Even back when humans lived in caves, the older generation harped about how it had it worse than the younger generation.
My grandmother, Nellie, did not walk uphill in both directions to attend school. But she did lose her husband to tuberculosis, forcing her to raise two young children on her own, and to make a living as a “practical nurse,” delivering many dozens of babies in people’s homes.
My dad, Joe, certainly had fewer conveniences than I did. The house he grew up in once served as a railroad shed, had a wood stove for heat and no running water. The outhouse was less than comfortable, especially at night or in winter.
My stress wasn’t the absence of plumbing. It was the presence of corporal punishment through most of my 12 years in Catholic school.
In grade school, it was “the strap.” Leather-like, it was about 14 inches long, 2 inches wide and thick.
It was the minor leagues of corporal punishment. Ridicule greeted kids outside the “I got the strap gang,” a club that only ever welcomed one girl as a member. She was revered, though not by the nuns.
The threat was constant. I only felt the sharp bite of four or five whacks on both my palms on three occasions in eight years: once for running across the road rather than walking; once for singing in the hallway; and once, in grade 3, for allegedly drawing a heart, arrow and initials on the side of the school. I was wrongly convicted based on flawed handwriting analysis conducted by two nuns.
At Assumption College High School, I moved up to the Triple A league of corporal punishment. As freshmen in Latin class, two other boys and I were caught “borrowing” each other’s homework. We all did on occasion, ironically, to avoid corporal punishment. Our teacher, Mr. Fink, a seminarian, beat the three of us hard on the ass, destroying three solid new wooden yard sticks in the process. It hurt a lot more than the strap. It was wrong to copy homework. I learned a lesson: I never got caught again.
In Father McGinn’s grade 10 Latin class, I found myself in the big leagues.
McGinn stood 6 feet, 3 inches tall and was a muscular 200 pounds. In plain sight at the front of his classroom was a thick piece of oak, about 3 feet long and 3 inches wide that he called “Handy Andy.”
Handy Andy was used to punish every mistake made in class, whether vocabulary, grammar, translation or conjugating a verb. When a student made a mistake, he wrote his surname on the blackboard, adding a check mark for each additional error. (“Error” is Latin for “mistake.”)
By the end of class, the blackboard always contained several names.
Offenders lined up, stepped forward in turn and bent over. Using a full Aaron Judge swing, McGinn hit each less-than-perfect Latin student hard on the ass with Handy Andy. Students earned one extra hit for each check mark.
I was genuinely scared the first time I lined up. I bent over. He swung. The impact was loud. And it hurt to the bone.
I had a check mark next to my name only once. The first hit was jarring. I swore he hit me harder the second time; the pain was exponentially worse. I managed not to make a sound and walked back to my desk, suddenly acutely aware of my eyes.
Only one boy ever made a sound.
John was a tough Italian kid, the toughest in our class. He was an average student but poor in Latin. In one class he made five mistakes.
John didn’t cry until the fourth hit; he cried louder yet after the fifth. It was humiliating.
“It isn’t the best motivation, but it’s better than no motivation,” McGinn loved to tell us. The thought of debating that statement with him did cross my mind, but not for long.
Days later, McGinn stood at John’s desk, verbally picking on him. John reacted with a quick, upward lurch.
McGinn’s face turned pure white. He walked to the front of the room, placed his chalk on the ledge and left. He did not return that day.
He taught six classes a day, five days a week. Even with a conservative average of six mistakes per class, he hit boys, very hard, about 150 times each week.
We did share a bit of gallows humor. We left our gym shorts on under our slacks after phys ed for a little extra padding. Each time we were hit, we drew a small sketch of Handy Andy inside our textbook, just as fighter pilots marked each kill on the side of their planes.
Late in the school year, Steve Wilson asked to see my text, its 15 sketches qualifying me as an ace. “I’m beating you, Mr. Turton,” he said. “I have 19!”
Dave Cogliati was an excellent student; he made no mistakes during the entire year. In our last class, McGinn quizzed him until he finally erred. We all stood, cheered and applauded as he took his hit.
I transferred to a co-ed school after grade 10. No corporal punishment. I relaxed. And, minus Handy Andy, my grades didn’t suffer.
I wonder how today’s 15-year-old boys, not to mention their parents, would cope with the painful, humiliating corporal punishment much of my generation experienced.
But I also ponder whether today’s younger generation has it worse, from COVID-19, with its masks, constant testing, disruptive remote learning, isolation, anxiety and even potential death, to the pressure of choosing the very best college, to the seemingly monthly reports of yet another school shooting. I question if I would have coped as well as today’s students.
Every generation experiences “the worst.” Time may change perceptions or even add humor to the memories, but when you’re in the midst of it, the stress is very real.