Former PM tells of brutal Catholic school life
THERE were others among the Marists for whom care and compassion were as from a foreign country. They could be callous and cruel to those in their charge, often capriciously. Half a lifetime later, it would be wrong to use their names, because they have all either retired or left the order. There may be other boys who have had entirely different experiences, but these are things I cannot forget.
I remember a brother beating the daylights out of one of the boarders because the boy's clothes were dirty and he hadn't changed his bed linen. The boy screamed and screamed as the thick cane came crashing down on his bare buttocks time and time again, the pauses between each blow seemingly designed for maximum theatrical effect.
The rest of us were reduced to terrified silence as the screams became convulsive sobbing. I still can't understand how anyone could justify such violence to a child.
Then there was Jeffrey, a boy in our class with serious physical disabilities, possibly a result of polio. He walked with a limp, his right hand disfigured and his right arm at times uncontrollable, shooting up into the air before slowly returning to a resting position. Jeffrey sat up the front. He worked hard. He was a good kid.
Then something happened in our maths class one day which enraged the teacher. Jeffrey was held responsible. He was ordered to stand before the class and extend his left hand.
Reverend Brother, clad in his brilliant white robes, black sash and gold-coloured crucifix around his neck, gave Jeffrey's good hand an almighty whack with a wooden blackboard compass. After the first blow, Jeffrey refused to extend his hand for the second, let alone the remaining three. His bad arm was by this stage waving wildly out of control. Brother then took to Jeffrey's behind with the blackboard compass for the remaining blows. Jeffrey was reduced to a blubbering wreck. I tried, clumsily, to console him after class. But there was nothing to say.
Much darkness lay in the souls of some of these men. They should certainly never have been let anywhere near children.
My own encounters with the brothers were much less brutal. The college had appointed one of the senior brothers as Master of Discipline. This sounded like an office from the Inquisition. It probably was.
One of the college's more bizarre rituals was to show films on Saturday nights for the boarders, but before the entertainment began the Master of Discipline would read out a list of those who had registered great achievements on the sporting field that day, to be applauded by all those assembled, followed by a list of those who had committed some misdemeanour or other during the previous week and who would now be caned. I had only been at the college a few weeks when I was horrified to hear my name read out - and it wasn't on the list of sporting triumphs.
Off we offenders trooped to the office with the Master of Discipline. Before each boy was caned, his misdemeanour was read out. Mine was leaving a hair comb in my shirt pocket when it went to the laundry. For this crime against humanity, I was sentenced to two strokes of a reasonably thick cane. It hurt like hell. What twisted mind would sit down at the college laundry and compile a list of those who had left items in their pockets, knowing this would result in a beating? And what equally twisted mind would think it right to belt a kid for leaving a comb in his pocket?
Dormitory masters exercised a lot of influence over our lives and ours could be a cruel man when he put his mind to it. Thankfully he was not our classroom teacher, though he did have the class next door to ours. Through the connecting door, the top half of which was a plain glass panel, I watched in awe one day as he caned his entire class of 66 boys, each with six of the best, because someone had fired a rubber band and no one had owned up. Nearly four hundred strokes of the cane later, he was as a man possessed, still going strong, although towards the end of this marathon performance, he was caning boys across the shoulders and the arms as his aim began to falter.
I resolved that day to give him the widest berth possible.
In the nearly two years I lived under his thumb in the dormitory, my most humiliating exchange came about after our first school dance. I was on cloud nine as I'd become hopelessly smitten with a 13-year-old girl called Bernadette from All Hallows' School in the city.
Although this was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, I didn't have a single item of groovy casual gear for the dance. Mum hadn't provided me with any. And besides, my mother's idea of casual gear would have been shorts, long socks and well-polished black shoes.
Because I didn't want to look like a total fool, I managed to scrounge some clothes from my mates, including a very attractive pair of tight-fitting white flares and an equally attractive psychedelic body shirt. I thought I looked all right on the night. Afterwards, back in the dorm, Reverend Brother observed that I had gone all gooey at the dance with the beautiful Bernadette. He then asked where I'd got the flash clothes from. I told him. Did I actually own anything I'd worn that night? he wanted to know. Sheepishly, I showed him a pair of brown-yellow socks. That was it. He looked at me with utter contempt. He said I was cheap, it was wrong to borrow other people's clothes and I wouldn't be allowed to ever again. My one night of unalloyed adolescent joy was punctured by words which cut to the heart. Bastard.
I longed for freedom, but school holidays, long weekends and what the boarding school called 'free weekends', when you could travel home, presented a particular problem when you didn't have a home to go to. I didn't blame my mother for this, as she was still working hard to retrain and rebuild her life and mine, but it meant each holiday from school saw me shipped from one family friend or relative to the next, some of whom I hardly knew. I felt like a piece of human detritus, an inconvenience to those around me.
And then there were those weekends when there was simply nowhere for me to go. I remember Reverend Brother literally shopping me around the classrooms one day to see if there were any day boys whose parents would take me for the weekend. This was a mortifying experience.
Christmas presented its own special challenges, as this was a very long break. Thankfully Mum decided to rent a flat under a friend's house in Nambour for the duration. And luxury of luxuries, the family living above had a swimming pool we could use. The flat was fine, if tiny. There were only two rooms, with a single bedroom to be shared between my mother, my older brother Greg and me.
We three became four when my sister Loree, who had entered a convent just a couple of years before, decided to return to the outside world. (It later transpired that it was the nuns who had decided Loree should return to the world. As a novice she had refused to surrender her Elvis Presley vinyls to Mother Superior. Mother became convinced that the Good Lord might have had a different vocation in mind for Loree).
Although our accommodation was cramped, I was delighted, because now the whole family - with the exception of my oldest brother Malcolm, who by that stage was on his first tour of duty in Vietnam - was together again for the first time in years.
I had been close to my sister as a child and I was so happy to have her back. But as the holidays came to an end, and the return to college loomed closer, I felt a great grey fog descend. I did not want to return.
It was at this time, just before the beginning of term, that I had my one and only experience of not having a place to sleep at night. The day came to pack up the flat. Everything was piled into Mum's VW and off we went. But as we kept on driving, it became obvious that my mother had nowhere to go. Perhaps she had exhausted all the charity that had been offered in the two years since my father's death. Perhaps she had simply failed to organise the next stop.