Stolen property that can’t be used

During lunchtimes, students were forbidden from re-entering the classrooms for any reason, but that was not enough to stop me from sneaking back one day during lunch after I had decided it was too cold to stay outside in the schoolyard without my jumper.

I hadn’t intended to hang around for more time than was necessary to fetch my jumper from my bag underneath my desk and then go back to the legitimate territory of the great outdoors.

No one ever explained to me why classrooms were off limits during recess and lunchtimes, any more than they explained why the grades five and six students shared the same classroom.

Thinking back on it, the idea was most likely a cost saving one.

Grades five and six shared the same space, albeit a larger space than the other classrooms, and with all children outside during recreation times, there were fewer teachers needed for surveillance.

Mother Mary John was not only the class teacher for grades five and six, she headed up the entire primary school of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Deepdene throughout the nineteen sixties.

Her style was typical for the day, one of dominance and control. She ruled with an authority based on humiliating children who fell out of that control and although even then I could see she was not tall, she terrified me in the same way, my father terrified me; in the way that people who use their positions of power to keep other people in check, still terrifies me.

When a girl misbehaved, Mother Mary John set her to write lines, line after line:

I shall not forget my lunch;

I shall not be disrespectful of my teachers;

I shall not litter the playground.

The list was endless and occasionally there might be a slap around the back of the legs with a ruler.

But the real corporal punishment and humiliation Mother Mary John reserved for the boys.

A naughty boy, naughty in Mother Mary John’s eyes, a boy who fidgeted too much in class; a boy who could not resist the temptation to talk to the boy beside him at our shared desks; a boy who failed to wear his regulation school shoes; any behaviour that marked out a child as attention seeking – a ‘notice box – as Mother Mary John called him, warranted punishment.

We needed to ignore notice box boys, or better still, notice them in memorable ways.

To do so, Mother Mary John ordered the naughty boy to stand in front of the class. She took a ribbon from a collection of spares she kept in her desk drawer and tied it around the boy’s head like a bandana, or she bunched up a clutch of the boy’s hair, assuming it was long enough, and tied it into a high pony tail, or two pigtails, if there was hair enough, then she ordered the boy to go outside and stand inside the empty rubbish bin that stood in front of the classroom for an hour.

‘If you behave like rubbish you’ll be treated like rubbish and if you behave like a silly girl, you’ll be treated like one.’

If she considered more serious punishment was necessary, Mother Mary John used the strap against the naughty boy’s hands. Palms up on the desk and no flinching allowed, otherwise she repeated the process of strap to upturned hand as many times as Mother Mary John’s instincts told her was necessary.

It was against this background that some strange force impelled me to break the law, not only of entering the classroom out of hours but also of something far worse. At least in Mother Mary John’s eyes, it was worse.

From my desk towards the back of the classroom where I fumbled for my school jumper I looked up towards the front of the room. There was a pile of empty lunch boxes strewn across her desk. Boxes of all shapes, sizes, and colour and there to one side I recognised my own lunch box, unlabelled like all the other miscreant boxes there on top of Mother Mary John’s desk and something possessed me such that I went to the desk and gently prised mine out from the pile, careful not to disturb the other boxes, which could have fallen at any minute.

I took the box back to my desk and hid it in my school bag. It was after all my lunch box and, although I had failed to label it to let the world know it was mine, and although I had forgotten to take it in from the schoolyard one lunchtime several days ago, it was still mine.

I had worked hard to extract the cost of that lunch box from my mother’s limited amount of money my father offered her each week.

‘I need a lunch box like the other kids,’ I had told her, ashamed to be rated among the poorer kids at the school who could only afford to bring their lunches to school in brown paper bags.

My mother had given me the two dollars fifty necessary to go down to the hardware on Canterbury Road and come home with a small green lunch box, enough to hold a single sandwich, but my pleasure only lasted the few days until it disappeared.

And here, too, no wonder I had taken it back, but Mother Mary John saw things differently.

‘Who stole a lunch box from my desk this morning?’ she said when we were once again seated at our desks ready for a nature studies class where we were to study the constitution and reproductive capacity of a flower, its petals, stamen and pistil, words I associate now with the construction of that day.

‘I know exactly how many lunch boxes were here on my desk this morning and now one’s missing’.

No one owned up to the charge. Why should they unless someone else took their lunch box back, too?

But Mother Mary John could only identify the one missing lunch box and the fact of only one culprit who was me, but I could not own up to it. My lips were frozen stuck together and my fear so great I could not have even found the strength to raise my hand.

‘If the person who has stolen this box from my desk does not own up, then we will search the room. Each of you go through the contents of your neighbour’s desk.’

There was a scurrying of feet, desktops lifted and shut down hard, books shuffled around but no lunch box to be found.

‘Now each of you go through your neighbour’s school bag,’ Mother Mary John’s words were determined.

How I managed this sleight of hand amazes me still. How I managed to shove that lunch box from my school bag back into my desk after the desks had been examined and we were about to embark on trawling through each other’s school bags amazes me too, but I managed to hide the box under my books just as Kerry O’Neill, who sat beside me at our twin desk, reached for my school bag and handed me hers.

‘Very well then,’ Mother Mary John said, ‘we will all stay on after school this afternoon and write down lines fifty times: “I shall not steal other people’s possessions.” You can all be punished for the bad behaviour of the one.’

And so it came to pass that I had engineered a punishment for the entire grade that had they known many a child would have dobbed me in. But I kept it secret and through some strange inner strength managed to ferry that lunch box home in the afternoon undetected.

But I could never use the box again and found I needed to hide it at home as well. If my mother had seen it she would wonder why, after all the fuss I’d made about needing a lunch box, I did not use it for my sandwich.

Plastic takes time to break down. I buried the box in the back yard in a hole I’d dug behind the garage where the garage and fence ran parallel with space enough for a small child to crawl through and bury all manner of stolen or otherwise repossessed goods.

The culprit.

Given the house of my childhood still stands, I expect the lunch box is still there, too, even after some fifty years.



8 thoughts on “Stolen property that can’t be used”

  1. I never had a lunchbox—I always went home for lunch—but there’s much here I can relate to. If I was to pick a single word to associate with my experiences whilst making my way through the Scottish education system it would ‘arbitrariness’; you never knew what you were going in to. I know I’m a slave to my moods but I generally stifle them as best I can. I never got the feeling the teachers did that. If they were in a foul mood we knew about and boy did we know about it and for some being in a bad mood was as good as it got. I only received the belt once and was outraged because I believed my punishment unjustified; she’d needed a scapegoat and it just happened to be my turn. I didn’t see it as a badge of honour or anything. I never had to appear before the headmaster and I was so glad because he and my dad had crossed swords more than once and there was no love lost between the two men. The only particular issue I remember was whether or not sex education should be part of the curriculum. My father was bitterly opposed and not afraid to have his say at the parent-teacher association meetings. Coincidentally they were only ever the two men there until I reached Primary 7 and Mr Watson was hired. This was another thing that outraged my father, how Scottish fathers were so willing to leave these matters to their wives. That certainly wasn’t my dad.

    I don’t so much remember the rules as being endless so much as… well, arbitrary. There were lines in the playground you weren’t supposed to cross which, of course, we made a game of jumping back and forth over. Nothing bad ever happened. Someone had simply decided that particular line marked the limits to our freedom. I’ve always hated the because-I-say-so answer to questions. Why can’t I cross that line? Because I said so. Why shouldn’t we eat from the tree in the middle of the garden? Because I said so.

    1. Arbitrary is a great word to describe the treatment of children in those days, Jim, and yes, teachers could be so much a victim of their own states of mind which they then took out – and most likely still take out – on the children. As for your father, he seems formidable but at least there’s a hint at some attempts at justice, or something like that, though no doubt he had his views and it might have been hard for him to consider other perspectives. Thanks, Jim.

  2. I’ve read this a couple of times and am still not sure how your lunch box ended up on the nun’s desk in the first place. Did she confiscate it because it was unlabeled?

    1. I never knew how my lunch box wound up on the teacher’s desk either, Kirk, but in hindsight and perhaps even at the time, I imagined the teacher collected them all from round about and was planning to get people to claim them and reprimand those whose boxes were not marked. A funny world to an eleven year old child. Thanks Kirk.

  3. From the sage eyes of an adult, the simple solution would have been to appeal to your mother to speak to Mother Mary John in your defence, but in a child’s mind a simple act becomes a 2-way crime. The longer it is hidden, the worse the imagined punishment.
    In trying to teach justice, we adults can be most unjust.
    It fascinates me now when my own sons tell me of misconceptions they developed as young children, from almost irrelevant information I passed onto them, and how much of my own childhood I forgot in the business of raising them.
    Next time I have children, I will do it differently. Oh wait, I’m a grandmother.
    So that’s what grandparents are for.

    1. Yes indeed, Karen, if we could do it all again, we would. Especially when it comes to the raising of our children, and even grand children. My children, including my grandchildren’s mother, reckon I spoil my grandkids in ways I never did with them as children. They’re right but what the hell. I don’t think anyone really minds. As for children confusing the rules when it comes to issues of justice, I agree there, too. It’s easy to become a bully as a parent but it’s also easy for children to bully. It’s hard to find that middle way.

  4. This makes me very, very cross, and very, very sad for the children in this sadistic nun’s care. It’s hard to fathom such cruelty. For goodness’ sake, it was your lunch box—she was the one stealing it. That you had to ‘steal’ your own lunch box back, and then lie about it is ridiculous. And the fact she then punished the whole class because you retrieved what rightfully belonged to you. No wonder you lied—I don’t blame you.
    It reminds me a little bit of when the Headmistress at my daughter’s school went on a drive to get the girls to put their school bags in their lockers or on bag racks, and any she found around the school, she picked up and took to her office and fined the girls to get them back. She didn’t make this public knowledge, I might add, so no one knew except those girls whose bags she’d taken. On Wednesday’s, my daughter had Science last period, and as the Science building was at the opposite end of the school to their lockers, she often missed the first bus and caught the late one home. Because she had an AMEB music exam the next morning, she had a music lesson after school, and had to be on the first bus. The bag rack outside the Science lab was full, so she left her bag on the floor beside all the others. However, and you can probably tell what’s coming, when she emerged, her bag had disappeared. She hunted the school for it, but couldn’t find it. Missed the bus, and to make matters worse, her music for her AMEB exam was also in her bag. I drove out to the school and we ran around looking for it, along with a couple of other teachers, growing more and more frantic. We had to give up and leave empty-handed, and get more music her music teacher for her exam the next day. When we got home, the Headmistress had emailed my daughter telling her she’d taken her bag and she had to pay a fine to get it back.
    I was beside myself with fury, as you can imagine—even writing this has made my blood pressure rise, I’m sure! The main thing that upset me was that she had no right to take my daughter’s bag without letting her know.
    My phone call with the Headmistress that evening was very tense—one of those when you know the other person knows they’ve done the wrong thing but won’t admit it. At least the whole class didn’t get kept in and made to write lines, I suppose!

    1. What an experience, Louise. And this happened to your daughter relatively recently I take it. I think of those people of fragile personalities who get a kick out of asserting their authority for its own sake, to make themselves feel good rather than in order to be helpful. Well I’m very glad you understand my awful experience. These things stay with you. Your daughter is very lucky to have a mother such as you, one who stands up for her in the face of injustice. Thanks, Louise.

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