SMOKE: Catholic Bullies

Originally published: 23 September 2003

Christian Brothers College, Mount Edmund, Pretoria. The very name causes the bile to rise in my throat and sets my blood pressure soaring. Just writing those poisonous, dirty words gives me a headache.

I'm a very big guy, but I wasn't always. When I went to CBC in 1982 I was a tiny, skinny beanstalk, as brittle and sensitive as the bamboo canes which lined the headmaster's felt-covered Cane Cabinet.

My parents were assured by close family friends that the school was the best option for a Catholic boy, and neither they nor I knew any better.

It was an attractive option in that it was a private school, which meant black students were able to attend it as well if their families had the money, and it was based on "sound Christian principles" of turning boys into men.

The school has changed since I left there at the end of 1985 - now it is a co-ed school, and it is my understanding that most of the "Brothers" who ran it have since been replaced by mostly lay teachers.

But when I was there the Brothers ran things with an iron fist, and the word "fist" in this sentence is not a coincidence. It was a campaign of organised violence and terror, designed to subjugate, break and humiliate their young charges.

Being as small and brittle as I was I was a natural target for their pent-up rage and sexual frustration, and I spent more time at that school being beaten and thrashed and humiliated in front of my classmates than not.

The incidences of violence - perpetrated against not only me but many other boys as well - were too numerous to mention in this short column, but I'm going to give you some examples to illustrate the kind of mentality we were dealing with.

My ultimate nemesis was Brother Dillon, the headmaster of the junior school. Permanently swathed in monkcloth (long white robes which all the Brothers wore) he was a short, red-faced little despot with a ratty, pinched countenance which told the story of his evil life.

The irony with this guy was that I think he actually liked me, although it didn't stop him beating the shit out of me whenever the opportunity arose.

He taught my maths class in my first year (I was in Standard Two), and unfortunately it was the class which I always arrived late for, due to early morning violin lessons.

I had permission to come to his class late (he professed to be a music-lover and therefore in complete support of my musical endeavours), but the truth was that he hated anyone who shone or stood out for what was perceived as a feminine pursuit (boys don't play violins - they play rugby).

I would arrive midway through the class - violin in hand - and he would stop what he was doing, and "welcome" me to the class. He made very sure that everyone knew I was late - he would force me to unpack my violin and play for the class for a few minutes.

I wasn't very good at that stage, being only a learner, and he took great delight in getting the class to laugh along with him as I scraped out a few false notes.

The humiliation was always extreme, but I was powerless to do anything. If Brother Dillon said play, you played. Wednesday mornings were always good for a laugh in that maths class.

In later years I accepted numerous beatings from him, and he had the endearing habit of "inviting" you to his office for a caning. Once there he would open his Cane Cabinet, and you would get to select which cane he would use on you.

He had various bamboo canes of varying thickness, as well as a hollow pvc pipe, a length of garden hose and a solid plastic pipe, and the cunning amongst us always chose the hollow pvc pipe, as it stung but didn't actually break the skin, drawing blood.

He would force you to take off your blazer so he had a clear target and he would stick your head under his desk so that you couldn't rear up just before contact. Once he was finished with you you had to thank him, or face another beating.

An evil man, who always wore the saintliest of expressions in church, which we had to attend at the school once a week. He managed to con my parents into believing that I was his favourite, but what he failed to mention was that I was his favourite to beat.

Then there was Brother Long, who had a short leather strap made up of multiple strips of leather sewn together. His red moonface (no doubt heightened by alcohol abuse) became sweaty and strained during a beating, and his trademark was licking the sweat off his upper lip during a thrashing.

One day he lost it with another boy and in front of the class hit him 67 times with that strap - on his legs, back, hips - wherever. We counted the blows and the cries of pain.

Mr Charles was a lay teacher who taught English and his trick was to tell you to "bend down and pick up that piece of paper". There was never a piece of paper, but you had to bend down anyway, and when you did he would kick you as hard as he could with the toe of his veldskoen - right on the bone of your ass, where it hurts the worst.

Mr Cope - another lay teacher - would use a thick architect's ruler to administer "bacon slices", which were carried out by getting you to bend over before slicing downwards with the sharp edge of the ruler, getting a faint slice of your butt on the way down. The pain was excrutiating.

One day he called a boy up for no reason other than to terrify him (I know it sounds unbelievable, but it happened frequently), and got the lad to bend over. He swung the ruler over the boys' head, not expecting him to jerk upright in anticipation of the blow, and caught him squarely on the back of the head, causing a stream of blood to spurt out and knocking him out cold.

But my most significant moment was when I was caught chatting to a mate in church one day, a minute or two before the service started.

The head of the senior school - Brother Kennedy - spotted us, and called us both up to the altar. He was on crutches at the time, having broken a foot, and hit each of us with a crutch, right there on the altar of God.

When I got back to my seat I couldn't see straight for the agony and nausea washed over me, forcing me to sit down suddenly. But at that moment the organ struck up, announcing the arrival of the priest and his acolyte bum-chums, and Brother Kennedy came over and told me to get up.

I couldn't, so he grabbed a chunk of hair on the side of my head and lifted me to my feet by it.

Satisfied, the animal then joined in the opening hymn, bathed in the glow of spirituality and saintliness. The irony was not lost on me.

Those incidences were just a pinprick of the reality - we were beaten for the most trivial of matters by all teachers, and would keep a record of our beatings by making marks with a pen on the back of our school ties.

To have less than 30 marks on your tie at the end of a month singled you out as being a bit of a pussy, but I never had to worry about that - mine was stacked.

I don't know how these savages justified their violence and mental subjugation to themselves and to their god, but somehow they did.

I have subsequently heard stories from guys who went to other CBC franchise schools, and the stories are all similar, which suggests the boys of Mount Edmund were not alone.

But what really kills me is other men who were beaten at school who claim it was "good for them", and that they would send their own sons to those schools without a problem. Maybe some were better able to cope with the thrashings and humiliation, but I wasn't, and it left scars that are still here today.

How you can endorse a system of corporal punishment is quite beyond me, although I don't think it's legal these days. But anyone who thinks a savage beating is good for a child needs to pay me a visit sometime soon.

I'll be able to persuade you otherwise.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
Spending time online does bad things to a person, but I'm OK.

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Copyright © Luke Tagg. All rights reserved. A few lefts as well.

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