the internet, because I didn't think there would be much on it, apart from a few S&M porno sites. And my muttered comment about the American stuff - "minor league" - was not actually in response to anything I read, because I don't think I did, in fact, read anything. My eye just slid in an accelerating way down paragraphs of text and columns of statistics until it just fell off the end.
Well that was in 1997, when I was only 50. I was too young to know any better. How the mistake was rectified was pure chance. I wrote some computer software a couple of years ago, and one of my customers was from Alabama. I'd been exchanging emails with him for quite a while, mainly about programming. But, for some disconnected reason, the whole business was revived in my mind. I knew Alabama was Maw and Paw country, and in a moment of recklessness I put a question or two to him. What he told me was so unlikely that it sent me off on an internet hunt that has finally landed me here.
So, greetings. I'm from another planet. Gulliver amongst the Lilliputians.
"Penalty for smoking unclear, girl's supporters say" - thus went the banner headline of the Arlington Morning News of 29th May 1999.
GRAND PRAIRIE - Sitting near red-and-gold pompoms, photos and a decorated South Grand Prairie High School jacket, Amber Page flails her hands in frustration as she explains her disappointment in being kicked off her cheerleading squad for smoking.Well, that's a choker. Kicked off, eh? But they have some sense of justice in Arlington, and a lot of people weighed in on Amber's behalf with some pretty heavy stuff - parents, friends, supporters of every persuasion. With the press turning on the heat, the school authorities had to produce the handbook to prove the case, but it was obvious they were on the back foot. Inevitably they had to undertake to set up a "task force" to look into the guidelines. Amber's expulsion from the team was pushing retribution too far, that was plain, especially when you consider how she'd already paid one penalty. Because somewhere amongst the clamour of contesting voices, of claim and counter-claim, of accusation and riposte, it was revealed - nay, noted - nay, mentioned in passing - that Amber had been "paddled" in the Principal's office. And it was referred to - in passing - by a former graduate. "If it would have been anyone else, they would have taken their swats and it would be over with."
Now, then, I have to be careful here. After all, I really laid into the Brits, and I can hardly side with them now. But something has to be said in their favour. I was caught smoking myself in 1965 at the same age as Amber. And true to form, I got a beating. However, nobody was happy about it. The boy-prefect who caught me was a clueless twerp, and didn't know that reporting seniors wasn't a school custom. Because you see, although it was true that boys, unlike girls, were fair game, it's also true that even for boys there were limits. Nobody was comfortable with the idea of a seventeen-year-old getting the naughty-doggy treatment.
But once I'd been reported, the First Prefect - a Catholic priest - had no choice but to set the wheels in motion. But he did everything he could to lessen the humiliation. We settled on a time when we knew that no one would be around, boys or staff. Nobody would hear the noise of the beating; no one would see me coming down the steps of his office. I was grateful to him for that. But there was an additional punishment for smoking called "local bounds". It meant you had to spend all your free time in a very restricted area of of the school - a bit like house-arrest. It was supposed to last two weeks, but after three days the First Prefect - an ex-Royal Marine - strolled up to me and said, "Go on, bugger off, son. And don't be such a bloody fool next time." It wasn't the kind of language school staff should ever use, but he was trained as a Jesuit priest, and you have to make allowances.
So, bearing in mind that in 1965, in a boarding-school steeped in the old English traditions, a seventeen-year old boy getting a beating made everyone a little uncomfortable, I have to make a careful estimation about what repercussions would have followed had the same thing happened to a girl like Amber Page. The colonial Brits could be a pretty fierce bunch, and I'm visualizing Amber's father - a tobacco farmer, let's say - getting the news that a male teacher hit his daughter on the arse three times with a two-foot-long wooden paddle. But that would have been thirty-five years ago, and after all this time I can't be sure that the image of him driving two hundred miles to the school and marching up the front steps with a shotgun at his hip is not an exaggeration. I don't know. I'll have to check it out with my old contacts and see what they think.
But I wonder if I'm really up to this job. I visualize a long, protracted struggle to raise American schools to the same civilized standard that is now compulsory in British schools on pain of dismissal. The fragmented nature of American government means the battle has to be waged state by state, and by European standards the score is depressing - 27 down, 23 to go. Jordan Riak warns us of the exhausting nature of the campaign. Indignant parents get worn down by the sheer obstructiveness of the authorities, those endless official replies with their soothing language: "guidelines... standard procedures... referrals..." Eventually they just give up. There is such a thing as "burn-out". But in my case it's rather more than that. Because, before anything else, the job means dismantling one of the great illusions of my childhood. It means prising open the rosy world of the miniature adults, of "Archie" and "Chuck White" and the "Prom" and the "soda-fountain", to reveal the one thing whose existence was so carefully concealed from me. Browsing through the anecdotal material, I have found out at last what a "coach" actually does. I have learned from MISS GASPERSOHN about male coaches: "I would say about 6'2", 200 pounds. He is an assistant football coach."1 And from MS M_ about female coaches: "Girls are paddled by a female coach... this coach is a former college athlete and nearly six foot tall..."2
Gee, coach, how do I protect my butt? Well, Chuck...
So I'm wondering whether I would actually be of any use to PTAVE at all. The trouble is, you see, I've arrived on this planet without weapons. I used them all up on the Brits.
1. From "Testimony of Shelly Gaspersohn to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice, October 17, 1984," shelly.htm.
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