If you have a son at Dover Heights Boys' High School, there are several matters I would like to bring to your attention which are of vital importance to him, and therefore must be of importance to you. Let me begin by describing an incident that took place at the school. Its significance and its implications will become clear to you, I am sure.
One day about three weeks ago, an English teacher was criticising his class for being bludgers and for chronic tardiness. A student in the class, Philip Foxman, responded by asking the teacher if he believed that a student should be able to voice his opinion without risk of being punished for it. The teacher said he could. Philip proceeded to express his opinion to the effect that the teacher was acting hypocritically by criticizing the class for tardiness because he, the teacher, often arrives late for the classes he teaches, especially the first class in the morning and the class following lunch. Philip went on to say that the real reason the class is falling behind schedule is because the teacher routinely wastes so much class time delivering the same lecture about tardiness and bludging. The teacher became angry and stormed out of the class.
Two days later a memorandum from the principal was circulated throughout the school to the teaching staff. It stated that Philip Foxman had committed a serious breach of school rules and should be severely punished. The memoramdum did not mention the nature of the misconduct nor cite what rule had been violated.
I, for one, am curious to know what school rule was alluded to in that note. In what rule book is it published? Who wrote it? Who approved it? Where can one get a copy of the "school rules"?
Could it be that someone is trying to prepare our young people for a life in a totalitarian state where criticism of one's superior is a high crime calling for instant punishment? -- a society in which those in power invent "school rules" on the spur of the moment to suit their whims? It has been three weeks since Philip has been barred from English class.
I believe that this young man is owed an apology. And perhaps more importantly, he is owed the right to resume studying English from a professional English teacher without further delay. His honesty and courage make him a credit to his school and no one has the right to jeopardize his education for the sake of gratifying the petty vindictiveness of a few embittered individuals.
The next matter I would like to bring to your attention is that of the cane. Two months ago at a meeting of the Dover Heights Parents and Citizens Association a resolution was introduced endorsing the continued use of corporal punishment. There were only eight or nine parents present at the meeting and, except for my dissenting vote, the resolution would have passed unanimously. Several token assurances were offered by Mr. Doyle, the principal, who was present at the meeting. They were that he would have final authority as to when, where and on whom corporal punishment would be meted out. The association's majority decision was primarily influenced by the assumption that Mr. Doyle's experience and professionalism would preclude the unfair use of the punishment. In his own words, Mr. Doyle reassured the parents that corporal punishment is a rarely-used last resort, reserved as a necessary curb for the occasional "bad boy." The impression I received was that the cane was brought out two or three times a year. It was a false impression, and it is my profound conviction that the confidence expressed in Mr. Doyle by those parents two months ago has not been respected.
The cane at Dover Heights Boys' High School is dispensed like aspirin: a cure for everything. It is prescribed at whim and administered with a vengeance. Tardiness is caneable. So is an error in spelling. An example of the latter case took place this past month. A third form boy was caned for three spelling mistakes. Another two boys were caned when one loaned the other a ruler during the class session. The victims of these incidents have requested that they not be named out of genuine (and well founded) fear that any complaint from them would only result in additional retaliatory punishment. I am honoring that request.
After having talked to many students I am convinced beyond any doubt that corporal punishment at Dover Heights is rampant, capricious and sadistic. It is one of the major contributors to the degrading of those qualities that we expect from an educational institution. It must come as a shock to anyone mentally alive in this day and age that any teacher would consider the cane an all-purpose teaching aid, say for the improvement of spelling. And a double shock that such gross unprofessionalism would be officially approved rather than be censured.
It seems to me that there is a silent unnamed secret coterie of individuals at Dover Heights -- men who understand each other's weakness and shield each other. They are a small, securely entrenched minority, but an insidiously corrupting one. Their hallmark is an appetite for inflicting pain (psychological as well as physical) on the helpless, and otherwise degrading those who are under their authority. They operate covertly under the pretense of education. They are skilled at covering their tracks and each other's.
While so many other schools across the country are abandoning the cane -- consigning it to its rightful place as a relic of the educational dark ages -- Dover Heights has elevated it to the status of a favorite tool, so much so that the administration of that school saw fit to launch a public relations campaign through the P & C to gain an endorsement for its continued use.
Are our children different from those of other places? Do they respond to nothing but the stick? Or have they been offered nothing but the stick by those who have nothing better to offer?
The problem at Dover Heights Boy's High School is like a universally shared secret: like a bad odour in the midst of a crowd that all are aware of but none talk about. The administration knows, but prefers to conceal rather than correct. The good teachers know but choose to conform rather that complain. The students know but have been cowed into silence. The upper echelons of the Department of Education know but they politely look the other way. And those who should be the first to know -- the parents -- are the last to find out.
How, we might ask ourselves, does such a condition persist? Why should the atmosphere of a school in which our children's minds and spirits are irrevocably molded be the poisonous atmosphere of a prison camp? The answer is too simple: It should not.
Speaking as a father concerned about his son, I can only say that I would never want to face him years hence when he may ask me why I sent him to such a place and why no one bothered to do anything about it.
I believe the solution may be simpler than we suspect. What is needed are a few indignant parents. Not just one or two but five or six or a dozen who, like Philip Foxman, have the courage to tell the truth -- to tell it loudly and clearly. Then we will see a change. After all, why shouldn't our boys be attending one of the best schools of the area rather than one of the worst?
39 Bourke St.
23rd June 1975
Several days after my initial distributions of the above letter to parents at a P & C meeting and to students as they filed on to the school buses for their return home, the following anonymous, hand-written letter arrived.
May I commend you on your letter to all parents. It is time parents and citizens became involved in their schools and I hope your letter will inspire them. I hear about Dover Heights B. H. from the other end, the teachers, and I would agree with everything in your letter. Many teachers realize the situation is bad but since many are going for promotion or teaching certificates they cannot buck the system. I am married to one of these teachers and hence would be pleased if you would accept this letter of encouragement without my signature.
I left Australia to return home to the U.S. in '81. By then, Mr. Doyle had retired (two years ahead of schedule) to pursue his book binding hobby. The teacher who had been renowned at DH for his wicked cane swing had moved up the professional ladder to become principal of a school in a rough, tough, depressed western suburb of Sydney.
Before leaving, I drove past Dover Heights Boys' High School for a final look. For me, as for countless others, it had been a battleground in both the literal and figurative meanings of the word. One could hardly think of it as a place of learning -- rather just a great, nondescript concrete box that people had squeezed into and squeezed out of according to clock and calendar while patiently nurishing the hope they would soon move on to something better. Twenty years after the date on my open letter to parents, New South Wales enacted a law banning corporal punishment in all public schools of the state.