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Crime and punishment at the Little White Schoolhouse

A whip that cuts skin. A strap that leaves welts. Teachers that literally threw the book at unruly kids. Such was the fate of schoolkids who stepped out of line 100 years ago.

If you were a Victorian schoolchild with an ounce of sense in your head, you would soon fear the tri-prong whip gracing the teacher’s desk.

The small leather whip, at least 130 years old, is one of several implements of punishment seen on display at Truro’s Little White Schoolhouse Thursday, along with leather and rubber straps used by teachers to beat cheeky or rowdy children.

“They are rather violent and that’s simply because we believe that if someone was hit hard enough with them, it would cut into the skin just like a whip. Obviously, it was not quite as brutal as a cat o’nine tail but they hurt a lot more, I can guarantee that,” said student-turned-museum guide Matt Zolkivski of the tri-prong whip.

Often, disobedient students were called up to the front of the class by their teacher and hit on their hand in front of all their classmates, adding humiliation to the physical pain they would have felt.

To crown it all, students who returned home with welts on their hands or buttocks could often expect another thrashing from parents who now knew their child had misbehaved at school, said Zolkivski.

While barbaric by today’s standards, corporal punishment was usually a last resort in schools 100 years ago. Often, teachers would rely on the mere sight of a strap or cane to frighten children into behaving.

Some teachers threw books at children who played up in class, or flick chalk pieces at those who did not pay attention to lessons. These were less severe forms of punishment that usually did not leave a noticeable mark on a child’s body.

When Truro resident Barbara Cameron attended school, a favourite punishment of teachers was being rapped with a pointing stick used with blackboards. Visiting with her granddaughter Olivia from Moncton, she examined the display of straps.

Luckily, she was spared the most brutal instruments of punishment – but Cameron learned to fear the pointer sticks carried by her teachers – who were all too keen to use them.

“They would go down and smack their fingers on the desks,” recalled Cameron.

Luckily for naughty children, the use of corporal punishment slowly tapered of through the 20th Century. By the 1980s, the last generation of teachers who started their careers in the old schoolhouses were retiring, according to Zolkivski.

Today, corporal punishment in schools is outlawed and educators use positive reinforcement, such as rewards for helping out in class, rather than threats or fear tactics.

“It has also opened opportunities for people who would not bother going to school, for fear of having to deal with that type of thing,” said Zolkivski of today’s education system.

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