Progress beats nostalgia

by Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, October 2010

At least kids today don’t have to worry about being hit by a teacher.

Like everyone else, I get my share of forwarded emails about adorable animals, inspirational verse and assorted nostalgia, much of it overdone with animation and music. Every once in a while someone sends me fluff extolling the Perfect Past, when common sense reigned supreme and everything was reportedly settled to satisfaction with a pat on the head, a handshake or some good old-fashioned discipline. Those were the days when men were men, women knew their place, kids toed the line, schools delivered a great education and everyone lived a happy life.

At times it’s easy to feel jaded about the way we live today. Life is frantic yet sedentary, our collective common sense sometimes flies the coop and urgent global issues loom on so many fronts. No wonder we default to wistfulness about the days gone by, when life seemed simpler and we were not yet drowning in mental and material clutter.

But what we forget—and I marvel at the short memory of the fellow boomers who send me this stuff—is that life back when we were kids was often utterly harsh for those who lived on the “wrong side of the tracks,” to use a cliché borne of that time. There were no social safety nets for struggling families and few systems for keeping societal disparity in check. What went on behind closed doors was no one else’s business. If poverty or alcoholism or mental illness made your family dysfunctional, that was your problem. If you couldn’t afford medical or dental care, you went without. And people were judgemental; if charity existed at all, it was often given with some sort of perverse unspoken right to make the recipient feel even more indebted and inadequate.

I went to school with kids from these homes, their eyes full of pain and deference. In the classroom (and on the playground) their hard times often continued. Bad tempered teachers with a taste for corporal punishment gravitated to them and no wonder; there’d be no reprimand since disadvantaged parents almost never came to school to defend their kids.

My grade two teacher was particularly vile. Two of my classmates were brothers who shared the misfortune of having a father in jail. She picked on them relentlessly and berated them for their worthless parents and now lowly status as foster children. They were strapped for trivial reasons. One became submissive, the other defiant.

The defiant brother—only seven years old—got under her skin and she felt threatened. One day he started laughing while she was strapping his hands with a yardstick. “Cry!” she yelled at him, which made him sneer. She hit him repeatedly, her thick body heaving with each blow. Then the yardstick broke. Enraged, she ordered him not to move while she left the room to fetch another one. We—his brother included—sat frozen in our desks, conscripted by horror and terror to that persistent pact of silence that allowed, and still allows, such wickedness and abuse to go on unchecked.

It didn’t take many whacks with the fresh yardstick to make the boy crumple. His hands were bubbling with blisters, and what was he holding out for anyway? He stumbled back to his desk and a frightening triumph unfurled on her face.

That teacher was probably an extreme case but legions of teachers were hitting students in those days and it was all sanctioned by the law. British Columbia was the first province to ban corporal punishment in both public and private schools in 1973. Other provinces gradually followed suit but it took a 2004 Supreme Court of Canada ruling to drag Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta into compliance. That ruling, by the way, does not expressly outlaw the spanking of children between the ages of 2 and 12 by their parents.

Life was far from perfect then and it isn’t perfect now. But there are some things we’re doing better, and thankfully schooling is one of them (though still not perfect). Today’s kids learn more, are encouraged to think for themselves and never have to worry about being hit by a teacher. That’s progress, and when it comes to our social well-being, I’ll take progress over nostalgia every time.

Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic is a writer, mother and Master Gardener. Her books include People in Transition and Ernie Coombs: Mr Dressup (both from Fitzhenry & Whiteside).