by Catherine Cameron

Preamble

The Latin term, in loco parentis, appears in the Criminal Code and the Education Act of Ontario. Under this clause, a  teacher was considered to be acting “in loco parentis” or “in place of a parent”. In the absence of a parent, this directive  gave a teacher some of the privileges and responsibilities normally assigned to parents. Discipline was one of the responsibilities.

In Loco Parentis

It was during the 1960s that the federal government of Canada began offering scholarships, grants and loans to prospective university students – partly to attract high achieving students from high schools and partly to offer financial support for tuition to needy students. I fell into the second category. Each year, as needed, I completed the lengthy application forms and had Mom complete the parts that requested specific information about the financial state of the family and the number of children in the family. Regularly, each year, another baby’s name was added to the financial necessity sheet and consequently, I was awarded almost 100% grant money throughout university. The amounts were not large but were enough for me to pay for tuition and textbooks.  However, for rent, food, clothing, housing costs, transportation, I had to find a job. I was fortunate to land a part-time job at the university library and happily worked there each year until graduation. It was a blessing to graduate with no student loans to pay off.

Several years later with a marriage and one baby to share between us, Bernard and I found ourselves living in a small city in Southern Ontario. Bernard had secured a job teaching in a nearby town and it was my time to explore opportunities in the work world.  I soon was hired by the Catholic School Board as an “itinerant” library technician. During the first couple of years, I was assigned to work three days a week at St. Benedict School and two days a week at St. Theresa of Avila – both in the city. A revamping of the board’s budget and staff allocation led to a change in my placement to three schools. My third school was located in a very small community outside of the city. I was a little apprehensive about the mention of Sacred Heart School because I had heard negative rumours and allusions to being placed on staff at Sacred Heart School…the kind of allusions similar to those your father would pronounce if you did not stop fighting in the back seat of the car. However, the new school and community were close to home and I was not getting a travel allowance so with confidence and cockiness as my co-pilots, I decided that nothing could be so bad that I couldn’t handle it.

My practice had always been to drop into the school during the last week of August and introduce myself to the principal; have a chat, tour the school and get a sense of the academic atmosphere. I drove to the school but unfortunately, the principal, Mr. Joseph Kidd (a pseudonym), was away at a Board meeting.  But again, hey…with a casual name like Joe Kidd, this placement was going to be a breeze.

Several days later, I arrived at the school for my first day there.  It was a Thursday. I walked into the school and immediately felt a cold chill surround me and the atmosphere had drastically changed.  There was so little sound, it was as if I were in a vacuum.  Very odd. I knew the principal’s office was halfway down the corridor on the right side and so I slowed down and poked my head in to say “good morning” and to introduce myself.  Joseph (never “Joe) Kidd said nothing at all.  Very odd.

I went on to the library which was at the end of the same corridor……four classrooms on one side and three on the other.  A staffroom, bathrooms, a secretary’s office, storage closet and nothing else….not even a small gym. In the coming days, I met with all the teachers, set up schedules and offered help with reading, writing and classroom assignments during lunch and recess.

I had observed Joseph Kidd and noted his slight stature, black suit, severely parted hair, rubber soled shoes, a face that never held any emotion and his obsession with a little black book kept in the inside pocket of his jacket.  I began to watch his presence nearby – lurking at classroom doors, never engaging with students and making notes in that damned black book. He skulked, hovered, lurked and loitered – there was just something so pernicious and malevolent about the man. Anytime he called a staff meeting, I came away from the meeting feeling as though a foul smell had attached itself to me and everyone suffered from the odour.  I was careful not to ask the staff about his weird ways but I could see that the teachers all felt the same way – all women of course since this was the early 80s.

Within a few months, I began to see a difference in myself.  I hated Thursdays but never once did I dare to call in sick. I  didn’t pack a lunch on  Thursdays because my stomach would be in knots all day long. I chose to wear clothing that was dark, unflattering, no jewelry, no open buttons, nothing transparent, no heeled shoes, no bare legs and nothing with lace trim or fringe on it. I even resorted to wearing my hair in one long French braid, keeping the loose curls for the other days of the week.

Thanksgiving and Christmas were blessed breaks from this gloominess. March break was coming and after that, I could begin to hope for the end of the year. However, the day came when I checked my mailbox and discovered a note there signed “J. Kidd, Principal” (as if we didn’t know) with five accompanying words “See me in my office”. My heart shrank but I knew His Mightiness could not be appeased. Walking into his office, I noticed that there were no pictures or photos in there despite stories that he had a wife and two daughters.  Lord help them. The conversation went as such:

Me:  you wanted to see me, Mr.Kidd?

JK:    Yes, sit.

JK pulled out his top desk drawer and locates a small baby food jar, blue lid and half filled with what appear to be small whitish but dirty pieces of gravel.  He pushed the bottle to the front of his desk.

JK: Do you know what that is?

Me: No

JK: Those are spitballs that were collected from the floor of the library after you left last week.

Me: silence and no reaction

JK: You can pick it up if you like.

Me. No, thank you.

JK: There are 137 spitballs in that jar.

Me: suppressing a gag – no response.

JK: you seem to have no control over the students….letting this kind of behaviour go on in school is proof of that.

Me:  I have very good classroom control and my students would not do this.  You DO realize that four school days have elapsed since I was last here? I am positive that other classes have used that space since then.

JK: No response but he pushed the bottle even closer to me – perching it right on the edge of the desk.

Me:  No response. I got up and left.

I remember walking down the corridor to the library seething with rage and in disbelief – wanting nothing more than to vent my feelings by smacking the walls. I simply could not believe that anyone could have not only picked up 137 spitballs – well, maybe he got the students to do it…but that he had actually counted them!  Yew, the germs! The man was toxic and clearly unstable.

The uneasy atmosphere of the school raised a barrier but it was no different than the atmosphere that I had experienced on my first day there….  sheer cold ice and dislike. Then came a day that I will never forget. There may have been other days like this during the year but since I was only there one day a week, I may have – thankfully, missed these events.

During morning recess, a little eight-year-old boy named Gilbert from Grade 3 picked up a stone, threw it and hit a window in the library. No harm at all was done, no scratches, splinters, cracks, nothing. Mr. Kidd, of course, heard about the incident right away and dragged Gilbert into his office. I tried to intervene, claiming no damage had been done but Mr. Kidd told me to ‘get out.’ I stepped outside the door but could still see what was happening.

Mr. Kidd questioned Gilbert mercilessly on what had happened; then opened his middle desk drawer and drew out the strap….a long strip of thick leather meant to inflict punishment through pain when whacked on the palms of the offender’s hands.  I knew that Toronto had banned the strap in 1971 but I also knew that we were not in Toronto and that strapping a child, including on his bare buttocks was still legal in Canada. I also knew that some “offenders” fell backwards in fear when receiving the strap in an effort to avoid it and that principals often used that as another infringement of school rules.

The offender would then be forced to drop his pants, bend over and grasp his ankles before receiving his humiliating punishment.  I remembered reading a true account of a boy who had been abused in the residential schools by a particularly sadistic staff member. The “teacher” had begun strapping the boy on his palms but over the course of the boy’s life there, the teacher began placing a book on the boy’s wrists so that his veins would not rupture during the strapping. The teacher “upped his game” and eventually inserted thumbtacks into the strap and used that on the boy.  Use of the strap was not assigned exclusively to boys in residential schools.  The strap was used on boys and girls alike by principals and teachers all across Ontario and Canada.

All of these terrible images were flying through my head as I stood at the office door. I wanted to run, hide in the supply closet, cover my ears and recite lalalalalalal over and over again until the horror ended. In the same second though, I knew that if Gilbert couldn’t run and hide, then neither could I.   My heart withered as I stood in the hallway and cried for Gilbert and for the additional punishment he would receive at home from his parents for “getting into trouble” at school. Strapping was not banned in Canada until 2004.