An uplifting solution

It’s inner city Glasgow, 1975, and a new teacher takes on some hard men and wild women who’ve been kept behind at school.

by Isobel Robertson 

Teaching secondary school is an awesome responsibility even at the best of times. I like this story because it shows that winning is possible whatever the odds, that even the hardest and toughest of youngsters can be reached.

43 Scotland's tawse

‘Take a deep breath, it can’t possibly be as bad as you imagine.’ I tried hard to convince myself that I would cope splendidly. Turning the door handle I stepped across the threshold into the lions’ den.

Thirty pairs of eyes swiveled to ‘clock’ my entrance, sullen 15-year-olds, the cream of the ROSLA kids. ROSLA, Raising Of the School Leaving Age, passed amid crisis and panic within the teaching profession, had just become the latest piece of genius theory to reduce unemployment numbers. These were the first class forced to stay the extra year in school, with no discernable syllabus, resources, or goodwill. And here they were, sitting in my classroom, thinking they’d rather be anywhere else. I pulled myself up to my five feet four inches, tried best as I could to scowl and marched to the comparative safety behind my desk.

The next few weeks were hell on earth. I tried a host of topics related to my geography degree; environment, weather, town planning, country capitals, quizzes, puzzles….even ‘draw your granny!’ The cries of ‘useless’ and ‘boring’ rang in my ears each night as I trudged home to mark jotters with nothing in them, or worse, comments I’d rather not decipher.

Then there was the discipline.

Matthew Mills was the worst. He goaded me every day, trying to force me to give him the TAWSE, or strap, a leather belt Scottish schools used as an instrument of punishment, even torture. I had decided, as a cultured human being, I would never give ‘the belt’. I could remember the pain I had suffered when it made rapid contact with my tender palms and fingers. Matthew was the leader of the pack and eventually I had to do it. I extracted him from the class; no way was I going to belt him in front of his adoring public. He was over six feet tall. I got a stool to stand on. Then I issued a warning. 

‘So help me, if you move your hands I’ll go straight into that class and tell your boys just what a coward you are.’

Then I hit him as hard as I could. And another twice for luck! His face was predictably impassive. I hadn’t really hurt him.

Then, unbelievably, he said, ‘Aye, you’re no bad.’

Things really improved after that, but in my professional opinion I was not doing a good job. Discipline had recovered, but what to do about the education part of my job? I had access to transport; I had imagination and a supportive head of department pleased to sign off any idea as long as he was not asked to participate. And I had a cousin who managed a factory on the edge of Glasgow. It was a small factory but part of an industrial estate. So began the germ of an idea.

In those days there was negligible focus on Health and Safety or parental consent and in any case most of these kids were untraceable in the evening hours, their parents or parent being only too glad of their absence. I did prepare. I thought about learning outcomes and rationale. They’d see a production line, see working in a team, learn about economics, advertising and so on. Some of these kids would end up working in a factory. I had my link to industrial geography.

All set! Seatbelts on in a minibus full of excited ROSLAs. On this their first ever field trip were Matthew and his pals plus five girls, with the distinctly unlovely Janice among them. Janice was a ‘big lassie’ and a member of the Orange band. Yes, the type that marches the streets throughout the marching season to the stress and discomfort of the city of Glasgow Police. Janice played the horn but her voice alone sufficed to create a deep bass background to any tune. With Janice and Matthew on board we left the playground, my heart fluttering in my chest.

‘Aw muss, gonae pass they busses so we can gie them the finger?’ ‘Certainly not. We must get there safely children.’

And safely we did arrive, amid raucous laughter, at our first stop, the lightbulb factory. But sadly the experience left the kids unenlightened. On to watch paint dry at a paint outlet on the industrial estate. Few questions were asked and little interest shown. I was thinking the whole thing was a disaster but I did have my trump card, my cousin’s factory. As we drew up outside the Lovable Bra Factory there was a gasp from the crew.

We entered the building to be met by Gordon. He gave them the uplifting story of the company and explained the production line. We were ushered in to the factory space where rows of Glaswegian ladies at their Singer sowing machines were blathering away nineteen to the dozen. Reams of pink, black, neon lace, ribbon and wire for the DD cups. I had never seen the boys or Janice so quiet and riveted.

The banter and the chat from the women was pure Glaswegian. Finally a brassy redhead addressed Matthew

‘Ah son, d’ya fancy a job on this line, eh?’

Immediate response,

‘Nah. Ma job’ll be taking them aff!’

Much hilarity all round. And the laughter continued all the way home with hearty singing and even a ‘thanks miss’ at the end.

I had found a breakthrough. The kids had to finish the term and we managed to get there but life for me was tolerable and I actually had a new group of minders in the school.

‘Aye, she’s ok her. Gie her some slack eh?’

Tawse2

6 thoughts on “An uplifting solution

  1. A nice wee story as you must have been one of the nice teachers when I was at school in Glasgow 1950s the teachers gave us the belt every day they always had a teacher outside for latecomers and they waited with the strap and you got 4 strokes from them and when you got to your own class some of the teacher gave you 4 more i wish I was in your class. J

    I’m with you Jim. I was at Nairn Academy in the 60s and got the belt every day too. I wish I’d had a teacher like Isobel! K.

  2. In an earlier Victorian Australia, the Strap was Law. Coming from the country as an 8 year old kid to Melbourne, I wasn’t prepared for what followed; The Daily Spelling Test ….. If you missed 4 out of 7 memorised words read out to the class of 40 kids, you were called out in front, ready for 7 double header strokes of the strap. I happened to miss 4 words. I shuddered as I saw him slowly reach into his dust coat & lift his coiled, thick, black harness strap, slowly jiggle it to unfold its full length, then jerk it up to his shoulder. After each kid confessed his word “failure” in front of the amused class, they each got the required belt strokes & moaned clutching their throbbing hands on their way back to their desks. My turn came after 30 minutes in the line where he had now warmed up to giving me a sound thrashing, very smug with his mornings sadistic work! I only got caught out twice & very quickly became very proficient in spelling! As for my other 10 school years, I successfuly went on to Engineering College, with only minor penalties & weighed up the minor education cost of later strappings …

  3. In an earlier Victorian Australia, the Strap was Law. Coming from the country as an 8 year old kid to Melbourne, I wasn’t prepared for what followed; The Daily Spelling Test ….. If you missed 4 out of 7 memorised words read out to the class of 40 kids, you were called out in front, ready for 7 double header strokes of the strap. I happened to miss 4 words. I shuddered as I saw him slowly reach into his dust coat & lift his coiled, thick, black harness strap, slowly jiggle it to unfold its full length, then jerk it up to his shoulder. After each kid confessed his word “failure” in front of the amused class, they each got the required belt strokes & moaned clutching their throbbing hands on their way back to their desks. My turn came after 30 minutes in the line where he had now warmed up to giving me a sound thrashing, very smug with his mornings sadistic work! He managed to get a gratifying haul of around 30 “failing pupils”/week, as well as the other 20 called out for minor disturbances. I only got caught out twice & very quickly became very proficient in spelling! As for my other 10 school years, I successfuly went on to Engineering College, with only minor penalties & weighed up the minor education cost of later strappings …

  4. I love the stories about getting the strap on the hands. The same thing used to happen to me too and I would get 4 cuts quite regularly on the hands with a 2 foot long leather strap. I got used to it and it didn’t really hurt too much, just a sharp stinging on the palm which made me feel quite smug.

  5. In Ireland we got the strap – a bit like a tawse without the tails. It was administered to the hands. It really hurt and I hated them for it. Everyone got the belt at some point, I was a recipient on several occasions.
    We never had the joy of a kindly female teacher. They were almost all frustrated Christian Brothers and often went too far. It was so unregulated and some teachers lost the run of themselves.
    I’m glad it’s gone. Teachers cannot be trusted to punish fairly. There are always a few crazy ones and sooner or later they over step the mark.

  6. I arrived 8th February 1958 at Clontarf orphanage, Perth Western Australia. The next day I attended my first “Sunday-morning roundup”. This was the irreverent title for the instruction to Christian Brothers Superiors of orphanages in the Superior-General’s Circular Letter of 8th September 1927:
    “The Superior, at least once a week, should address the boys assembled for the purpose. In these addresses he should treat of cleanliness of body and of soul, of truthfulness and all that it implies, of honesty, of the duties of employees to employers, of the subject of the State, of respect for property, whether public or private. He should stigmatise deceit and all other manner of meanness, while glorifying the man who disdains to stoop to it and whose word is his bond. Impress upon the boys the meaning of moral courage, which in times of trial and temptation will enable its possessor to endure any apparent evil rather than violate conscience by practising deceit. If you succeed in implanting the love of truth in the tender hearts of the young you will have endowed them with the most essential element of moral courage, that noblest feature of the Christian character, and a feature the absence of which merits that a man be described as “characterless”.
    At Clontarf Brother Superior Doyle caned boys in front of the assembly and went to breakfast.
    This was more than the ad hoc punishment that we received at the junior orphanage I was at. This was in addition to it. Every teacher had a strap or a cane – sometimes both. It made sense to have both. In that mad way of thinking the cane was the only implement that was permitted by Child Welfare Department regulations to be used for corporal punishment. Further, the same regulations only permitted one person to use a cane so it was not only unwise for squads of Brothers to go abroad armed with canes. Canes were awkward to carry around as well. Far better to have a strap no more than 40 centimetres long tucked into a cincture where it was always at arm’s length. Besides, it was the only implement that was permitted by the Christian Brothers
    “No Instrument of punishment Is to be used in the schools except a strap of leather, that Is not to exceed 13 Inches In length, 1,25 inches in width, and 0.25 inch in thickness. In junior schools the strap Is to be of smaller dimensions: and in each case the strap Is to be supplied by the agent for the safe of our books, Dublin.”

    The Irish, the Christian Brothers’ Irish, would dismiss that description as being adequate, something they hated. Flann O’Brian, that admirable diarist for Irish Times, who was Brothers-taught in Synge Street described in in The Hard Life; an Exegesis of Squalor
    “It is not, as one would imagine, a strap of the kind used on bags. It is a number of such straps sewn together to form a thing of great thickness that is nearly as rigid as a club but just sufficiently flexible to prevent the breaking of the bones of the hand. Blows if it, particularly id directed (as often they deliberately were to the top of the thumb or wrist, conferred immediate paralysis followed by agony as the blood tried to get back to the afflicted part.”
    O’Doherty, when he replaced Doyle after a year, brought a measure of rhetorical sadism to the theatre. When some boys had broken the serving window of the tuckshop and got in to help themselves he knew somehow, perhaps by interrogation of others who they were. He was going to string this one out if he could. He slowly walked down the passage towards the stage – almost antithetically a bride-figure – blackly clad, macho, holding his little notebook up high as though it were a breviary. He narrated ‘his part’ in the discovery of the felony. “My Guardian Angel whispered to me that someone was breaking into the tuck-shop,” all oleaginous and smug, “and he told me that one of the boys was xxxxxx.” Xxxxxx duly walked up to the front of the hall – and you knew that the rest of the gang weren’t alone in their underpants. He strode two or three more paces, bride revisited, and then pointed to the entry in the book, as if it were a surprise to him, “And YYYYY was involved, said my Guardian Angel.” Up went YYYYY. This until the fifth boy was identified. School children today would not comprehend the level of savagery that could be inflicted by a Brother at school within the period of their parent’s lifetime.
    On one occasion in the dining room I was hit once by a Brother for a forgotten offence. As I was leaving his presence I uttered an injudicious remark that must have caught his ear because I was thrashed around the body and legs, and the thrashing continued while I was on the floor. It was a reaction not to me challenging his authority, although he would have thought that merited half of what he’d dished out. No, this was a reaction to me slighting his being as a religious.
    Every teacher beat us during the week. The punishment received at the assembly was for infractions perceived by Doyle. The cruel thing about this assembly was that everybody who went into the assembly hall did so not knowing if his name was going to be called.
    There are those who claimed that singling out church-run schools for criticism over corporal punishment is unfair because all schools practised it, and likely to the same degree of fervour and sadism that the Brothers did. But this misses the point. The point is that not that the Brothers were worse than anyone else, but that as exponents of Christian charity they were not better.

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