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The High School Cane: a Eulogy

by K. Neil (New Zealand)

The high school rattan cane applied to the buttocks with enthusiastic vigour was, in earlier times, a common means of keeping mischievous and high-spirited teenage boys in order in many countries of the former British Empire and elsewhere. The cane was quick, cheap, convenient, generally safe and, at its best, a clean, cathartic and unmistakable form of retribution. Caning of the backside as retribution gave (and gives) special satisfaction to those offended by youthful misbehaviour.

Canings also satisfied those who wished to atone for their misbehaviour and assuage a master's or society's just anger. The cane's widespread use over many years and in many places was not an accident. It largely worked despite its present reputation.

The cane also served wider purposes. As a shared significant experience it tended to bond those who experienced it. And it provided a means for satisfying a primeval hunter/warrior instinct by supplying a safe, acceptable test of courage and a means for having an adventure. Rather than facing a lion, or stealing a car, a boy could test himself by facing the cane. Many did and they benefited from it.

Myself, I knew of the cane long before I tasted it. Our whole culture was steeped in its tradition and reputation. Relatives, family friends, casual acquaintances and primary school teachers all spoke of it with reverence.

I was 13 years old when I first had to touch my toes for the high school cane. I had some hours' advance warning when I discovered I had forgotten my PE gear soon after boarding the school bus in the morning. The PE class was in the afternoon. When I reported to the PE teacher without my gear I was sent to the Principal.

His office seemed like 100 km away but still very close as I got there too quickly, dry mouthed, heart pounding. I knocked and was bid "Enter". He listened politely and sympathetically to my explanations before tapping the floor with his cane to indicate where I should stand. I guess the pale yellow rattan was about 36 inches long and 3/8 inch thick. I was certainly not the first nor the last this particular cane was used on, as there were usually several canings every day.

I was invited to bend over and touch my toes, which I did. My posterior was covered by cotton underpants and thin cotton summer-weight school-uniform shorts. I was to receive a "tap" to help me remember. I have a vague recollection of the sound of its approach but this may have been coloured by later experiences. I was expecting pain, but had not anticipated its awesome searing intensity. I don't know whether I yelped but it did make my eyes water. The cane landed square on target and (I discovered shortly afterwards) raised a livid double-ridge red welt across the centre of my bottom.

The pain did not reach its full intensity immediately as I struggled to straighten and stand. Thereafter, it came in waves before slowly fading and being replaced by a very pleasant warm glow and solicitous interest from classmates. I am not sure how long it takes for cane pain to fade to bearable levels, but my guess is 30 to 60 minutes. I had a good mark to show for my experience and it lasted more than two weeks with many interesting colour changes.

I never forgot my PE gear again, although it was not my last caning. I never looked forward to being caned, but I'm grateful that I was. It seems a great shame that today's boys don't have a similar opportunity.

Why then did the school cane fall into disrepute? Partly, I think, because of the false claims made by those who used it, augmented by occasional, unfortunate, widely publicised excesses. All this occurred during a period of wider social changes and a general disenchantment with authority. In my view, the main false claims were "rarely used / last resort / ultimate sanction / special deterrent". In fact, the cane was often the first resort -- and it served, and serves, best in this role. Saving the cane (or any other measure) for last resort cases is to save it for the most difficult ones and for probable failure.

The false claim of "rarely used" discredited those who made it when they were found out in their falsehood. The frequent use of the cane also discredited the "ultimate sanction / special deterrent" claim. If you want to discourage mischief and boyish misbehaviour without breaking the spirit, you cannot achieve (and should not strive for) total suppression by whatever means. The cane worked and works best as a "discourager". It has no special power as a deterrent. Its regular use was not evidence of failure unless you unreasonably expect total suppression. Nor was the preference of some boys for the cane over other punishments evidence for a lack of efficacy as a deterrent.

The "rarely used" claim, although initially false, eventually helped make the cane something special rather than something ordinary and suitable for everyday use. In many schools the cane did eventually become reserved for difficult cases, and hence it suffered frequent failures. Abolition followed soon after. Counselling, "time out" and other measures remain in use despite their high failure rates, but there is currently no talk of them being abolished!  Main menu page

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Presentation copyright © C. Farrell
Page updated May 2007