The Notch

My mother lied to get me into Auckland Grammar School. She was determined I should go to what she thought was the best state school in the city and no zoning regulations were going to stand in her way. She told the man at the Education Board that, although we were currently renting in Pt Chevalier, she was looking to buy a house in Epsom. Anyone who had an inkling of our finances would have known this was a blatant lie. The school itself didn’t care, of course. It had no problem bending the rules to accommodate new pupils with good academic or sporting records. My mother didn’t know this, however. She had a good Methodist conscience and worried about what she had done.

Grammar was familiar territory, very like the school I had gone to in England – a rigid hierarchy of streamed classes finely grained through the mechanism of examinations. There were two significant differences, though. The first was that we had to wear shorts – an ignominy for a thirteen-year-old who regarded long trousers as the first step into manhood. The second was corporal punishment.

In my old school the headmaster alone used the cane and then only for the most serious misbehaviour. Rumours of a caning circulated with hushed tones accompanied by puzzled speculation as to what crime could have merited such severity. At Grammar, every master had a cane – a switch of bamboo about a centimetre thick and a little over a metre long. Some had several. Beatings weren’t frequent but, in a school of a thousand boys, there were probably a few each day.

You had to bend over with your hands on your knees or on a desk. The noise of the stroke was something between a whistle and a whoosh before it landed with a thwack and a searing pain across your backside. One stroke was the standard punishment.

The best teachers never needed to resort to it. For others it was an aid to instruction. My fifth form French master, a South-African by the name of van Sambeek, gave us ten vocabulary items to learn every week. If a boy got more than two wrong in the Monday test, he received a stroke of the cane. I have to say the system worked. Seventeen years later, in a foreign country for the first time, dealing with a sick child and a doctor who had no English, I managed to dredge up the French word for mumps from somewhere in the buried store that van Sambeek had inculcated.

There was a mystique about being caned. Other boys treated you with mingled pity and awe. It was standard practice to cut a notch in your leather belt for every beating you received. Some boys had belts with many notches. Others managed to get through school without a single one. I had two on mine. Both were gained in the fourth form (year 10 in modern parlance), at an age when I suffered from the idiocy characteristic of fourteen-year old boys. The first was a mere nick, a trivial matter that arose from a few of us fooling around in assembly. The second was more dramatic.

Our English master that year was a man called Macrae. He was a good enough teacher – he taught us about similes, for example, a lesson that resulted in a riot of self-indulgence in my own writing – but he believed strongly in the rod. On one occasion, our class was taken by a visiting student teacher, a young man who was either inept or inexperienced or utterly without charisma. He failed to command the class’s attention. My friend Bob Nottage and I were sitting together in the back row and began fooling around, making wise-cracks to each other. Macrae was on the far side of the room observing the lesson. We were too stupid to realise he would notice.

He was furious, trembling with rage. He took us both off to a disused classroom and gave us two each. Unfortunately, by choice or chance, I was first and he broke the cane on me. My second stroke and Bob’s two were delivered with a shortened instrument and, consequently, with less force. I had two fine bruises across my backside, one of which went all the way round to the right hand edge of my pelvis. I cut an especially big notch in my belt for that one and, of course, I bragged a little, with due modesty.

These days such treatment would be outrageous, in legal terms a common assault. Did it do me any psychological harm? I don’t think so. On the other hand, it didn’t do me much good either. Bob and I never fooled around in Macrae’s class again but we did plenty of fooling in other places. 

I found it hard to judge the school while I was there. After I left and became immersed in the pinko-liberal politics of university in the early sixties, I turned against it, big time. It seemed archaic, a barbaric institution, a pillar of the establishment that I despised and a symbol of The System, which incorporated everything that was wrong with my parents’ generation. When my own sons came to secondary school age, my wife and I decided against Wellington College – the local equivalent of Grammar – and opted for the co-ed, non-hierarchical Wellington High School instead. Neither of them liked it all that much.

These days my attitude has mellowed. I think a good education has little to do with methodologies and institutional cultures. Our fascination with research and technologies has blinded us to what matters most. Learning depends first and foremost on giving students the right context and opportunity. Beyond this there is, perhaps, only one thing that makes a significant difference – good teachers.

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