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Reflections on my journey through the Boys’ Grammar School – Part 4

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Fri, Apr 20. 2012

by OSWALD FEREIRA
madungo@shaw.ca

CHAPTER FOUR – SCHOOL CULTURE

The culture at BGS was nothing short of controlling, in many cases like a military camp. It was a culture of intimidation and fear, particularly in the formative junior years. From the headmaster, the masters, and the prefects, their mission appeared to be one of moulding us into obedient geniuses. There was a heavy emphasis on academics, and little time in the schedule for anything else.{{more}} In the system of control, it was difficult to view the masters as allies. I often wondered why the school staff wanted to portray the image that they were ogres to be feared. This ogre mentality hung over the school like a thick fog through which we all had to navigate.

There was the “Black Book”, held like a mill stone over our heads. No one wanted to be placed in the “Black Book” because it meant a session with the Headmaster for a caning of the rear end. It was also not clear what actions or offences would get one into the “Black Book”. I saw cases where an offence that resulted in lines or a detention landed someone else in the “Black Book”. It appeared to be purely subjective and unfair. However, it continued, because to speak out would mean that you, too, would end up in the “Black Book”. It worried me no end, and there was nothing I could do about it.

Then there was the practice of detention after school. One could be detained for talking in class, neglecting to do homework, failing a test, laughing, or a host of other misdemeanours. Again, it appeared to be all subjective and differed greatly among the various masters. There were even whole class detentions, whereby the innocent were punished along with the guilty, “punishment by association”.

The Headmaster was a figurehead locked away in “The Office” and only came out for assembly or when he called someone in for a caning. The masters were mostly keen on getting the lessons taught, and the prefects appeared always ready to fill any authority void. Some prefects took their authority seriously, while others were ever so eager to exercise their new given powers, handing out punishment in the form of “lines”.

Students were always on guard to avoid lines, detention and the “Black Book”. Given this culture of control and avoidance, it was difficult to determine how far one could go in their approach to a master or prefect, and the Headmaster appeared to be unreachable, like a demi-god in a sanctuary. It was not until the Fourth Form that I was comfortable in approaching some masters like fellow human beings. The extreme control I experienced in lower school was unhealthy and suppressive. However, in Senior school, one could dare to take more chances, but still had to be on guard, always looking over one’s shoulder.

The practice of caning was barbaric. An adult male has to be somewhat of a sadist and a bully to have a child keel over a chair and beat his posterior with a stick to the point of leaving welt marks and often making sitting unbearable. I was disappointed that this practice was allowed and condoned. The results were questionable. The boys who were caned suffered the physical effects of immediate pain. They also suffered the social effects of the stigma attached to being caned, especially if the process was witnessed by girls from the neighbouring Girls’ High School through their window; and the emotional effects of dealing with both. Surely, we should have evolved to more socially acceptable and effective forms of punishment. In many cultures, this would be considered child abuse. Yet, in our flagship secondary school, this practice was condoned and allowed to flourish. On behalf of my peers, I felt we were betrayed by Vincentian society. Punishment should have been constructive and remedial, perhaps taking away privileges, except that there was nothing to take away. How would you bar a boy from the choir or band or bar him from participating in field trips or a particular club when such things were non-existent? Perhaps that is why corporal punishment flourished as it was all that existed in a “power” environment. It is sad that we inherited corporal punishment in our schools from our Colonial masters. Even in England, it took an Act of Parliament in 1987 to abolish corporal punishment, including caning, in English schools.

Some students of BGS dropped out along the way and were considered failures. Given the rigorous entrance requirements to the BGS where only the best students were selected, this should never have happened. It worried me every time I saw it and it often made me doubt my ability to persevere to the end. My view is that it was because of the system of control. Many academic minds could not function in a straight jacket. The “one size fits all” system failed them badly. I firmly believe that many of us acquired an education not because of the system but rather in spite of that outmoded system.

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