[Content Warning: abuse, violence]
In primary and secondary schools in the Caribbean, students are often subjected to vast amounts of psychological and physical abuse. Yet, if you say this and look back on your education with less than adulation, you are chastised. It’s as if you broke some unspoken code, to sweep the abuse under the rug and as is the typical course in our society, protect the abusers from criticism and ultimately, accountability.
I’ve written in the past about how violent disciplinary methods disproportionately target blacker students from poor backgrounds. And I’ve written about how physical violence disproportionately targets male students in our schools. I’ve also taken the time to identify the definitions of both psychological and emotional abuse in previous posts. If you need a refresher, please take one before you continue reading.
Children in primary schools are there with their first priority being to learn. Other priorities may include schools being the one place students can secure a full meal for the day. Additionally, teachers are supposed to provide a temporary replacement for care and love students should be receiving from their parents while the parents are away working.
One of our earliest lessons in school is unfortunately, trauma bonding with the abusive people who are supposed to care for us. In this post, I’ll mostly be writing about my own experiences regarding what I’ve witnessed in St. Lucian schools, but I can guarantee you that every other person schooled in this country that I’ve spoken to shares these experiences. While many of them have so thoroughly trauma bonded to their abusers that they look back on those violent times of their lives fondly, many of them have stepped out of the cycle of abuse and realized that their experiences reflected inappropriate behavior on the part of the adults who were supposed to care for them.
The thing about “abuse” is that it will justify itself continuously to prove that it exists. The teachers that inflicted sadistic violence upon school children — specifically targeting those living in poverty in many cases — often justified their behavior by saying that they would only beat for a “good reason”. The catch here is that the abuser sets the goal posts, and moves them continuously based on their behavior. Every reason for brutal lashings with belts, thick sticks or branches suddenly becomes a “good reason”. Children may know right from wrong but the power dynamic enables them incapable of responding to abuse with anything but deference. The impact of this in the long term has been clear in our culture today…
Because people deny abuse within the school system, that doesn’t mean that abuse hasn’t happened. People will be shocked if you tell them that people controlling your literal bodily functions is abuse — but it is. It is the same type of abuse common in prisons and concentration camps. Trauma bonding involves the very act of minimizing what has happened to you. You don’t have to believe it for it to be an incontrovertible fact. The deluge of flat earth truthers doesn’t mean that the Earth has suddenly stopped being round.
Acquiescing to abusive power structures then becomes a measure of your worth in society. You are “good” if you obey nonsensical rules and you are “bad” if you are curious. You are “bad” if you question what you’re told. This is another harmful lesson that’s engrained early within our abusive school system.
Media, teachers and legislators collude to ensure we have a society that is continually abusive to children. Newspapers will publish blurbs about faulty studies with poor methodologies to claim that “beating is good” despite the fact that decades of real research has definitively determined for actual decades that the effects of beating children are deleterious in the long term. There are more effective disciplinary methods that do not involve the use of physical or emotional violence.
People who rally behind abuse within our school system supportively are then shocked to hear that students undergo abuses within the home. When our society has legalized abuse on such a wide-reaching scale, it should not then be surprising that the Caribbean has high rates of incest, sexual assault and/or murder. Violence begets violence and when the earliest lessons you learn are that violence is a way to accomplish your goals and “get people to behave”, that sets the framework for your behavior in the future.
The very abusers who see themselves as staunch disciplinarians will in many instances, have children arrested for drug crimes and they exhibit other anti-social behaviors. The abusers who see themselves as “good” for all of society miss the very fact that you cannot enjoy brutalizing small children without being a sadist. Justify it all you want, the abuse children face in school is nothing more than normalized sadism.
Throughout primary school, I remember many instances of sticks as thick as my forearm being broken on the backs of young black boys. I remember withholding your tears being seen as a sign of “manliness” — one of the first instances of toxic patriarchal masculinity being forced on actual children. I remember teachers picking on students (like me) whose parents did not want them to be violently brutalized with weapons during the school day. Those of us whose parents did not endorse abuse were derided by the teachers entrusted to care for us. Obviously, we were spoiled if we did not receive violent beatings from strangers daily. That was really and truly the environment that I grew up in!
In Secondary School, the abuse takes a different turn for girls and boys in some cases. At St. Mary’s College, young boys are indoctrinated into a strict social hierarchy to “teach them how to be men” with the main focus of teaching them how to 1. avoid being gay and 2. endure abuse without complaint, even “laughing at it”. (BTW, laughing at your abuse? Still doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Still didn’t mean that it wasn’t abuse.) I cannot yet figure out a reason why anyone, especially a small teenager needs to “be a man” or do anything other than their homework and wholesome extra-curricular activities. At St. Joseph’s Convent, girls are subjected more often to psychological abuse than physical abuse. Of course, this is all good preparation to being a submissive wife to your violent future husband. The rest of the secondary schools in St. Lucia are co-ed — and I can’t speak confidently on the types of abuse that go on there but I can be reasonably assured there is a mix of emotional and physical violence.
Abuse is how we learn our status in society and it is how we learn our worth. If that is the method of delivering the lesson, what is the lesson that students in our society learn?
YOU ARE WORTHLESS.
That’s it. That’s the impact of all this schooling. You learn that you are worthless. When boys cannot cry, they learn that their emotions are worthless. When gay boys become the poster child for the “most horrendous thing any man could be”, they learn the lesson that they are worthless. When “suspected lesbians” are gossiped about by their teachers, they learn the lesson that they are worthless. When children face daily insinuations that posture and skirt length indicate how “slutty” they are, they learn the lesson that they are worthless. When disabled (ADHD, depression, fibromyalgia etc.) students are verbally abused for their “laziness”, they learn that they are worthless. When dissent is criminalized, you learn that your feelings are not just worthless, but markers of inherent evil.
I don’t want to change anything today with this post. I just want you to open your eyes to your own experience. I want you to think back to instances in your childhood that you thought were unfair. Consider the idea that you were right. Consider the idea that your moral compass was well-developed without physical brutality and that the unfair behavior of your teacher really was unfair. Reflect on those memories and reflect on whether or not violence was necessary. If you believe violence was/is necessary, I now want you to consider why. If you believe in Christian messages (for example) or if you hold any other belief that PEACE is what should be exalted above all things, why do you believe that violence is necessary?
In the school system, the answer to that question is never “yes”. If we want to raise a future generation without violence, we’ll need to put an end to teaching them that violence is acceptable.