Getting the strap

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1.

I am luckier than many Mennonite men my age or older. I only remember getting the strap three and a half times in my childhood. Once, by Principal John Brown for kneeing Karen Peters in the back in Gretna Elementary School. She had put my name on the green blackboard together with that of a girl I may or may not have liked in Grade Five. It was an easy trot down the aisle (for some reason the desks were aligned perfectly for a swinging launch) planting one of my knees in her kidney. Or so I found out later in the principal’s office because she had kidney disease.

We had a rule in our house that if you got the strap in school you got the strap at home. John Brown wrote a note I was to take home explaining what I had done and my punishment. I was terrified, tore up the note and spent a day or two quaking until Dad confronted me with my misdeeds, because of course JB had followed up. But he knew about our house rule and advised leniency, and I was grateful, because we both knew Dad knew his way around a strap.

The first time Dad strapped me was early on in my school career and stubborn resistance to learn arithmetic.[1] There were certain expectations of a teacher’s and principal’s son. I did not meet expectations with a spring time report card which was bad enough but then I proceeded to “lip off” we called it then, telling my parents very directly about my disdain for arithmetic and their expectations to do better than most kids.

This earned me a trip to the woodshed, which, on our property was one third of what would have originally been a carriage house. There was a strap in the house in my dad’s desk, but another, well several pieces of leather harness (we still had a horse or horses in Gretna), hanging in  the workshop. The middle third would have been the carriage house proper, and now served as a garage, with the final third providing storage for oats and other cattle feed. The hay was kept in the red barn.

He didn’t say much but told me to drop my pants and bend over. I learned that struggling and getting my hands in the way made him angry and my buttocks were fleshier and stung less. I was sent back to the house to apologize to my mother who had been the most offended and now sorry for my punishment. I will come back to this, and what was expected of (Mennonite)men and fathers in the 50s and 60s, not much programmed on the television I was watching. “Father Knows Best,” “My Three Sons,”  “Ozzie & Harriet” and my favourite “Hazel.”

Checking in my room with a mirror before bed that night, I could see bruises on my bum. After I put on my pajamas Dad came to sing Bayushki Bayu, my favourite Russian lullaby, standing in the doorway like he often did. “Do not let the sun go down on your anger,” a favourite admonishment of his.


 2.

Earlier this week I posted a story from the Winnipeg Free Press on Facebook about Mennonite children being removed from a Mennonite community in southwestern Manitoba because they were being assaulted by their fathers, and in one case a mother too.  Three men and one woman are charged with assault and assault with a weapon. Few would argue a cattle prod is not a weapon, but I know many even in my generation that would smirk, sneer, or sigh, about “a strap” being a weapon. “It’s so last century,” I imagine I hear from the contemporary Mennonite chattering classes.

Brad Fraser, playwright, and gay activist was the first to repost, then Wayne Tefs  “same old story, let the kids dance!”  and then from my friend Ted responding to my query about whether anger and personal discipline might serve as another worthy taboo theme for Rhubarb magazine.

Possibly the most interesting response was Armin Wiebe’s repost of “Christian Domestic Discipline.” It’s hard to believe this is not a joke, encouraging fundamentalist husbands, as head of the household to exercise authority over all others in his home (like “Christ over his church,” is usually the cited proof text) with spanking (wives included) a common element of the good Christian husband’s repertoire.

What struck me was that no Mennonite was willing to cast the first stone and suggest that these Old Order Mennonites (the real name of “horse & buggy” Mennonites)[1] were committing crimes. Sure it’s a big word, sure we don’t know the details, but come on, horsewhips? Cattle-prods?

It was good to read in yesterday’s Free Press that it was somebody from the still unnamed community (publication ban to protect the kids) that went to the police, with implications later in the story that severe discipline had been used to try to correct some “other” difficulties in the community and that the approach had failed.

The comments from the Mennonite establishment on this story have been interesting.  While not ever ceding punishment of this scale as suitable in any situation, every sound bite I heard included an immediate disclaimer that this was an anomaly, that something had gone horribly wrong, because Mennonites were peace-loving people, and didn’t do this sort of thing. Corporal punishment was only to be applied when the administrator was not angry, if ever.

The sense of embarrassment and even shame was palpable. How to include our brethren, loving and inclusive, while distancing ourselves from an incident or practice we know is not acceptable in contemporary society and contrary to accepted Mennonite theology. The kicker being that this was happening right here, right now, not in the backwaters of Bolivia or Paraguay last century.

This story caught my attention, because, like most assimilated “progressive social-justice” Mennonites, I had assumed this kind of stuff had stopped in our generation, and makes me wonder how common corporal punishment is in Manitoba in the 21st century, whether there are rural/urban differences and whether the more the repressive the Mennonite theology, the more severe the beating.


[1] http://mennonitestudies.uwinnipeg.ca/events/horse_and_buggy/program.php

 3.

In his day teaching in one or two room schools in rural Manitoba, the strap was an educational tool “applied to the seat of learning,” as my Dad put it. School trustees of the rural one-room schools expected it, and students took it as a badge of courage to take a beating as stolidly as possible, heavy corduroys offering some protection to boys in winter. Girls were usually strapped on their hands, though methods tended to vary with each teacher.

My parents, father especially, loved Max Braitwaite’s Why Shoot the Teacher and W.O. Mitchell’sWho Has Seen the Wind. That’s the way it was, mum able to forget and forgive the hand strapping she got, for accidentally breaking a school window with a snowball, from her favourite elementary teacher and role model.

……

Mennonites are noted pacifists.  If we were not so humble we would be really proud about it. Heck, I am proud my dad was a CO (Conscientious Objector) in World War II.

While there are over 13 different kinds of Mennonites alone in Manitoba the two things you need to know about Mennonites setting them apart from mainstream Protestantism, is that we believe in adult baptism on confession of faith, a theology descending from Anabaptists who were on the front of the line during the Reformation. No Original Sin, no child baptism.   Secondly we developed a New Testament based theology and practice of non-violence.  Though not surviving in all strains of Mennonites, pacifism is generally more or less our publicly expressed position.

There is a story of a Gretna resident serving as a missionary in Mexico who was slapped in the face, and dutifully turned his other cheek and had it slapped too. That was what Jesus would do. We knew how to treat our enemies, but our children were not our enemies, and spare the rod and spoil the child was the common wisdom of the day

Usually we were too young to call out the hypocrisy until we started moving to the city, going to university and mediating our own anger through writing with Patrick Friesen and Di Brandt being the most notable examples.

….

There was a chilling moment during the Symposium of Manitoba Writing (May/12)when Dick Harrison was asking Manitoba Mennonite Writing panelists of absent Mennonite fathers, and their absence or presence in contemporary Mennonite literature. Patrick spoke from the audience about his own father, and how his pa[1][1] believed his role as a father and disciplinarian determined by his religion and his church required him to use the strap, making his father beat him harder for having made him “have to” do it.

4.

 The half a strap  mentioned in my first post was out of character for my Dad. I was making too much noise in the basement rec room while he was preparing a sermon. As I stomped upstairs he burst out of his office, swinging the strap that was always in his desk and gave chase. He missed all but once. I decided though it would be advisable not to return to the basement anytime soon that evening.

 I say it was out of character for Dad, because very rarely got angry or lost his temper.  The one time I saw him in a blind rage was after my horse Dancer shied, driving him hard into the side of a passing pick-up one Sunday morning.  While the driver hurried to our house telling my mother to call an ambulance he came to, got up and walked to the barn where Dancer returned.  He got a piece of leather harness, grabbed Dancer’s bridle and beat the shit out of that horse (see Lucky Man  pp.20, 21).

 The third and last time I was strapped is probably the one that affected me the most. I sold pumpkins I grew in our garden every October. One day after school I sold one to David Nickel for twenty-five cents after school. He asked if he could have free delivery because the basket on my bike was big enough to take it to his place. I didn’t consider just letting him use my bike and trading back at school the next day. I didn’t realize actually how far outside of Gretna David lived and it was well after supper when I got back.

 I knew I was in trouble the minute I got in the door. Supper was over. Mom and dad were waiting for me.  They had been worried sick not knowing where I was.  The actual strapping I don’t remember like the first one. What I remember is how unjust I thought punishment was. I was just trying to help a friend. More humiliating though was the walk with Dad round our 3.5 acre property with him pointing exactly what our boundaries were with instruction not to cross those boundaries for a month.

….

 My mother made my father promise not to get angry before she accepted his proposal for marriage. He kept his promise, slipping only twice in my presence, once turning out the sunflower seeds in his pocket in our Fort Richmond backyard in response to mom’s nagging about the shells. The other was on a road trip where she wanted to go to a pulp mill he drove by, with her complaining enough for him to turn around, though she said he didn’t have to.  That’s all I saw in my 20 years living with them.

 The  problem this created for me were my expectations of relationships and marriages, no tools whatever for dealing with conflict, and never learning to express anger appropriately; instead at some point  my rage usually overcame my repression and I just totally lost it.

 With that caveat I know I was a very lucky boy, getting the strap  less than many many other children.  There were other issues at home, the absent father, the overriding importance of service and work before family, and a dose of neglect.

……

I was abused by a stranger who my father let take me fishing because I begged and begged to go, this after begging and begging to go on an actual lakeside vacation. 

 The  title of the poem about this experience is called “So how much does it matter?” (boy 93 – 96) I am curious why I responded to the situations I describe by becoming a very angry boy, telling my parents I would never say these were the best years of my life. Jimmy Bang Poems (Turnstone 1979) is a very much a young angry man’s book. I was diagnosed with depression in the seventies (the whole anger turned inward thing), though delaying treatment until 1984 when my first son was born.

I wonder about diferent levels of resilence individuals have facing f trauma and abuse.  The nature nurture discussion, how much have genetics and neurobiology shaped my mental health, or lack of it.   How big a factor religion, and repression, dominant in our home, in feeding my own, largely unabated, anger.   I am angry often now at my limitations, physical and mental, and it does no good.  Neither does blame, which I readily assume because, well, as Linda Ronstadt sang, “You’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good.”

 ……

 I was talking to one of my former Gretna Public School classmates about our experiences, my new book (boy) and my interest in writing a novel set in southern Manitoba  loosely based on the stories of his family and the street where I grew up.

 He said “You know we really pitied you when we were little. Remember when your Dad was Gretna Public principal there were two school buildings for a time, with one across the street for the younger grades. There was a strap in our building, and when a teacher wanted a child disciplined the teacher put the strap in a brown bag and we were to bring it to the your Dad’s principals office across the street. Usually we were such a mess by the time we got to his office he rarely used it. We could only imagine what it must have been like for you at home.”

…….

Have a story about getting the strap you want to share? Email [email protected], clearly indicating if you want to remain anonymous, but real email address and names required.

Or just post a comment….

V



[1][1] Finding Friesen’s sequence “pa poems”  Unearthly Horses, following the death of his father I believe,is worth the effort and an example of  a father’s presence in contemporary Mennonite writing.  I will post about them separately.

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