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Education Minister paves new road to hell

January 24, 2001
By Raffique Shah

AS someone who was often at the receiving end of corporal punishment during my formative years – and I mean both at home and at school – I should be fully supportive of the order by Education Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar that effectively prohibits teachers from administering "licks" to deviant students. Given some of my experiences, I should be a flag-waver for the Minister’s bold move. But I am not. In fact I have mixed feelings about flogging, and at this point I believe it would have been better to retain it as part of the disciplinary measures to be used in schools.

Let me first recount some experiences that ought to have placed me squarely in the corner of those who oppose flogging. Many of my classmates may recall the occasion on which "Bonzo" Burns, principal of the defunct College of St Phillips and St James (later Presentation College, Chaguanas), dropped a flurry of slaps-to-the-face on this Form One student. My wrongdoing? Burns, who was said to be "under the influence" most times, saw me sitting in a desk that was partially vandalised, not by me, but by someone else.

I cried, oh yes I did. Not because the dozen or so slaps hurt, but because I was wrongfully punished, because my ego was shattered, and because I have always held a strong position against injustice, even at that tender age. Later, as I developed into a reasonably bright but quite mischievous teen, I was often sent to the Dean to be "caned" on my backside. Strangely, I didn’t take offence to those floggings because I knew I had done wrong. In fact, the Deans and I developed healthy, almost friendly relations, a kind of mutual respect. Owen "Batco" Baptiste and "Ming" Johnson would invariably remark when I reported to them for caning, "No, Raffique, not again! What did you do this time?"

My father, too, was no angel. Like most fathers of that era, his leather belt was used liberally to administer swift justice for infractions of rules-at-home, although at times his severe punishments (yeah, that leather belt really hurt, and it did leave welts on the skin) were unjustified. I mean, the time the goats escaped from where I had tied them and proceeded to "bark" Haniff’s prize orange tree, that was not my fault. But he beat me, not the goats! Another time, a drunken uncle who occasionally checked my homework (he used to be a teacher before he turned to alcohol full-time), confidently reported to the old man that I had "fudged" some "sums". I was still in primary school.

Now, even at that tender age, I had been drilled in being honest, and the fact that I was fairly bright meant that I didn’t need to "fudge" or "copy" from any other student. How "Bertie" Ram arrived at his conclusion, I never knew. Haniff wanted no explanation: he unleashed a severe flogging on me and again I cried my heart out because I knew I was wrongfully punished. Years later I reminded my father of the incident and underscored my innocence, at which time he merely laughed it off. But when my mother or father scolded me for mischief I did get into, I accepted my punishment like a man-child.

Indeed, my story is by no means unique. If anything, I was fortunate to have had parents who were rough-but-understanding, and who never resorted to extreme forms of punishment. Roy and Gordon Guerra invariably found themselves kneeling on "graters" in the hot sun: that was inhuman treatment, whatever their sins. And it was not uncommon for some parents to grab any weapon at hand – a piece of wood, cable, a rock, or even their bare fists – as they beat their children into submission.

Bear in mind, though, that we lived in relatively primitive times, and mostly our parents were illiterate, hence their approaches to punishment. In schools, too, there were some teachers who went well overboard in dishing out punishment. I recall instances in which students were beaten "blue-black", and when parents had to intervene, sometimes turning the tables on the offending teachers. And in college, there were boys old enough and tough enough to intimidate the teachers, which meant they got away with murder.

Overall, though, there were few complaints about either the floggings or disciplinary measures in general. Most of us felt we benefited from the clouts or canings, that the strokes helped us develop values, kept us in line with what was expected of students who were seeking all-round education. Looking back, I cannot imagine schooldays without the threat of corporal punishment. In fact, if there were laws that prohibited teachers from administering such punishments, we might have had many more failures at the academic level, and most definitely more deviants coming out of the schools and being unleashed on the society.

That did not happen. Even those who failed academically went on to live wholesome, fruitful lives, and many of the mischievous ones who were "regulars" in the Deans’ offices are today exemplars in the society. In contrast, given the level of criminal activities that today’s youths engage in, and the large numbers of them who litter the country’s courtrooms and fill the jail-cells, we must examine closely how and why we have reached this sorry pass. I feel certain that a proper study would show that our blanket acceptance of North American and European systems and values have led us down a path that is unsuited to our culture.

The past few decades have seen us drift in the direction of abolishing corporal punishment at home and in schools. So parents end up being eunuchs in their homes, unable to discipline their children lest they offend their neighbours or they are reported to the police and find themselves having to face charges of battering their children. Indeed, the pendulum of discipline has swung so heavily in favour of children and their rights that a few "taps" to the head could cause 11 year-olds to either attack their parents or teachers, or, if they feel deeply hurt, show their defiance by committing suicide.

We need to ask ourselves if this is really the path we want to follow. Minister Bissessar’s edict could not have come at a more inappropriate time. For some time now many of our secondary schools have become battle zones in which ill-disciplined students take out their rage on hapless teachers, on their fellow-students, or on others with whom they have some minor conflicts. Now, instead of having to deal with deviants who are telling them to their faces, "Miss (or Sir), yuh cyah beat me, eh! De new law say so!", teachers are using the easy way out. They are absenting themselves from school, or when they do attend, they ignore infractions of the worst kind, sticking to the blackboard-and-chalk.

If this trend goes unchecked, since most teachers would hardly speak out against the Ministry’s edict on corporal punishment, we are paving a new road to a hell that would make the "Blackboard Jungle" look like a tea party. We are courting the creation of a new breed of criminals who will have official government backing for their decline into the very netherworld we are trying to escape from. As Peter Minshall reminded us recently – and Persad-Bissessar would do well to heed his words – the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. That, I fear, is where this new regulation will take us.

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