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Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Hitting the Woodwork

You've heard of professional footballers managing to miss the yards of open goal and 'hitting the woodwork' instead?  Well, this story is about the woodwork hitting me (or very nearly).

In Crime and Punishment I was talking about punishment in schools when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s.  I must admit that I mostly avoided any serious chastisement, largely because I was so invisible that most teachers would have been hard pressed to tell you my name.  School reports, particularly for P.E., used to feature such remarks as "Philip tries hard", which could be interpreted as "We're not really sure who he is, but we're pretty sure he hasn't done anything wrong, yet."

Corporal punishment was still a feature of my schooldays, and the slipper, cane and hurled blackboard rubber were daily occurrences.  Of course, the same gang of Great Uncles and the like, who used to come up with the infinitely depressing "you should treasure your schooldays, Philip, they're the best years of your life" would also trot out the old favourite "I used to get the cane regularly when I was at school, and it never did me any harm".  Whether it did them any good was, of course, not explored. 

The futility of corporal punishment, certainly in the habitual way it was doled out in my day, should have been immediately obvious to anyone walking past the Headmaster's office after Assembly, where you would have seen the same group of people lined up for the cane, day in and day out.  If this was the educational equivalent of the ultimate deterrent, then it clearly wasn't working.

I did get the occasional clip with a slipper whenever the class was selected for mass punishment for some unforgivable collective crime or other.  I also had to complete x amount of lines or 'Kings and Queens of England' (our History teacher's favourite punishment), which were always symbolically torn up when you delivered them.

The only time when I did get myself into serious hot water, was in my Woodwork class.  I'm afraid that my Woodwork teacher, Mr. W., and I didn't exactly hit it off. 

Sitting on the woodwork benches in our first ever class, all garbed in our brand new, clean white aprons, Mr. W. worked his way along the class distributing our pristine exercise books.  The doling out of exercise books and text books was a familiar ritual at the start of each school year.  Do you remember the chore of having to cover these precious objects in order to protect them?  Usually, this involved the use of any spare bits of wallpaper that hadn't been pressed into service as drawer liners.  This could result in your books sporting some rather garish floral designs, which did nothing for your street credibility.

Anyway, he reached me and I dutifully said "Thank you, sir" but, being quietly spoken, he didn't hear me and clouted me over the head with said book whilst bellowing "THANK YOU, SIR!"  Things went downhill from there.

I was fundamentally useless at woodwork, a situation which was not helped by living in fear and trembling of the teacher.  We also had Mr. W. for Technical Drawing, which occupied another large chunk of the week, so I was doubly blessed because I was rubbish at that, too.

Our first piece of woodwork was a sort of crude toy boat that we had to chisel and saw into shape.  When everyone else had finished theirs and taken it home proudly for display, I was still chiselling and sawing away at an increasingly unrecognisable chunk of wood.  In despair, Mr. W. told me to put the result in the storage space in my bench, "to be completed later", and move on to the next piece of work.  This became a regular feature of my Woodwork lessons such that, after two years of effort, working on increasingly more difficult projects, I had a bench full of incomplete and butchered lengths of timber.  In fact, the boat was the only thing I ever came anywhere near to completing.

How all this led to corporal punishment, I'll tell you in a little while.