xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: Catechism Cheats.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Catechism Cheats.

Corporal punishment was phased out of  Western Australian schools in the late 1980s. For most of the twentieth century it was quite normal for teachers to inflict pain on their students as a  punishment for some wrong doing or ommission.

This story describes one such episode of corporal punishment. To a reader in the 21st Century, it may seem cruel and sadistic to inflct pain on school students, but in those days it was the accepted thing. In fact most boys took some pride in being stapped (or caned in governmet schools). I know I did.

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I remember my primary school days at the Christian Brothers High School at Highgate, during the late 1940’s, with great affection.My favourite teacher was Brother O’Brien, He was a young, smiling faced man with bright red hair, a big smile and a love of laughter and singing. Being in his class was great fun. It was like being taught by Father O’Malley in Going My Way, the Academy Award winning role played by Bing Crosby.

However, though Brother O’Brien was my favourite teacher, he could also strike fear into my heart. With a mixed class of about 55 Year Fours and Year Fives, Brother O’Brien was not reluctant to use the strap in order to maintain discipline.

In those days of course corporal punishment was not only permissible it was almost compulsory. Parents expected the Brothers to be firm and strict. And they were. The strap was in use on most days. Although Brother O’Brien generally eased up in  very cold and frosty weather and did not bring the strap down quite so strongly on those frozen fingers.

I received my fair share of the strap and soon realised the futility of telling my mother in the hope of getting some sympathy.  My mother would just say, “Well you must stop being so naughty! You must do your work and learn to behave yourself. Whatever will the Brothers think of us?” These days of course  mothers would be  rushing down to the lawyer’s office wanting to sue for the assault and battery on their precious  little angels.

The first period each school day was Catechism. Each night the class had to learn three or four questions and answers from the catholic catechism. Some of the questions were really interesting.

“Why do we call that day Good on which Jesus died?”, “What does Transubstantiation mean?”, “What is meant by Fast and Abstinence?”, “What is an Indulgence?”, “What is a Plenary Indulgence?” and “What is meant by the Infallibility of the Pope?”

The questions were interesting alright, it was learning the answers that caused me and my fellow Year Four and Year  Five classmates the problem.If anyone had a wrong answer they had to write out the question and the answer three times at playtime. Very time consuming. To avoid this punishment cheating became widespread. The boys would sit with their catechism booklets beneath their legs and glance down for the answers when Brother O’Brien called out the questions. In such a large and crowded classroom this was fairly easy to do.

Brother O”Brien used to keep a daily tally of correct and incorrect answers. His beaming smile grew wider and wider each day as the correct tally grew and there were very few incorrect responses. Brother was happy and life was good in Year Four and Five at Highgate Christian Brothers. But some wise person once said, “God is not mocked.” He was right. And God is not too fond of cheats either, especially good holy catholic boys who are cheating at Catechism.

Came the fateful day when Brother O”Brien discovered that mendacity and duplicity were alive and well in his classroom.At least we were honest enough to own up when he discovered one boy cheating. When he asked who else had been cheating all of the other 54 boys rose sheepishly to their feet.

We felt bad about being caught cheating. We felt bad that we were about to be punished. But we felt absolute remorse that we had deceived our beloved teacher and caused him to be so upset with us. Red headed people have a reputation for short fuses and strong rages. Brother O’Brien proved to be a typical redhead that day. He felt tricked and betrayed and he was duty bound to teach us all that cheats never prosper. Of course it is a well known fact that some cheats prosper enormously, but not in Brother O’Brien’s class.

He lined us 55 boys up around the room and then set off giving each of us two cuts on each hand with his thick black strap. It took him about five minutes to work his way around the line giving out a total of 220 strokes. About two thirds of the way around it was obvious that he was beginning to feel the strain of his exertions. However, he battled on. After administering the final four blows to the last boy, he quickly moved to his chair, slumped down behind his desk and let out a huge sigh.

The boys, quite impressed with his energetic and athletic performance, burst into a spontaneous round of applause.Brother O”Brien’s face lit up in a big grin. Justice had been done and harmony and peace returned to our happy class once more.

We had learned quite a lot that morning!

(An edited excerpt from “LEON: A backward glance at boyhood” by Noel Bourke. Published September, 2005)

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