When power assertion is disguised by the rules…

There was a headline the other week on the Fairfax news site ‘Stuff’ about a southern New Zealand high school that was forbidding children to wear warm headgear – beanies – despite temperatures dropping into the negatives.

School as I remember it. ‘Hi. I’m your teacher…’

Based on the report it appeared to me to be simple power assertion. Beanies weren’t in the uniform, therefore they were forbidden – technically, even while kids were walking to school in sub-zero temperatures  – and the headmaster wouldn’t bend when tackled by a parent over the obvious idiocy of the rule.

The worst of it, to me, was the pettiness of the whole thing. Who cares if kids wear beanies or not? When you’re outside in sub-zero temperatures it’s sensible. But apparently it was more important for the school’s authority to be enforced than for the children to be warm.

Stories like this frequently pop up, at least in New Zealand, and they are all the same – the school takes a die-in-a-ditch stand over a tiny, petty-minded point of order. The real issue, clearly, is their control and authority. The idea that kids might actually go to school to learn never seems to enter the picture.

My own experience of school, from primary through to when I walked out the high school gate for the last time, was entirely to do with the school asserting power and control over petty matters, and nothing to do with learning. My sole memories of Nelson Park School, indeed, are of an endless round of abuse, hate and punishments from the teachers. I wasn’t even safe at home – one of them had a gang of kids he used as enforcers chase me home after school, so I could be hauled back to the classroom and punished some more. These kids actually came on to my parents’ property to drag me back. Luckily my mother stopped them.

Why was I targeted? My only problem was being left-handed and being able to read and write before I got there. That made me a target – apparently all I had to do was just snap across and be a good little right-hander, forget all that stupid stuff I’d been told before I went to school, and all would be well. When I couldn’t, the gates of hell were opened up on me. I have my father’s dossier on it; but you get the picture – it was all about teachers using power given them by the institution to make those defined as powerless suffer. As shown in my father’s notes, meeting records and correspondence, it was difficult to hold teachers to account for this. There were legal limitations to how far they could physically hurt children, but in practise they could do anything they wanted, a lot of it was psychological, and they were good at lying when confronted (as also shown in dossier my father kept).

I guess things have changed in the intervening years, but when I see headlines in which, once again, a school seems to be more concerned with having its power over others go unquestioned than with teaching – and is prepared to push an obviously petty issue to the point where they make national headlines, I have to wonder.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018

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