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.