The Punishment Book

CODE, SCHEDULE IV.

I. – Every School must have:-
(e) A Punishment Book in which all cases of corporal punishment must be recorded.

I have the Punishment Book for our school. It resides, along with other archive documents, in my office; a reminder that we are mere custodians of the school’s heritage.

It begins on 1st November 1922 and ends on 16th December 1980. 58 years of state-approved administration of pain in the pursuit of proper conduct and good character.

The first entry, on 17th November 1922, records a deferred punishment for “hitting _______ violently in the face”.

On 2nd December the same year, one stroke of the cane is had for the lesser offence of “Eating in school after repeated warnings”.

And so the book records each stroke…

Disobedience and untruthfulness feature frequently. Inattention leads to one stroke. Playing in the lavatory: one stroke. And so on, through the decade and on to the next.

And then an eerie silence begins. It is 1939. Punishment does not stop; it transfers to the battlefront.

On 13th November 1953, perhaps the least serious offence of “Whistling in class” results in a lash on each hand. Some weeks later, the same fate for “Cheek”.

Misbehaviour on the bus. Smoking on the bus. Swearing on the bus. All so familiar to the contemporary teacher.

By the 1950s there are names I recognise; local families who have sent generations to the school, certain behaviours passed down like heirlooms.

By the 1960s, explicit reference to girls appear as the school becomes co-ed. Three strokes for “Splashing the girls”. All of them?

In each era the initials are recorded for the master charged with administering the punishment. From 1959 to 1963 the same initials are scrawled on page after page after page. Dozens of instances of corporal discipline, perhaps into the hundreds. Sometimes many times in a week.

I’ve met some of these “boys”, all my senior. They are decent people. Due to or despite of their school experiences, I wonder?

The frequency of records is relentless throughout the 50s and 60s, part due to the increasing size of the school but also possibly a sign of the age of teenage rebellion. Rock and Roll has a lot to answer for.

By the 1970s, the practice of inflicting pain to deter misconduct declines significantly. Is this where enlightenment began? Had society added enough bricks to the wall?

The first instance of “indecent assault” on “4 girls” leads to three boys receiving a swift rebuke. Then the presumably more consensual “fooling around with a girl in detention” is dealt with with equal vigour.

At the bottom of the last ragged page… four students… smoking. 16th December 1980. Was this the end of an era, or just the end of a book?

Flicking through the pages I find it hard to cast judgement. The Punishment Book was a product of its time. Those that administered and received each stroke followed society’s expectations; each played their role. It happened. Everyone has moved on.

In the contemporary debate about punishment we talk in absolute terms. We forget that we are all a product of our moment in history, prisoners of the here and now. We can claim the moral high ground, but the ground is shifting beneath our feet and time will cast our decisions in a different light.

What, thankfully, doesn’t change is that children can be naughty. It is a necessary part of figuring out how they fit in, and how they can stand out. Every generation has its Punishment Book.

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