You don't know me, and I know you only as a nickname on the internet. You may never read this, even though it's addressed to you, but I feel compelled to write it after reading an old article of yours on a general chat forum (which you no longer visit), about a school in Zimbabwe where you were employed as an eighteen-year-old volunteer teacher, fresh out from England. I'd like to quote some of it back at you:
"Discipline at the school is very strict with VERY bad behaviour usually resulting in ‘being whacked’ i.e., 3 whacks of the cane (this can ONLY be administered by the three senior members of staff at the school), manual labour for slightly less serious offences (manual labour in this case basically means being walked round the very extensive school grounds (with a prefect) and being made to pick up litter, and detention for minor offences such as not going homework or general petty silliness in class. When I first arrived at the school I was horrified to discover corporal punishment being used and initially avoided sending boys down for it, however within a couple of months I saw that it DOES work and DOESN’T affect the boys long term (my husband can vouch for that)."You don't name this school in Zimbabwe, Gwenick, but it sounds to me like one informally known as "PE". Mine was a rival school a few miles away informally known as "Saints". Like most boys' schools dating from early colonial times, both are very traditional in all matters, including discipline.
I have an amusing little anecdote from my time there in the 1960s. Beatings at Saints were imposed by written orders called "tickets", and the teacher ordering the punishment could specify the number of strokes, up to a maximum of six. In Form II our recently-arrived French teacher was Mme Mimieux (not her real name), and discipline wasn't her strong point. She was a pert little Frenchwoman of about thirty, not very forceful, and boys took advantage. One day she wrote a ticket for a boy whose habitual misbehaviour had reached reckless levels - the first she'd ever written. It didn't improve matters much. Boys saw it as a provocation, and by the end of the class she had written about four others. But when the bell went she called in all the tickets and tore them up.
A few days later the same thing happened. Half a dozen this time, and all destroyed at the end of class. How we laughed!
The third time, a boy who'd taken one of her tickets in the last period before lunch asked to be excused, and then didn't return before the bell. Mme Mimieux was frantic. She knew there was a caning session held after lunch, when boys with tickets would stand in line outside the doors of the Games Room to get their punishment, and she hurried all over the school trying to find this boy. Close to tears, she finally cornered him trying to sneak into the school dining-room hidden behind one of his companions. She almost ripped his blazer off getting that ticket back.
Of course, it was a cruel trick for a boy to play, and no one thought well of him for it, but Mme Mimieux handed out no more pretend-punishments. Funnily enough, though, one result of this episode was that she got a bit more respect, because it was suddenly clear to us that she'd rather die than have a boy beaten in her name. It was an attitude of mind that we just weren't accustomed to at that school, and I think we were a bit perplexed at first.
I suppose there could be several reasons for her repugnance, but one springs to mind straight away. She might have thought that women ought not to have anything to do with punishments whose purpose was to inflict physical suffering - quite conceivable in the days when "the gentler sex" was a term that was supposed to mean something, even if it didn't mean much at Saints.
Or she might have thought it unwise to order punishments whose severity was unknown to her. The other types of punishment were open and public, and anyone could witness them. But nobody could witness a beating, because it took place in strict privacy, not to say secrecy. Was three strokes of the cane a moderate punishment - or was it agonizing? She didn't know. Was a boy hit hard enough to break the skin and draw blood? And if it left wounds, how long would they be visible - a week? - two weeks? - three? She hadn't a clue about that either. How could she possibly choose the number of strokes when she didn't even know what one stroke was worth? It was a mystery punishment. She'd never even seen a cane. So maybe she was just unwilling to be responsible for violent acts that she herself knew nothing about and was not invited to witness.
Pushing that further, it's even possible that in her mind the very secrecy was something that gave off a bad smell. One sure test of a decent punishment is that it is open to public view, and a punishment that has to be hidden away must be considered suspect on principle. If it's hidden, there must be something to hide. A second test of its basic decency would be that it can be given to a girl as well as a boy without shame either to her or to her parents. Mme Mimieux could have found out that corporal punishment didn't exist at girls' schools in Zim, and drawn the appropriate conclusion, which is that boys were being treated as some lower form of life, something less than human, and that things could be done to them in this society that would be unacceptable if done to anyone else. She would have considered it an act of disrespect for the basic human dignity of boys to inflict humiliations on them that she herself had always been exempt from. That thought seemed never to have occurred to the other women of the school, who routinely ordered beatings, even though other punishments of the kind that had existed at their own schools were available. But I can well imagine that it occurred to Mme Mimieux.
All or any of those explanations is possible, but our own was more straightforward, and probably more accurate. What we had mistaken for weakness in Mme Mimieux was goodness, plain and simple. She just couldn't hurt a boy, Gwenick, or let anyone else hurt him on her orders. That changed our attitude towards her, and the trouble subsided. From then on the worst she ever got in the classroom was a little good-humoured teasing, nothing serious. We decided we liked her after all.
Sad to say, she left after a year, and never really looked happy at Saints. But it was years before I discovered an important clue to her unhappiness, over and above the considerations I listed above. Corporal punishment had disappeared from France in the mid-nineteenth century, where educationalists had determined that your claim that "it DOESN'T affect the boys long-term" is untrue. A major influence was Rousseau's Confessions, written in 1782 by a philosopher and self-confessed "spanko". He was sexually perverted by the punishments of his childhood, and "outed" himself in the hope that he could prevent future generations of children suffering the same fate. But laws forbidding the practice weren't passed until the 1880s. The reason for this sudden legislation was that a commission had been sent to England a few years earlier to study English educational practices, and the team wrote a report so damning that they decided strict laws were essential to ensure that the practice of corporal punishment could never return to France.
So it must have been hard for Mme Mimieux to walk around the school day after day knowing that things were being done to boys that would be considered a crime in her own country. In the end she couldn't take it, and left. Sad for her, since there were no boys' schools in Zim that didn't use corporal punishment, and unless she could get a post in a girls' school, she'd either have to leave the profession or leave the country.
Sad for me too, Gwenick, when I discovered for myself that your claim that "it DOESN'T affect the boys long-term" is untrue. I just took too many tickets, it seems. Or maybe one would have been enough, I don't know. But my perversion ebbs and flows. I can go for as long as five years without thinking about it at all. Other times I'm in its grip for a whole year, and can't think of anything else. There are worse cases than mine, and in former times they would've lived lives as miserable as Rousseau's. But these days they can meet tens of thousands like themselves on the internet, albeit behind a cloak of anonymity. In the UK the now ageing victims of what continental people used to call The English Vice can drool over canes and school uniforms to their hearts' content, endlessly circling around the atrocities of their schooldays, and know that there are plenty of others in the same condition. There is no need to feel like a pariah any more.
As for Mme Mimieux, amongst the women of Saints she stands alone, and when I think of her today, I silently practise my French. To me she is la bonne femme, la femme vertueuse - the good woman, the righteous woman. I wish I could erect a statue to her outside the main gates.
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