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School CP - October 1997

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The Nelson Mail, 11 October 1997

Memories of caning

By Don Grady

The pain of the cane as a disciplinary means to an end ruled in schools for over 100 years -- and it wasn't any different at Nelson College. Recently, many Nelson College old boys gathered at the school for a reunion and DON GRADY took the opportunity to talk to several of them about the caning days as well as recalling one of his own experiences there as a student more than half a century ago. He also spoke with Nelson College's principal about corporal punishment and alternatives to it.

For more than a century caning was a disciplinary means to an end ... the end being the bum of a college boy. Such was the case at Nelson College, and during its caning era from 1856 to 1983, thousands of college boys were caned.

Such punishment was meted out at varying times by headmasters, masters, head prefects and prefects, and canings could be quite painful when vigorously delivered on the same spot.

Today, corporal punishment is legally banned and Nelson College's headmaster, Salvi Gargiulo, would have it no other way -- and he has been on the receiving and delivering ends of canings.

"It is inappropriate role-modelling of adults to students in the use of violence. It's no wonder there are so many males who resort to violence after the way they were treated as learners in schools."

Dunedin District Court Judge David Saunders, a former prefect who attended Nelson College from 1964 to 1969, agrees.

"Violence and using force to discipline is really counter-productive to changing people's attitudes," he says. "We do send wrong messages to people if you use force to prove your point."

However, he and many other Nelson College old boys who gathered at the school for the recent reunion vividly recall the days when caning was the disciplinary norm at schools.

Judge Saunders remembers witnessing a third-former being lined up by a master and being given two quite horrendous blows.

"I can still picture him in my mind as he whacked this boy across the backside (with a cane)," said Judge Saunders. "It was a bit sadistic. I have often wondered what it taught that boy toward sport and physical education.

"All the boy had done was to forget his gym shoes, as I recall it. The bruises were still there a couple of weeks later."

The boy showed the bruising to other boys when in the college showers. "There were these deep and dark blue bruises across his buttocks," he said. "A number of us were horrified that a person would beat someone so hard for simply forgetting to bring his gym shoes to PE."

For another example I can recall a personal experience in my first or second year at Nelson College more than half a century ago.

While coming into college on the train from Wakefield, a fellow-student of my own age from Spring Grove flicked his pump-action fountain-pen in my direction, releasing the pump simultaneously. As a result my face was splattered with ink.

We knew each other well, having previously attended Wakefield primary school together. I retaliated in kind with my own pump-action fountain pen, and was caught redhanded doing so by a house prefect who had boarded the train at Richmond.

We ourselves were not greatly concerned about the ink splashes on each other's faces, but the house prefect, a member of the First XV, had other ideas.

We were both instructed to be at the head prefect's study at midday for a caning. Now, an ordinary caning was one thing, but right from the outset, this one was distinctly different.

The story going round the school was that two tough train-boys were going to be caned hard and made an example of, and also that some prefects were making small bets on which student would cry. This may, or may not have been true, but it certainly put the fear of God into both of us.

Train-boys like us had quite a reputation for toughness. There were scraps, boxing and other activities in the train carriage for college boys on the slow, tedious train trip every day that sometimes took up to an hour and a half.

When the time for the caning came, we received only one stroke each from the head prefect.

Chalk marks were drawn around our shoes, in the position where we had to stand and bend over and touch our toes. As was the custom, a rudimentary check was made to ensure that I did not have any swimming togs or athletic shorts stuffed inside my trousers to soften the blow.

Both of us were determined not to cry, no matter what. The head prefect at the time was a crack college athlete. In my case, he selected a thin cane, and then climbed up a ladder in the prefects' study to get extra height and leverage for caning.

He brought the cane down with a resounding whack. I practically flew out of the door of the prefects' study, my feet hardly touching the ground. I'd been biting my bottom lip intensely so that when the blow struck I would not utter a cry.

It was a real beauty. In fact, I kept on running right around the Nelson College block, about three or four times, before I even gave thought to slowing down. The pain was intense.

We did not harbour nice thoughts about the inflicter of this pain, but we by and large took our medicine. Even worse than any caning would be the opprobrium of being thought as a dobber-in, top-off, fizzgig or tell-tale-tit.

As chance would have it, I accidentally cut my foot on a piece of broken bottle soon afterwards and had to see our family doctor for an anti-tetanus injection in my bum ... which was when he saw the single weal, broken skin and severe bruising from the caning.

He wanted to know who did it, asking if my father had inflicted the injury. I had no option but to tell who did it. His immediate remark: "He will never, ever cane a college boy again."

That head prefect never caned another Nelson College boy again, with the masters or headmaster taking over the caning.

As well as being a former Nelson College pupil, Bob Davies was a master at the college for 32 years and retired in 1994 as deputy principal. He has a first-class background knowledge of Nelson College's caning history.

He said Nelson College was the last state school in New Zealand to stop caning of students by fellow pupils. Caning by Nelson College head prefects stopped during 1969.

"Within the school most felt it was a barbaric practice that should stop," he says. "Even in the late 1940s there had been well-publicised complaints about boys caning boys that had reached the newspapers.

"The straw that seemed to break the camel's back (in the early 1980s) was the large number of female staff by that time who found the caning practice in their presence to be abhorrent."

He said that another factor that contributed to the cessation of caning at Nelson College was the implacable refusal by an increasing number of Nelson College students to be punished in this way.

"Many staff by the early 1980s had undertaken to forsake caning and Nelson College was investigating a range of disciplinary alternatives."

Mr Davies says that when he was a student at Nelson College from 1947 to 1951 he feared the physical pain of being caned and avoided being caned wherever possible.

"As a beginning teacher at Nelson College I was something of a caning-machine. But I soon found out that it was a rather futile instrument of discipline.

"In not a few cases it was obvious to me that caning produced in the worst pupils a psychologically damaging reinforcement of brutality exercised in the home environment."

Mr Davies says that in the 1960s and 1970s at Nelson College the caning guidelines were that no staff member was to administer more than three strokes of the cane on a boy. The caning had to be witnessed by another teacher. The caning had to be performed in the staffroom. All caning had to be recorded in a punishment book.

The pupil was given the option of taking the matter to a higher authority, usually the headmaster. The canes used were of the type used in basket-work framing and, as far as Mr Davies can recall, the canes were supplied by the Foundation for the Blind.

The canes at Nelson College were stored in the staffroom and were mostly taken by staff members from a common pool. But, says Mr Davies, "some enthusiastic staff touched them (the canes) up with linseed oil, to increase whippiness".

These enthusiasts also taped the ends of the canes to prevent splitting and they stored their canes elsewhere.

"Long thin canes were the most effective because they wrapped around posteriors more effectively, thus increasing the area of painful surface, " says Mr Davies. "I can only recall one teacher, who seldom caned, being asked to modify his technique, because of his efficiency in this matter."

He says that students often tried to reduce the pain by wearing extra clothing or by standing up at the time of impact, although these were sometimes detected by the masters doing the caning.

At an educational institution like Nelson College where pupils were caned over a period of nearly 130 years, there were bound to be some humorous caning incidents and anecdotes. One concerned a chemistry teacher who had the occasion to administer punishment to an errant pupil.

The caning took place in difficult and crowded conditions in the cloakroom of the teachers' staffroom.

Having bent the recalcitrant student over, the teacher's cane descended with some force. However, it accidentally landed on the rump of a fellow teacher who at that moment was bending over to extricate some books from the bottom of his locker.

In the resulting confusion it has never been recorded whether the miscreant student ever received his due punishment.

A former First XV member, Doug McKee, now a prominent Nelson real estate agent, claims to have received more strokes with the cane in one single session than any other college boy in the history of Nelson College.

He declares on a stack of bibles that in 1957 in his second college year that a master became irritated at his talking in class, finally losing his patience, taking his wallet out of his pocket and throwing it at Doug.

Doug ducked, and the wallet sailed out of an open second-floor classroom window. The teacher ordered Doug to retrieve the wallet but Doug refused, and was promptly required down at the master's study for a caning.

Doug was informed that his allotted caning was to be four strokes. But on the delivery of the fourth stroke, the teacher noticed sticking out of Doug's pants the rabbit fur that Doug had used for padding.

The teacher then gave Doug six extra strokes. "That made 10 strokes in one go," he says. "As far as I know that was a college record.

"I did not feel the pain. I was so elated at breaking the college record, I could not wait to get back to tell my classmates."

A 1948 Nelson College head prefect, David Collins, says the cane he used to use was 2ft long, which was a regulation length of cane that head prefects were permitted to use. "I'd have thought that any cane over 2 ft in length could be a bit vicious."

He says that every stroke he administered on a pupil had to be immediately written up in a caning book register. The head prefect had a register and so did the college masters. The headmaster also had a caning register. The offence that brought about the caning was always entered.

During his year as head prefect the headmaster would periodically call him for the head prefect's caning register to check it over.

He says that in his days it was not uncommon to go a whole week without caning anyone. "Then the next week there could be a whole lot of 'crims'."

He says caning by the head prefect was done before assembly, at morning break or at lunch-time. In his year as head prefect he caned about 120 pupils.

Mr Collins remembers one master who, before caning a boy, first drew a chalk-mark across the seat of the boy's trousers to help him aim accurately. He proceed to remove the chalk marks with his swishing cane.

Masters, Mr Collins says, had different caning actions. Some had a flick-action technique while others had a wrist-action. Some even had a back-hand action.

Harry J. Stace, 76, of Picton, who was Nelson College head prefect in 1939, says that in the early days of Nelson College all prefects could cane and not just the head prefect.

He says that to get into caning practice he would get other prefects to hold a cushion over their bottoms, and he would practice by caning the cushion.

"When I was head boy in 1939 (the year World War 2 broke out) I used to go downtown in Nelson from time to time and buy a half-dozen or so more canes to replace those that had worn out.

"In my time as head prefect I was able to give six of the best (strokes) for something that was very serious. But, mostly, I gave one, two or three strokes."

As a junior schoolboy Harry Stace was himself whacked. "I can feel my bottom stinging just at the memory of it."

Nelson College headmaster Salvi Gargiulo was also a master and a pupil at the school. He can remember being caned.

"In fact, in some subjects I better remember the caning incidents than the content of the subject," he says. "Caning was a major distraction from any useful learning."

He has a lasting memory of his music teacher turning up for class late one day and catching the class flicking things around. He decided to cane the entire class.

"By the time we went through our third-cycle, his arm had become too sore to continue. We did not learn much music that day."

As for getting caned by fellow students, Mr Gargiulo says he still cannot help holding a grudge against a fellow student, who was in the First XI with him, taking him into the prefects' study and belting him in front of other prefects. "Total humiliation."

During his time as a college master he tried not to use the cane. Although he did cane a couple of boys, he found other effective means of disciplining.

"Working with Bill Lake in Rutherford House as an assistant house master, we ran a boarding house in 1974 without using a cane. It was possible because we had a very good group of strong and capable seniors who were keen and able to develop other strategies."

Instead of corporal punishment, Mr Gargiulo believes that discussion with students about behaviour has a more realistic chance of improving it.

He says that often naughty behaviour in class is an indication of a larger problem. "By getting at the real problem, we have the chance to find proper solutions."

Schools today, he adds, have far better established contact between school and parents, between the teachers and support systems and schools. Nelson College, for instance, now has a programme called Assertive Discipline.

It gives students a warning for any inappropriate behaviour and, if the behaviour is repeated, the offending student's name is written on the board. If this warning is not heeded, the student is removed from class and sent to the administration.

"Students at Nelson College have very quickly learnt that it is better to take the first warning and get back on track. But if students continue to be removed from class, we know we have a problem and at that stage we will ask parents to come to school and attempt to find a whole package of support to correct the student's behaviour."


The Nelson Mail, 23 October 1997


Caning supported

Sir, I refer to a Nelson Mail article (October 11) about caning at Nelson College.

The article contradicted itself in that it was questioning the wisdom of caning in schools, stating that this can lead to violent tendency later in life. However, the piece of the article that I fail to comprehend is that the people quoted as saying this is bad discipline are (or appear to be) upstanding citizens.

Would they hold these positions if they had not had the guidance and discipline at school to teach them self-discipline and respect for the boundaries set by society's rules?

I know several Nelson old boys who received the cane. All have stated they didn't enjoy the cane but didn't repeat the offence either.

Discipline should be administered in love not anger.

The Glen, October 20.

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