Nuns I Survived.
St. Joseph's College at Aberdeen was a boy's primary boarding school but local children were encouraged to attend to learn not only religious ideas but all the other things required of primary education. I must add here that as far as the amount we learnt, the nuns had to have been the most efficient teachers going at the time. We were always months ahead of the Public school that our school overlooked, by virtue of its placement higher on the hill. Closer to God as it were. I was nearly twelve before I realised that the kids at the Public school were not 'Publics' as I had thought for so long. In my small world there were Catholics who were always closer to God and Publics, a religion that all others belonged to, and we should pray for them, after all they didn’t have a swimming pool in the playground like we did. We used to splash as noisily as we could in the lunch hour on those hot inland summer days, and we'd see them sweltering below us, waiting to be allowed in on a once a week basis. We were just as poor as the Publics; the pool was donated to the school by a group of Boarder's parents who were better off.
Of the six nuns who taught me in primary there were three I would say represented the very best of humanity and had all six nuns been like this, school would have been a heaven. I owe them gratitude for the valuable things they taught me, about kindness, and compassion and humour. For sadism, maliciousness and sheer rat-cunning the other three would have to have been as bad as you could ever hope to come across in a lifetime. Mum said many years later that we were very unlucky to have hit three this bad. There would be no quarrels from any one who went through this school at this time as to this, unless they are fooling themselves.
Few kids these vicious natured teachers taught would have a lot of good memories of class years with these ladies. In the playground, all was fine, and a very happy place it was but these three were a trio who should never have been put in charge of children without checks. Possibly at the end of it all I may have to admit gratitude to them because they taught me to 'tough it out' to dissemble, to survive the day, till I was able to get out of their power into the safety of my home.
In the late 50's and early 60's parents did not question the absolute authority of teachers, especially religious ones. Children generally were not believed or if they were it was kept quiet, because then something might have to be done. The established order might have to be challenged.
My first teacher, Sr. Martina prowled the aisles of my kindergarten and first class years. Slapping occasionally, hitting knuckles with her ruler unexpectedly. You never knew when she would strike. Her voice dripped with what I now know as sarcasm, pointing out always the defects in school uniforms, mostly of day pupils like us, too poor to readily rectify the problem of plastic sandals, or mismatched jumpers. Humiliating those who wet their pants out of fear of asking her if they could go to the toilet. She liked to sting and if I was to liken her to another life form, it would have to be one of those black and orange wasps, we all try so hard to dodge.
One time I ran away from school, out of fear of some punishment. She and another nun came to the house to fetch me back, or possibly to make sure I had arrived home. I fled to dad's chicken coop, which was just that, a chicken coop. Too small for hens, it was a construction only I could get into by sliding on my tummy to the back of it. I crawled right up into the back corner and can distinctly remember looking out through the wire at all the adult legs around the coop, coaxing me out. It was deadly serious for me, but I am sure from an adult's point of view it must have seemed a very funny incident.
The only good thing I can remember Sr Martina doing was to ask me to come out the front to tell impromptu stories to the kids, whenever she had to go on an errand. I could go on as long as needed, and now wonder what those stories were and where they came from, and where they went, because I lost the ability a year or two later.
My first real run in with the real cane and Sr. Borgia occurred on the morning of my sixth birthday. As always the little kids played together, boys and girls reasonably happily. There was a big old tree in the playground near the toilets, where we could climb and play. This I was doing, till Beryl Dent came running unto me to tell me she'd told Sr Borgia I was showing my underpants by swinging in the tree with the boys and I was to go straight to her class-room. My first caning was devastating. I remember having a sore lump in my throat all day long after that, and running home to tell mum and dad who'd surely take care of it. At six parents are all-powerful, but I don't recall feeling betrayed that they didn't do anything. Nobody's parents did. I can still see that day in vivid colour.
Sr Bede taught second class and along with Sr Annunciata and Sr Campion years later she was the first of the trio of good teachers. As a little girl I always felt comfortable standing close to her and she would often give kids a quick hug and say good things about their work. She emanated calm and I was glad to have known her.
In third and fourth class we were taught by Sr Marietta. Like Sr Martina she was only young but had a terrible temper and was fond of caning the eight and nine year old kids she was supposed to be looking after. I have to hope she has full recall of the terror she caused by the abuse of her power over us.
In third class there was a boarder called Larry Newberry who was always being caned by this woman. This was a little eight year old boy, separated from his parents and thereby totally dependent of the goodwill of the nuns who had him in their care. The quiet times this boy must have spent contemplating canings to come do not bear considering. The comfort those of us fortunate enough to be day pupils drew from our home life seem to steel us and act as an interlude, but there was no escape at all for these small boarders.
One time Larry was called out yet again to be caned on some triviality. It had become so commonplace that we hardly noticed, unless it was someone who didn't get it often. He refused to hold his hand out. The effect on the class was electric. Mutiny. None of us had ever thought of refusing to be 'punished'. He must have had enough. Sr Marietta tugged his arm out of his pocket, almost thrown off balance when he flung out his whole arm. With a grey sock on it. She went crazy and started caning him. Told to holdout the other hand he obliged only to show another sock covered hand. He'd come prepared, that certain of the events of the day ahead. Sock removed and a few more cuts to that hand. I still feel a bit chilled when I recall this event.
We children had a sort of code of behaviour about canings. It was generally kept between the kids; it was just something that happened. I must have told mum and dad this event, as it was a major happening, but cannot remember. It would not have been unusual for dad as stories he told us of his school days in the1920's are pretty barbaric
Larry Newberry was then dragged off to see the Principal. The class, surged to the door to watch their progress, but just outside the door Larry took off with her in undignified pursuit. We thought it was wonderful entertainment. By now Larry's mind had to have been in total panic as if he was dodging bullets and he went for broke, running on survival mode. We were with him all the way, from the cowardly comfort of the classroom. Some kids whispered, "She'll kill him now" and such was our feeling we were pretty sure he was in bad trouble. He picked up a garden fork, left in the grass and turned on her. Bloodthirsty savages we were we cheered (quietly of course). We'd have loved to see her get some of her own medicine. In this we were disappointed. We never saw him again. At times as I grew up I used to wonder if what he went home to was worse but I doubted it. That he would have had a black mark against him at age eight I am in no doubt of. The adults would have taken the saintly nun's version of the story as truth. Man-made black marks don't count in heaven and God is never fooled, Larry.
Sr Marietta was to continue in her sadism. The apex of which I witnessed was the day she hit Robyn O'Hara across the forehead with the metal edge of a ruler, leaving a mark. She made a mistake this time, as Robyn was a day pupil with a very protective older sister in sixth class, Judy O'Hara. Judy, only twelve, complained to the Principal, which was extremely brave of her in that climate.
Sr Marietta when confronted by the Principal and Judy O’Hara turned to us all and said, with her back to the Principal, "You didn’t see me hit Robyn with the ruler, did you." not a question, but a statement. Such was her faith in her control over us. We did not fail her. All of us at one time victim to her unsuspected hits to the back of the head as she walked up behind us, rattling her holy rosary. The shamefaced mumbling's of our united denials that followed would echo in my ears for some days. We'd had our chance, but we were only eight or nine and looking back I don’t believe that the principal tried very hard to get to the truth, there was a livid stripe on Robyn's forehead, which was never explained.
Judy O'Hara for her bravery was rewarded by being branded a liar and troublemaker, and I think she went to another school, but am not sure. I thought she was so brave. She must have been very disappointed we did not support her, but never showed it. We were too young to dwell on these things, living if not directly in the present, no more than a day or two ahead.
In Sr Annunciata's fifth class, our classroom was closed off from sixth class by a large folding wooden partition. The top was glassed but far too high for anyone to see over. None of us was in a hurry to get into the next class anyway. The constant haranguing and screaming we heard from the teacher in the next room was enough to have us all in dreadful awe of the by now, legendary Sr Borgia.
One day after an outburst of her hysterical screaming, we could hear the sound of the cane, its sharp, whipping sound, whack! whack! Then right before our amazed eyes the cane flew up into full view on the other side of the glass, hit the roof and disappeared down again, followed shortly by more whacks. The sixth class kids said that she'd caught it on the way down and never missed a beat. Who were we to argue with that?
Sr Borgia was one in a million. Highly intelligent, slightly megalomaniac and progressive. She even gave the sixth class girls rudimentary instruction on puberty, something none of our mothers had done thus far, and unheard of in country schools of the time. She had taught Veronica and June before and I was often told how I didn't measure up to standards set by them. Never terribly competitive in our family it didn't have the desired effect on me. Sr. Borgia was a firm believer in the old, long since discredited I.Q. tests. Basing her punishments on how well you did on these tests. If the results showed you were reasonably intelligent, you were more inclined to receive her attention. Something none of us wanted.
There was one moment of equality in the day. Who could forget her “Answer or whack" session, just after lunch time? On the blackboard would be ten questions on Social Studies. For each wrong answer you had to go out the front and get that many strokes of the cane. Some days I'd get all ten right, but many days like, two, three cuts; blots on my book, one cut; untidy writing, one cut, talking, one cut, like the death penalty on China, there was a multitude of reasons for her to use her 'tickler' as she called him. She thought it was funny. Homework unsatisfactory, as many as she decided depending on her temper. The times she called me out the front, with the words, "Will that bold girl, Therese Spencer come out here now." I did look that way with my perpetual sunburn; twisted uniform; short hair and habit of always grinning at the wrong moment especially if nervous and there was plenty to be nervous about.
June and I were in the same class for one year. It was June’s second time in. sixth class, her second year with Sr Borgia. Brave girl. We did our homework together, and there were times I shared her answers and it would only have been human nature for her to do the same on occasion. I honestly cannot remember if she did, but we often sat near each other.
One day Sr Borgia threw my homework back at me and said I must’ve looked at June's work. On this day my work was my own, but my denial had nothing to do with the truth. It had to do with survival. If I'd said yes I'd copied, a few cuts of the cane and it'd be over with and I would have only been punished for all the times I'd gotten away with it in the past. But once I'd made the decision that denial was the best course, there was no going back. Her perpetually florid face, reddened even more than usual and I realised quickly as only a child can, that she'd lost it. I took off, back to the safety of my home, one block away.
Home never felt so good. An hour later June and another girl arrived home under instructions from the Borgia herself, with the promise that should I return I would not be punished. Mum being an honourable person but rather naive at times as far as authority figures went had no reason to doubt Borgia's honesty. I was proved to be a good judge of character in a very short time.
On my arrival back at school I was left waiting on the low wooden verandah outside the classroom. School was in. It all sounded so ordinary and friendly. In the moments I had, I tried to prepare myself, but so fast did Borgia whoosh out of the door, grab hold of my arm and spin me round that I had no time to get it into any order. I had never seen her so angry. Inches from my face she screamed at me close to my face, spraying me with her spit. It went on and on, not making any sense at all and finally she dragged me into the classroom in front of the class where she proceeded to humiliate me. To the credit of the class, not one person laughed, which I feel now was her aim. There was silence. I got the cane many times that day. I forget exactly, but I never cried, I protected myself by looking at June who was looking at me, and it was she who had the tears. Something I have never forgotten. I felt very angry inside about this event because at twelve I was old enough to know how wrong it was.
Sr Borgia did things she thought were funny, like when the cane split on someone's hand pinching the skin and she'd turn and joke to the class, that she'd have to get another tickler soon. Onetime she caned Wally Meakes so many times his hand was bleeding. But he was a boarder, who could he tell? The other nuns knew and nothing was ever done.
She had a huge lolly jar she liked to coerce us to put lollies into it too had a name which thankfully escapes me. The lollies were then handed out to any Kindergarten kids who came in on messages. Good Sr Borgia, Kindly Sr Borgia, patting them on the heads. More than once if she heard anyone down the back chatting she heard this hard plastic jar in the general direction of the offender seldom missing her target. When I recall the weight of that jar and the distance she threw it, as an adult I realise that she was not really in control. It had the potential to cause injury and it was not something I had ever witnessed any adult doing. The adults I had come across up until then at least had a certain dignity. June tells me that Sr Borgia did indeed cause injury with her lolly jar as she said she recalled that Lawrence Beisler was knocked unconscious when she threw the jar at him. You would have thought that this event would have had her terrified of just reprisal, but she continued.
I left Primary school under the humour and good sense of Sr Campion. She had a genuine concern for the children she cared for. She put on the first end of year school play that the school had done in the town hall in my memory. I played an old woman who was always making dramatic sweeping entrances and exits with pronouncements which were meant to be serious, but which had the packed audience in splits. Such a difference one teacher could make. Later on she formed a youth group for catholic teenagers, and others, which June and I joined. Under the Borgia regime this would have been unthinkable.
A few years later Sr Borgia would see us and call us Junee and Therese in an affectionate way, and we'd go along with it. I never saw Martina again but bumped into Marietta sixteen years ago in the Hastings Hospital and blow me down I was so gutless as to be polite to her. I can now only feel pity for these three maladjusted women and hope that they managed to find some peace. I owe them gratitude for teaching me that much authority has clay feet, and depends on the personal whims, and wishes of those we allow to hold too much power. I learnt to be cautious inside, whilst appearing impetuous. I learnt not to be gullible. I also learnt that much of the caning of the day pupils was selective. Those who had parents with a certain level of money, or influence in the church, the committee ladies, those who could make generous donations, there kids were often left alone, where as the rest of us, whose fathers were labourers, and whose mothers did not play the 'tea ladies game' were more likely to be ‘punished'. Possibly it was a reflection on the perceived powerlessness of the parents. Although there is a contradiction, as June and one or two others seldom were hit. More an ability of doing everything properly all the time so as not to be noticed when the punishments were being allocated. June says that it was not so much being good as being sly enough to avoid punishment. She said she was a pretty good cheat, something I did not know about her until she told me. June has a birthmark just above her knee, which is an almost perfect representation of England. Many times she used this map and sneakily put place names on it in order to pass exams. She also used her legs to write other answers on. Not just a set good pins to walk on, hey June?
And, yes, after all of this I sent our daughters to Catholic schools run by the same order of nuns. You see some of the most genuine people I have met of late have been nuns. Truth really is always stranger than fiction and curiouser and curiouser.
The playground was good fun, and home was loving and safe so two out of three wasn't too bad. I don't feel negative about these things, but feel I've been able to hold onto the positive things I was able to glean from these rather unpleasant times.
Therese Mackay. July 1995.