In grade three, our teacher was a nun who wore a full habit and had the most beautiful face I’d ever seen on a woman. She was strikingly good looking, likely provoking in me the first stirrings of love outside what I would have felt for my mother.
By then we had moved up from Halifax, Nova Scotia, when my dad was transferred to headquarters to continue his work as a writer with the Navy. I was born in Ottawa but at eight months, we had been shipped east, following dad as his career proceeded. They’d bought their first house in Ottawa before I was born, renting it out while they were gone those five years.
Before returning to Ottawa, my father dreamt that anyone who could speak the two official languages – English and French – would have a distinct advantage in Canadian society. Therefore, those children who were already attending English school in Halifax were transferred to French school in September when we arrived in Ottawa. My sister, our eldest, , and my two older brothers, were switched to St Thomas D’Aquin French grade school to resume their educations.
On the other hand, I myself hadn’t quite got to school yet in Halifax. In fact, I skipped Kindergarten because my birthday fell halfway through the year in December. The powers that be thinking it was better to start me fresh in the new language after we made the move. Disappointing as that was, I was so excited about being finally allowed to attend school that I even got ma to teach me rudimentary reading in my fourth and fifth years. It was with great anticipation that I looked forward to being in school every day like my brothers, instead of languishing alone at home without them.
You can imagine what a cruel trick it was for this little boy, in all the excitement of being on the cusp of joining the ranks of students like his siblings, to find that once finally allowed into grade one at St Thomas D’Aquin, I couldn’t understand a word spoken by either my classmates or my teacher. The reading I had worked so hard to master at ma’s knee was now useless. The kids in my class had all made friends the year before when I was still in Halifax; coming as they did from families where French was spoken daily; whereas, I didn’t know one word. I finally got to go to school only to find that all of my expectations were shattered, every last one of them.
I would spend most of my time there being either scolded or pitied by the nuns, fed peanut butter and jam sandwiches in their lunchroom when I forgot mine, or browbeaten for not speaking French and following directions. I registered very little of what was going on for that whole first year, unless, of course, someone broke down and actually spoke in English on my behalf, which all of them could do anytime they wanted, but rarely ever did.
I’d often try to answer questions posed to me by attempting mimicry when teacher would stand over me, pressuring me to answer something I could only poorly decipher from body language. Since teacher’s words were gibberish to my untrained ears, I’d speak gibberish in return. The other kids would erupt in laughter, infuriating the teacher. This would earn me time spent alone in the darkness of the clothing closet at the back of class, staring in the darkness at the wall, with a little light seeping in under the door from the classroom’s bright fluorescents, smelling the musty boots and coats drying there from being soaked with snow, listening to the kids and teacher carry on in an alien tongue I could not seem to comprehend no matter how hard I tried.
In the second year of my school career, a new Catholic French school had been built down the street from my parent’s home. No more school bus to take me away in the morning. Instead, I could reach it by simply walking 200 meters and come home for lunch every day at noon. About halfway through that second year, all of a sudden one day, I realized I got what they were saying. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was quite miraculous at the time, marveling as I did at the divide between ignorance one hour and comprehension the next. This made me listen even more intently, for now I knew what they were saying. From then on, I could pretty well discern what was going on, whereas before I’d been so hampered, relying mostly on observation to get through my days. In the morning of that momentous day, I knew nothing; by afternoon, I was one of them.
It still left me at a deficit contrasted with all the other kids, most of whom were from families that spoke French at home, having done so since birth. This was also the time when Quebec nationalism was simmering to an eventual boil, leaving some teachers with a clear prejudice towards the English. The nuns were pretty good, they served God, less so the nation; however, the lay-teachers at my Catholic school could be bigoted. And some of my classmates brought their parents’ prejudices to school with them. There was cultural snobbery around the French language at a time of great change in Canadian society.
What that meant was that I couldn’t bond as readily with the natural hierarchy of achievers in my class. My language weakness and delayed school start meant that I would have to choose friends from amongst the lower tier of students. Even then, none of this was lost on me. Predictably, I gravitated towards the sickly, the poor, the slow learners, the dysfunctional and the polio cripples from the start. They were the first tribe to accept me.
In grade three, I had settled into a steady rhythm of attendance and play. I had two older brothers, one a grade ahead, another a grade beyond that, and a big sister three grades up. I’d managed to find a few kids to hang out with, often bringing one home from school to my parent’s home at lunch- time, where ma would generously feed us both.
That year, Sister reigned over us with all the prudishness a 1960s nun could muster, an iron-fisted discipline laying quietly in ambush under her façade of benevolent kindness and a beauty that bespoke purity. Oh, those nuns, long used to being educators, were a tricky force to reckon with.
Even our Principal, Mother Superior, an older version of my teacher in looks, with a handsome if not more beatified countenance, could inflict harm with a smile on her face. One day you’d receive a warm hand caressing your cheek as she smiled and looked intently into your eyes, uttering words of love and acceptance. That signature gesture of hers left you open for her next move.
On another day, as she roamed the playground looking for those who’d transgress the French only rule, or engage in boisterous behaviour, she’d move in with that same kindly look. Bringing herself closer, bending over slightly, her robed arm would rise as if to rub your rosy cheek. Only, instead of that warm touch, three inches from your face she’d mastered the short slap by sending a tremendous amount of kinetic energy through her hand and into your jaw. This would leave you stunned, completely undefended and reeling from your encounter. She would walk away scolding, muttering about how you had failed to measure up. It’s very possible that somehow she taught Bruce Lee this technique later.
My best friend was a French kid who’d been held back a year. Junior Lefebvre seemed to accept me for who I was. He was almost two years older and we were inseparable.
One day in class, out of boredom, we began to toss notes back and forth between each other’s seats. He’d send a swear word he knew; I’d try to match him by sending one back. He wrote, caca; I wrote back, pipi. He sent the same paper back with a drawing a picture of a full bladder and appendage. I added an inverted W to represent breasts. He again sent it back, this time adding a plus sign between them. I cleverly added in an equal sign after those two images and the word “bebe”, the French word for baby.
I’m not sure about Junior but at that stage, I had no idea what sex was, where babies came from, or much of anything else. When I got the last note, I competed accordingly and felt clever, as if I’d solved a puzzle, returning it through the air to Junior. Only, it was folded up paper, not the most aerodynamic of things, curling mid-air as it did, missing the target. Sure enough, the note landed on Ms goody-goody’s desk. Startled, she looked straight at me; I was caught looking back aghast.
Of all people, landing on Claire’s desk was a worst-case scenario. Not only did she lack a sense of humour, she was the smartest kid in the class, with little tolerance for tomfoolery of any kind. Sure enough, she opened that note, looked at it briefly, then stared right at me contemptuously through her horned-rims while I sat there with gaping jaw in disbelief at my misfortune, before heading immediately to the front of the class to ceremoniously place the errant note on Sister’s desk. The nun took one look at the scribbles on that folded page, and murmured something to Claire that could only have been a question as to its origins. I watched as Claire perfunctorily pointed straight at me, as if I was ten feet tall with nowhere to hide. Sister again said something to Claire and she returned to her seat. I looked down at my desk.
That was in the morning. Sister said nothing to me, but at lunch recess, she called me to the front of the class. I expected to hear about it then; surprisingly instead, she simply handed me a crisp white envelope and instructed me to give it to my mother when I went home for lunch.
That posed a real dilemma. I’d never been asked to have a hand in my own demise before. I felt a strong survival reaction come over me as I weighed the pros and cons of whether I shouldn’t or should turn the letter in to mom. Finally, I thought, I’d better, but with an explanation. I’d frame things carefully and things would work out fine.
Arriving home, I stopped at the top of the stairs, just at the entrance way of the kitchen. There was ma efficiently preparing meals for those of us that made it home everyday from the same tiny school. I had the letter behind my back and asked her, “Ma, what would you do if I got blamed for something I didn’t do?” It was my opening gambit.
It was feeble but the best I could come up with at the time. The amateurishness of my approach was compounded when she answered, “give me that envelope in your hand behind your back.” She had spotted it and in her hurry, had grown impatient with how I was clearly trying to put things in a favourable light. She seemed to be indicating that she felt my attempt at influence was somehow a sort of cousin to dishonesty, the whole approach backfiring just as surely as the paper toss had earlier in the day.
She tore open the letter and uttered the most dreaded words she could, “Wait until your father gets home”. Those words were powerful and final: life would now be put on hold until that threat resolved itself whichever way my fate determined. It was a sinking feeling, helplessly devoid of options or the benefit of sympathy from anyone. I was completely alone now.
I ate silently and returned to school. I finished the day there with no memory of Junior’s reaction, remembering only that Sister seemed to almost ignore me all afternoon. It was indeed as if I now existed in a vacuum, a kind of suspended animation filling in for reality.
At supper, all nine kids sat on benches around a two-foot by three-foot table in the kitchen. The youngest would have sat in the high chair in the corner. Later, that space was replaced by a stool occupied by my eldest sister, watching over us in ma’s absence while herself eating at the counter. My father would arrive mid-meal, often in crisp uniform, wearing shiny half-Wellingtons I’d polished for him that morning, taking up his place with ma in the dining room to discuss their respective days.
From my spot in the kitchen, I could glance to the left and see them. Often, they’d close the door and cut us off completely for a bit of privacy. That may have happened on this day. If it did, I would have known it was because the letter I brought home was being read just then.
I didn’t eat at my usual pace, rather, I picked at my food much more slowly, like a condemned man, knowing that going to the gallows on a full stomach was not going to make a difference. The gallows were the gallows, not a place for appetites.
Finally, towards the end of supper, Dad came in and ordered me downstairs. He moved quickly and decisively and simply said, “Christopher, to your room”. The time had finally come and my body buzzed in fear and frenetic movement. Leaving my spot on the right side of the bench where I sat, I managed to squeeze between my father and the other kids and head down into the darkness of the stairwell to my room. Behind me, I heard my father rattle the “ruler” off the top of the door frame that separated the kitchen from the hall way where it sat up high, perched there for ease of access but effectively to intimidate as well.
The ruler came about because of my older brother. He is the only lefty in the family and the most athletic, a natural leader, courageous and principled. He had always been meticulous about how he dissected things; from a very young age, he was frequently questioning my parents. He often stood up for all three of us older boys at some personal risk. This did not always go over well with ma, made worse while caring for a brood of nine. She’d complain to Dad who, having exhausted all the thinner pieces of wood in his scraps on previous corporal punishments, finally resorted to making a permanent model that would last the coming years.
Made of pure Canadian maple, it was fashioned from a hockey stick handle he’d cut to size of no more than eighteen inches, the first few sanded down a bit to make a slightly rounder-edged handle. This proved unbreakable, and the rattling sound it made when it was removed from its regular spot was enough to cause a whole household of kids to freeze in their tracks in fear. In silence, we’d strain our ears for footsteps coming our way, or for voices indicating someone else was getting their due instead.
That day, arriving on my heels, my father told me to pull my pants down. I cried as I let them drop to my ankles for I’d never been commanded to do that before. I cried again when he told me to hang on to the bedpost. He may have told me I deserved it, or that I had it coming, but I don’t remember anything except for what he had to say to line me up for what I was about to receive.
He then began to use the ruler to spank me in full force. The first blow stung my flesh like hot water on a burn. The baby fat of my fleshy backside, ripe and cushioned, gave him ample target for which to aim. His first 27 hits came rapidly, and I withstood them, somewhat valiantly, him swinging that hardwood ruler from head-high down, before I finally dropped screaming to the floor in pain and fear. I begged him to stop, “No daddy, No!” All he did was say “Get up, get up!” and repeat the attack.
Once the strikes hit the mid-fourties in number, I began to fall to the floor almost after each one, the stinging forcing me to gyrate on the floor as if I was trying to shake the pain from my body, my wailing becoming louder and more pleading. “No daddy, no”, I’d say through my tears, screaming it at him myself after a time, my voice encouraged by the intensity of the pain I was experiencing. He’d only repeat the same command, “Get up!” and begin anew.
He’d try to get as many hits in as quickly as he could before I’d fall to the floor, writhing and attempting to escape, hiding his target by momentarily laying prone, facing him, screaming “Stop it daddy, Stop it”. Each time he’d return me to my position hanging on to that bedpost, my pants now off from kicking to get away, inexorably resuming my punishment, thinking all the while that with one more hit my tender flesh would be ripped open and I’d surely bleed all over and die. Having passed the extremity of my limits, I entered a mental state of sheer despair.
I gave up hope of it ever ending by way of showing him how much pain he was causing, instead, I tried to just exist in the reality at hand, each full hard blow sending me anew to the floor to gain myself a moment of respite, each time the blur of the room through my tears a dizzying scene of terror. I pleaded still but with much less force, trying to reason with him through my sobbing convulsions, “Please daddy, I won’t do it anymore”, hoping he’d stop, but it was all to no avail.
He never listened, the cold executioner in him having been awakened, there was no calling it off. It went on for 72 agonizing hits. More than half were individual strikes under full set-up, delivered with extra determination given my protestations, my lack of fortitude thereby making me contribute to the severity of my own punishment.
I know this figure because my brothers were listening, surreptitiously counting, informing me sometime after that I had set a new high number. Perversely, as if searching for a purposeful meaning to attach to the event, it was the empty present, the lump of coal at Christmas, the highly doubtful consolation: I had the family record.
In the end, I was left there crying, only to dress myself through my sobbing and resume my place at the supper table to try and finish my meal. Oh yes, there was no escaping not finishing dinner. Even though it held no taste through my tears, traumatically permitting myself only to swallow, rather, to choke the food down in fear. I later cried deep heaving sobs whilst sitting on the edge of my bed the whole of that evening, into darkness and beyond.
The next day I awoke, resiliently buoyed by if not the admiration then at least the respect of my older brothers for having endured, their reassurances weak but somehow a tether to daily existence; comforted somehow that my screams had reportedly been heard by all the occupants of the houses around us; and now the lamentable but undisputed record holder of our family’s violence.
Sister enquired after me in the school hallway as we took off our boots and jackets before class. She asked if my parents had spoken to me. I told her they had, reassuringly telling her not to worry, that I was cured of acting out. I’d received my punishment; she’d get no more trouble from me. I remember being alert, my voice tinged with a sort of wonder at my own survival as I spoke with her, wanting her to be fully convinced. It was behind me, though she had sent me to my travails at home, I was safe for now. I wanted this antagonist to like me, to cause me no further harm.
Then I lifted my shirt and readily pulled my pants down on one side to expose my flesh, as if offering her irrefutable proof that I’d been punished to her specifications. That whatever was in the letter she sent home with me, surely this would meet whatever demands she had made. From the middle of my back to just above my knees there was one continuous purple, red and bluish mass of damage: a kaleidoscope of swirling bruises and contusions that would take a month or more to heal. There were welts on the periphery of the striking area matching exactly the shape of the ruler, where an errant hit, likely because I had reflexively arched my back in avoidance, made my father miss the main target of my body. Where impact had hit upon already damaged skin, blood had leaked the way a scrape does, little droplets of red moisture showing here and there like macabre beads of sweat.
My pajamas had stuck to me the night before and lifting my shirt for Sister, my shirt tugged at my skin from the drying blood that continued to seep slowly from my broken skin. I watched her face. She did nothing less than recoil in disgust, her head snapping back briefly several inches or so. She quickly regained composure and with only the slightest of acknowledgement, she looked away and walked off.
I don’t remember her ever saying anything about it again, nor of her speaking with me one on one. The rest of the year passed quickly, or at least, I don’t have much memory of it. That she was always kind to me, in a sort of neutral way, is about as much as I recall. When I returned for grade four the following year, she was gone. I never saw or heard of her again.
A day or so later, my big sister took me aside, a subversive voice of disapproval towards our parents over the episode. She told me that she would soon grow up and get a job, once she found her own place I could come and live with her where I’d be safe. It was the first value judgment I’d heard about the ordeal, a spark of light lit in my belly like a hot coal, left there to smolder and smoke under the burden of my shame. On the one hand I understood that I deserved my fate; on the other, my sister held it out as unfair. She gave me hope. At eight years old, these were confusing times.
That wasn’t the first or last episode of my father’s violence; but it was the time the record was established. In the end, for the sake of all my brothers and sisters, I was somehow grateful that record was mine alone.
C K Wallace 2014 all rights reserved