Wednesday, November 16, 2005

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.

12 comments:

charlie said...

Wonderfully evocative, again, Therese. It seems, because of our ages, and in spite of the distances apart, you and I led parallel lives. Not that I am Catholic or that I was taught by nuns, but I went to an all boys Grammar School where the 'masters' swooped up and down the chilly corridors in black gowns, looking for all the world like those Black Riders in Lord of the Rings. And they behaved like them too.

Congratulations on not allowing the sheer wickedness of twisted women (Black Riders too, no doubt, in their habits) to affect you in a negative way. Personally, I still bear the scars of bullying and canings and humiliations - and I am not blessed with a forgiving nature, more's the pity. Much of my misanthropy stems from those days and as I look around the world, and as I see the same types of cruelty that were inflicted on you and I being inflicted, mutatis mutandis, on others, my blood boils.

And, even more unfortunately, I am, shamefully, the sort of boy who never could stand to see an injustice without speaking out (although at the age of 57 I am learning not to if only because of weariness), so you can imagine how my troubles stacked up to the power of ten as a consequence. Hey ho... bad bad people.
Charlie

cs said...

My oh my... the awful nasty people who dared to call themselves representatives of God!My hubby, HHH, went through much of the same as you and CT did back in the 50-60's. HHH actually went so far as to hit a nun back he had had it up to his eyeballs --he did. Apparently he failed prayer! HHH had a tough time reading--reading disability, and the nuns really whacked him thinking he was a sloucher....me on the other hand used to give them hell all the time! I ran away, I bit them, I went bizerk. MOm and dad sent me to public school for fear they would be ostracized from the good church. Oh the shame of it all, MC. And now, it's completely the opposite...kids rule and sue the teachers and adults! They even shoot and kill teachers...our schools have metal detectors at many across the country...my teaching license will expire in 5 years and so be it, unless a heavenly miracle occurs and things change. Not likely. Good blogging, MC.

Amy said...

You know, this is a terribly thought provoking. It brings to mind all manner of things that I’ve been through myself, all a little too close to the surface yet to talk about without greatly disturbing the force. But the concept of “not being believed” and feeling helpless in the wake of a raving lunatic, ruler wielding nun is something you don’t just file away in happy childhood memory book number three and move on gracefully.

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Thomas said...

Therese, I attended St Joseph's in 62-63, taught by Dr Borgia for two years. Whilst I have no issues with her having harmed me (I can recall her pride wihy the cane and how I copped it more than a few times), I will never forget poor Larry Newberry being thrashed on several occasions (saw him about 12yrs ago at an Aberdeen reunion). I spent 2yrs in 6th clas with Marg Clifford and Maree Dent.
Sr Marietta was a shocker with the boarders - belted us for not liking the food (she supervised the refectory on many occasions).
I have happy memories of Sr Bede (supervised the senior dormitory),Sr Sabina (ran the laundry) and Sr Ambrose (used to cook for the nuns). She would select various boys at different times to give extra porridge to in the winter (after we had had breakfast). She also made "ambrose specials", a kind of huge date scone, which we all loved. She was a beautiful older woman who I'm sure was aware of such young children being away from home.
I ran into Borgia (later Sr Genevieve)many years later when she had retired from teaching....quite a changed person. Also met Marietta about 12yrs ago. She was doinga program with kids who had special needs. Of course she barely mentioned Aberdeen...sure she didn't want to know about it. I can recall many of the boys who ran away to the station and caught trains. "Podgo Bruce" was one who bolted....a great long distance runner, I'm sure. They caught when he was nearly in Muswellbrook.
Anyway, all the best, I just hope you aren't too damaged...it was all pretty horrible though.
Tom Sobb (Newcastle)

Middle Child said...

No Thomas I was not damaged at all - lessons learned and as many good nuns as bad ones - sort of like life. That has stood me in good stead for things that came after that - I always wondered about Larry Newberry - I ended up going to Lochinvar boarding school and made it till 2nd form when i ran away to home - I actually made it home but the nuns were there at the house from the Aberdeen convent - this time it was Sr Campion who was lovely - I went to Scone High after that and as it turned out my father was killed a year later and in that year at home I really got to know him well after he simmered down from my escape.

Middle Child said...

Forgot to mention - Some of the boarders in my class were Wally Meakes - Lawrence Beisler was in my sister June's class - my eldest sister Veronica was a class above Maree Dent -

Anonymous said...

Hi all - Steve Wakely is my name. I was a boarder during the years that this blog describes so well (1958 - 1961 I think) - I also went through absolute hell at the hands of these sadistic nuns - we boarders envied the day pupils because we had to endure being terrified 24/7 and much more corporal punishment was being dished out to us youngsters in our formative years - I firmly believe that the education of the pupils suffered - reading it all now half a century later brings my memory of it all rushing back now, memories that I now realise I had been suppressing for all of these years. These were dreadful times and this read now makes it clear why I hated school ... I went from St. Joey's to De La Salle Armidale where it all became much much worse on another level .... I would welcome contact from anybody who remembers me. Best wishes to my former schoolmates. Steve Wakely. swakely1950@gmail.com

Peter Wheeler said...

Hello
I read this blog with great interest. My father went to this school as a boarder in about 1915 and stayed until the end of his primary schooling. He often told tails of the cruelty of some of the nuns in dealing with the young boarders - he was about 4 or 5 when he went there. One story I remember was he said that regularly he would wet the bed and in the middle of the night including in winter at Aberdeen he would be made to get up and wash his bed linen. No heating!
I am not sure why adults thought that this was OK. There is no excuse.
I am sorry for high-jacking this blog but if anyone has any information or stories maybe from their parents who attended this school I would live to hear from them.
Best regards to all the brave people who have added to this blog.
Regards

Middle Child said...

Hello Peter - As said I was a day pupil...a few of us got together and now there is a facebook page https://www.facebook.com/groups/225853297586663/ just explain your connection and no doubt they will contact you. The Bruce Newberry in there is the brother of the Larry Newberry that the nun Sr Marietta used to thrash...he survived i was pleased to hear.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I was a boarder there from 1967-1969 and also have fond memories of Sister Campion. The other nuns you mention must have left by then and replaced by nuns of a similar disposition. Sister Hilda was the pint sized terror in my era. She had a 12 inch stitched leather strap type thing she called "The Wacker" which got plenty of use.The other nuns I remember were Sr Catherine, Sr Zita(Music & Choir)Sister Declan, Sr Baptist, Sr Labore and Sr Cyril.
Wally Meakes had left but his brother Simon was there.

Middle Child said...

Hello Anon...I left there 1966 and went to Lochinvar. Sr Campion was the best memory of a teacher. There is a Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/groups/225853297586663/ St Josephs College Boarders and Locals which you might like...the people are mainly from just before but you might find something interesting there Sr Borgia had a cane she called either "Answer or Whack" or "Tickler" - also a facebook bage called Aberdeen Remembers