History Hurts Sometimes

When I was fifteen I remember we used to get history – a subject I loved – homework quite often from our teacher, a partly wild and crazy young man, made violent by his exposure to the pedagogical methods of the nuns in his native country, Ireland. You could say he had a sadistic streak. This was in the death throws of the corporal punishment era of Australian teaching and learning, and although by this time using the body of a pupil as the site for their punishment (he said, trying a little bit too hard to sound like Foucault) had been outlawed in public schools, it was still an option to be pursued in private schools if you were that way inclined. Jeremiah Mulcahy was most certainly that way inclined. It was strange though, the way he did it: not out of some strangely twisted amalgam of religious zeal and sexual frustration, as I had always imagined the nuns were motivated. No, this was more the young man scrapping with his peers, for fun – it can be fun to give and receive a punch when you are a fifteen year-old boy. It was as if his position was that we’re all in a massive wrestling contest, and I’ve got special privileges that mean no-one can run up behind me and give me a rabbit chop to the side of the head. I will compete, but I cannot lose. There was almost an apologetic tone when Mr. Mulcahy pursued his slightly unbalanced methods, a performance in a way, enjoying a certain degree of power, but also a subtle appeal on his animated visage: “Well, you’d do the same, sometimes, if you could, wouldn’t you fellas?”

Yes, we would. If we could have, we would have. And the point was that he was only ever punishing an individual who had done something wrong and therefore deserved it. But this was an Old Testament God asserting his authority and seeking to propagate fear amongst his subjects, not a New Testament God asking everyone to hold hands and talk about how they feel about things.

The whole class would stand and students would be told to bend over when they could not answer an absurdly difficult question about a few pages we had been set to read. These tests never gave me bother as I always enjoyed reading what we were given, and retained it. I could have answered anything, I suspect I wasn’t asked many questions because I was one of the ones who would mostly know the answer, and what was the point of asking me if this was an opportunity to hit all the smart arses in the class who deserved to be hit? (Arse being the operative word). Even if I realised this at the time, and I suspect I did – that I was safe, there was genuine fear of copping a whacking with the edge of Mr. Mulcahy’s mighty metal ruler. On one occasion a student from another year came around to hand out newsletters, he was going from class to class and because he didn’t knock on the door and ask correctly if he could hand out the newsletters he was made to bend over and suffered “the chop” as well. It seemed amusing at the time.

On another occasion a miscreant was forced to kneel at the front of the classroom on the hard wooden platform, with his arms out, in the manner of the Irish monks’ prayer position from the Dark Ages. If either arm dropped below points on the blackboard his extra homework was increased and later each arm was burdened with textbooks and blackboard dusters to make things harder. Again, it was somewhat entertaining, like sporting with those bad individuals in the stocks during the Middle Ages must have been. Perhaps it didn’t appeal to our best nature, but for those of us who were blameless, or better able to keep our noses clean, it was fun.

One of the things Mr. Mulcahy used to do, when he gave homework, was demand a page or three quarters of a page or two thirds of a page on some topic we were to read. One of the things I used to do was to work out exactly how many lines were required to fulfil what we had been set and see if I could write exactly that number of lines, in a coherent, complete little report. I often came in about half a line over and there was never any reason to think payback for being facetious was around the corner.

Published in: on July 7, 2010 at 8:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

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