“Mac MacIvor! Come to the front!” Mrs. McNaught, our teacher, glared at him as MacIvor, an unruly fourteen-year-old, pulled himself out of his cramped desk and sauntered towards the teacher. “Hold out your hand”! Whack! Whack! The student winced, but did not cry. “Now the other hand”. Whack! Whack! “Return to your seat and behave”, ordered the red-faced, angry teacher, amidst deadly silence, as she returned the strap to the shallow drawer of her desk.
As a young student attending this one-room country school in our backwater farming community in the 1940s, the image of this brutal practice has always disturbed me. It has remained with me throughout my lifetime.
Corporal punishment was a mandated part of school life in Ontario from the time that publicly-funded schools were established in 1871 and remained in place well into the 20th century. Society long-adhered to that ancient, well-worn adage, “Spare the rod and spoil the child” and so it had the blessing of parents, teachers, school boards, and their administrators for decades. Although this famous quote is not actually in the Bible, two close approximations do appear, but are seldom quoted. Both would be rejected by today’s society. One suggests that unless parents beat their children, they don’t love them. The quote, “He that spareth his rod, hateth his son; he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes”(Proverbs 13:14), advocates beatings, and the other, “Withhold not correction from the child; for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die,” (Proverbs 23: 13-14) also directs parents to beat their children. When public schools were created in Ontario more than 100 years ago, the religiously-minded people who supported them sincerely believed that hitting kids with a strap was a good way to correct children’s behavior, raise them properly, and maintain discipline in the classroom. They justified this practice by quoting the massaged version of the actual quotes from the Bible.
It wasn’t until 1973 that Ontario banned the strap. It wasn’t until 2004 that the Supreme Court banned the strap throughout Canada, declaring it “an unreasonable application of force in the maintenance of classroom discipline”.
During the 1940s the strap was the most feared aspect of our school life. Rural school teachers’ jobs often depended more on their ability to keep order than on their teaching expertise. Being willing to wield the strap was a form of job security. Mrs. McNaught, our teacher, was not only good at her job, but also a strict disciplinarian. She made fairly frequent use of corporal punishment, always for misbehavior, and this knowledge kept everyone in fear of the strap, fairly well behaved, and her job secure.