Ego igitur puniar: my childhood adventures at Nelson Park School, Napier

My old primary school, Nelson Park School, is marking its centenary this weekend. Am I going to the various events? Go figure. My earliest memory there, from 1968, is of being slammed across the face by my teacher. Wham! I’d never been hit before. I was five.

Hi. I'm your teacher...
Hi. I’m your teacher…

I have no idea why the teacher hit me, but back then it didn’t take much to evoke the wrath of teachers. A friend of mine from Nelson Park School days, just this year, told me how he was punished for accidentally running into an ‘out of bounds’ area while trying to escape the school bullies. One of my wife’s colleagues, who I didn’t know as a kid – but who went to Nelson Park School at the same time – was punished for skipping for joy in jingly sandals, aged five. I am not joking.

This was the era when school had little to do with nurturing children to learn according to their strengths, and much to do with smashing them into submissive conformity to a prescribed and quiet ‘normal’, via petty army-style ‘bullshit’ routines, worth-denial, nit-picking, sarcasm and class-front humiliation, all backed with a relentless threat of pain.  I still remember the teacher who kept offering to take boys privately out the back where they would be ‘shown’ his personal ‘strap’ – the heavy leather belt with which teachers were allowed to beat children. Other staff didn’t ‘strap’ children in secret – I remember the teacher who used to whip his out and smash kids around the legs with it. The same teacher also prowled the class with a broken blackboard ruler he called his ‘Walking Whacker’. Wham! 

My class at Nelson Park School in 1969. Can you spot me? Clue: I'm the only one whose face hasn't fallen into a belt-sander.
My class at Nelson Park School in 1969, in regulation pose, including the substitute teacher. Can you spot me? Clue: I’m the only one who hasn’t face-planted into a belt-sander.

The doyen of childhood terror at that school was the deputy principal, an archetypal drill sergeant, who belted out orders and whose wrath fell on any kid that did not obey instantly to the letter. Think Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. It’s a military technique. But instead of brow-beating adults so they’d walk into gunfire, this teacher used the method to traumatise children into submission. I heard that he even made kids go to the local dairy to buy him Alfino cigars.

Apparently some kids – and parents – admired this teacher for his ‘drill sergeant’ decisiveness, and apparently he had a ‘nice guy’ persona he used to switch on. But I never saw that side, and everyone was terrified of him. Just this year I discussed him with former pupils at Nelson Park School with me over forty years ago. The most complementary opinion was ‘he was an asshole‘. 

The school system in action, circa 1970...
The school system in action, circa 1970…

It took me years to understand my experience at Nelson Park School – I didn’t really get a handle on it until I researched the school system professionally, publishing my conclusions in 2004 and again in 2013. The problem was that the New Zealand primary school system of the late 1960s was well past its use-by date. It was built around early twentieth century notions of uniformity – a narrowly defined ‘right’ way of doing things; writing in a specific way with a specific hand, and so forth. Woe betide anybody who diverged. Practical human reality, of course, is far broader and more complex – the more so as time goes on and generational change brings new attitudes. But the school system hadn’t caught up, and by the time I got there it was dominated by teachers who had spent a lifetime bashing square pegs into round holes.

School routines clung to the pseudo-military ethos that had characterised the system through both World Wars, when school was looked on as a foundation for cadetship and territorial service. When I was there in 1968-72, children were still made to march into class, in lines, to the strains of marches such as F. J. Ricketts’ Colonel Bogey (1914). If the kids messed up that drill, they were marched into the school-ground and made to practise.

What made the whole thing so destructive was that this setup fostered opportunities for some staff to exploit the power the system gave them over those defined as powerless, the children. A recent – as in 2014 – review of data collected during a 1961 experiment by John Millward reveals that some ordinary adults become monsters in such circumstance because dominating those over whom the system has given them total power makes some people feel good about themselves. My own professional work suggests that one does not have to run an experiment to show this. It is part of the wider human condition. And moral compass, alas, is lost by increments.

Doubtless some kids had a good time at Nelson Park School at the turn of the 1970s. Nobody I knew there did, and my left-handedness ensured I also hit the sharp end of a tired system. The sad part is that the staff of Nelson Park School at that time had a choice. They could have tried to be reasonable, tried to view children as human beings and tried to nurture their development. By my measure, they did not. But perhaps these teachers found happiness for themselves later in better and more caring ways. One can but hope.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

10 thoughts on “Ego igitur puniar: my childhood adventures at Nelson Park School, Napier

  1. Oh, Matthew! I thought my early parochial school days were grim but not compared to yours. Our nuns were not above rapping us with rulers but also made us kneel in front of the classroom with our arms outstretched. As you say, adults have choices and perhaps in later years, some changed. I know that such change can occur but, alas, it does not seem to be the usual that it does. What a great picture of you! Thanks, Matthew.


    1. I believe New Zealand’s Catholic schools were very similar! Nelson Park was a secular state institution with system derived from the British public school model – Roger Waters nailed it with ‘Another Brick In The Wall’. My problem was that I could read and write when I got there, but not the way they wanted. They made no compromise for my being left-handed, and it came to a head when I started using a fountain pen. The upshot was tickings-off for smudging that culminated in an effort to make me write with the other hand. It failed, though they did manage to stop me writing properly with either hand. I also developed many of the symptoms that follow when someone’s forced to use the non-dominant side. Of course the school never picked it up – to them I had deliberately chosen to compound being wrong-handed by deciding to be slow, inattentive, deaf, misreading things, and clumsy. Sigh. As I say, I hope the teachers found happiness for themselves in better ways, later.


  2. That is an awful way to teach children! Sorry to hear you were subjected to that kind of schooling. Corporal punishment is not allowed in schools nowadays in USA. It is punishable by law.

    I had a teacher that threw erasers at troublesome students. One day he missed the student and hit me by mistake. He was very apologetic! Ha!


    1. Corporal punishment is illegal now in NZ too. The school system has been totally transformed and I expect the primary school experience would be very different today. But my sort of experience was par for the course back then, a different age in so many ways.


  3. Matthew, I SO relate to this! I was in a similar primary school in South Africa at the same time. It was supposedly a good school, but the biggest bullies were the teachers.

    I saw the punishment meted out to the left-handers, the dyslexics and the stutterers, and I experienced the humiliation dealt out to those who were naturally shy, artistic or undersized. Three of us were asthmatics who couldn’t play sport properly, so this brought more derision from teachers who encouraged our fellow scholars to mock us, even while we struggled to breathe through the resulting asthma attack.

    Teachers used to smack kids across the knuckles with a ruler for just about anything, we were called stupid if we got something wrong, and the worst offenders were “sent to the office” of the headmaster where boys were caned and girls were made to feel that they were useless disappointments to everyone on the planet and would never amount to anything.

    Some teachers were okay and encouraged those of us who were bookworms, but they were the dim candles in the bleak 7 years of hell between the ages of 5 and 12. After that, thank God, I went to a decent high school where teachers had a better idea of what we were all there for.

    So glad that the old system has all changed now, both in your country and mine!


    1. This sounds very much like my own experience – very much ‘Pink Floyd: The Wall’, which figures as I guess both SA and NZ schools reflected that common British influence. And luckily the system HAS changed since, in both places – and it needed to!


  4. During the same time period the nuns at the convent school I attended (in a backwater French village in Alsace-Lorraine when my (US Air Force) father was stationed in France) would punish the girls with strikes across the face using rulers. (Most dreaded words heard: “Removez les lunettes!”) The offenses were always things like…they (literally) blotted their copybooks, they missed a stitch in their embroidery, they didn’t look like they were paying close enough attention. I was the lone American student and maybe my American Colonel father had a special arrangement with the nuns–they never touched me. But they taught everyone else with pure unadulterated fear tactics. Honestly, I’m surprised I’m still Catholic today! 🙂
    Great post!


    1. A school environment celebrated today with ‘Nunzilla’ A friend of mine who went to a Catholic boys’ school, here in NZ about the same period tells me that it’s a pretty sharp homage to the era… 🙂

      I guess all of it – the secular state system I was subjected to, and the Catholic system you found (which, friends tell me, is pretty much the same here in NZ) was symptomatic of the era – with origins in nineteenth century ideas, early twentieth century behavioural theory (which we know now to be wrong) and so forth. And, I think, it was probably easier for the teachers to break children into submission to a single uniform pattern than it was to nurture their strengths.


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