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U3A Writing: Punishment

Nancie Dyson has some thoughts on punishment – then and now.

When small, a tap on the legs warns us that we have transgressed the grownups’ rules. A lecture as we get older also helps to keep us on the path of righteousness. When guilty, we accept the punishment and move on. When blamed for something we haven’t done, it rankles, but you learn to accept that there are people in the world who do not live by your standards.

I remember plainly discovering dishonesty. We had to take to school a jam jar lined with blotting paper. We were going to grow a pea or bean. On arrival at school we were told to put our jam jars on the window sill in the classroom until the appropriate lesson.

The time came for us to collect our jam jars, but I was unable to find mine. I was unable to recognise it – pink blotting paper – loads of those, and one jam jar looks the same as another. I was heartbroken, but no one would own up to having taken mine. My very first lesson in dishonesty – and no one was punished.

Some teachers are memorable for all the wrong reasons. I have only met one whom I loathed. She may have felt the same towards me, but her methods were, to put it mildly, sneaky.

One poor boy in our class was colour blind. Unfortunately, he was also poorly dressed and a bit smelly, so no one chose to sit by him. Every drawing class he was caned and always had welts on his palms.

I had a notepad with different coloured leaves, and on one sheet I wrote – and meant it – “MISS LEES IS A BUGER.” We all went home at dinner time (no school dinners in those days), and on returning to school I was told I had to go to the headmaster’s room. I was terrified. I couldn’t think what I’d done wrong; it must be something awful to have to go to the headmaster’s room.

I was shown the leaf from my pad on which I had written my thoughts on Miss Lees. Everyone knew it was my pad, as I’d proudly shown it to everyone. I must have dropped it on my way home at lunchtime.

Confession was the answer, and out it all poured – even telling how she stood in front of the class stroking her bosom! Looking back, I don’t know how Mr. Dyson Beaumont kept a straight face. He suggested that in future I should sit by this boy in drawing class and make sure he used the correct colours for the sky and grass, and in future not to write my thoughts down on paper. As he dismissed me, I like to think he had a twinkle in his eye as he said, “By the way, Nancie, BUGGER has two G’s.”

I started at Greenhead. Our school motto was ‘Honour Before Honours’, and this was the rule we lived up to. I remember in the second year I was blamed for something I hadn’t done. Miss Hull was our form mistress.

I was to sit in the hall with my Latin primer, where everyone would see me for one whole morning. The seat was hard, and people were talking about me as they changed classrooms. I was boiling with rage - life was so unfair. I hated everyone, especially the guilty person who hadn’t owned up.

All was quiet. The second period was under way. Miss Hull walked down the stairs and came to stand by me. She wordlessly handed me a paperback story book which would fit inside my Latin primer, smiled and walked away. I nearly burst into tears. She knew it wasn’t me who was guilty.

We had a very warm summer during the war. The two boys next door, my two brothers and I arranged to get up early one Sunday morning and walk over Fixby golf course and round home via Grimscar Woods. I had the alarm clock, so woke my brothers, and we all crept out to join Bill and Basil, the boys next door.

We arrived home safely. I got dressed for Sunday School, and the boys went back to bed. The boys next door, however, stayed up and told their parents of our adventure. Our mother learned what we had done later that day – and guess what! I was sent to bed without any tea because I was the one who had had the alarm clock. The boys got off Scot free. Justice?

When I became a mother, I realised that we each have our own reactions to punishment. Reason with my son – water off a duck’s back. Send him to his room – the end of the world. Reason with my daughter and she disintegrated. Send her to her room – she got into bed and enjoyed a sleep and work up full of beans.

Today’s punishment, to my generation, is strange. Guilty people can sue householders for assault. The old days of the local bobby threatening to tell your parents was enough. We daren’t go home and confess to doing wrong at school. Parents backed the teacher.

Punishment today is worlds away from when I was a child. If you committed murder you were hanged. Getting away with murder is now the norm. You can even sue and be recompensed if the prison authorities do not stick to the letter of the law. The fact that disobedience to the law is why the prisoner is in prison is ignored.

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