By Robin Warnes
I’m only 5 years old. The bell rang and I went into line with the others to go out the door and go home. I noticed the teacher, Miss Budd holding a toy tractor in her hand. She was twisting the tow loop and pulling off a wheel. It was my tractor that I had lost earlier that day. I was very scared and had tried to ignore her actions. I still recall the distress that I had felt. I had no trust in my parents and never took my school problems home. So I was left to endure my school fear and anxiety alone which was to seriously affect my life in later years.

Another teacher in my later primer years when I was 6 or 7 years old was very nasty and, as result of the psychotherapy I underwent in later years, I am now able to say that this teacher is responsible for most of the psychological damage I suffered with resulting suicidal tendencies. This teacher’s name was Miss Collin. Miss Collin used terror and humiliation to keep ‘order’ in the classroom and did not hesitate to use the strap as her method of control.

I now intend to describe a number of incidents involving this Miss Collin which I had to deal with in psychotherapy many years later. These incidents were responsible for most of the psychological devastation that I suffered. The reason I had to ‘revisit’ these horrible classroom incidents in psychotherapy was to reverse my suicidal behaviour. Fortunately, to this end the therapy was successful, but not before I had attempted suicide twice and spent periods of time; hospitalised to receive treatment for the anxiety illness that contributed to my suicidal behaviour.

1.The terror of seeing a classmate being put in front of the class and given the strap was horrific and very profound indeed. The terror had the effect of causing my heart to pound and feel very sick in the stomach. I had to endure this ritual time after time over a long period of time; for as long as I had Miss Collin as teacher.

2.This incident involved humiliation. Miss Collin was keen to humiliate as punishment if a child could not spell a word or do a sum. For whatever reason, I was singled out. The humiliation involved ordering me to stand in a corner, facing the wall. I do not remember how long I had to stay there but the feelings are still very vivid. They were feelings of intense embarrassment and fear; then a process of ‘closing off’ set in. Much later when it was all over the anxiety would persist. I had to endure this anxiety for as long as I had to have Miss Collin as teacher.

3.This time Miss Collin decided that I ‘deserved’ the strap. When she meted out this abuse it was always a ritual. On this occasion, I was ordered out behind the cloakroom door. This was one of Miss Collin’s favourite methods and approach to this punishment. While behind that door, I heard the whole class clapping and jeering. The feelings I experienced were terrible fear and physically feeling sick in the stomach. Miss Collin came out with her strap and ordered me to hold out my hand. The physical feeling on the hand was probably like a stinging sensation, but I clearly remember my stomach felt like I had swallowed burning acid. When returning to the classroom, my feelings completely closed down and the whole incident remained buried until some 20 years later when I finally expressed the horrific distress and full impact during psychotherapy treatment.

4.Belittling and ‘put-downs’ were another favourite of this teacher, Miss Collin. By not being able to understand something; qualified for being called ‘rubbish’ and she made sure that I felt I was rubbish and described me as rubbish. I was rubbish when anything disagreed with her wants or demands. On another occasion when I was sitting having lunch, a soft-boiled egg fell from my hand, through the gap in the planked seat onto the ground. The laughter of the others drew the attention of Miss Collin and she called me a ‘pig’. She made me wash it down while the others looked on. The degradation I felt was very devastating.

5.One final incident I will report: One day Miss Collin read a story to the class. Then she began to pick out single individuals to describe parts of the story. She turned to me and I could not remember so she forced me to sit in class all playtime to read the whole story. I knew that if I could not understand or describe the story as Miss Collin wished, the torture with the strap would happen all over again.

During this school abuse as a 7 or 8 year old I had thoughts that involved ending my own life.

At the secondary school I was met with further abuse. I was now 13 years old. The school was a mixed institution, but the classes were segregated. The first days are hazy but I remember very well, some of the incidents that happened. On the first days a test was done for ‘academic’ ability and I was put into a bottom class. I will now describe some of the school incidents that I had to deal with during psychotherapy treatment many years later.

I can not remember a lot about the first two years at this school because of the psychological abuse that went on around me and the consequent terror and anxiety that I experienced. However I do remember very clearly, some of the incidents from those school years that did devastate me.

The anxiety I experienced at this school was to have a very damning affect on my adult life. In those school years I succeeded in protecting myself from some of the abuse by ‘using’ my fear as my protector and ally. This was to further undermine my psychological wellbeing as this caused the fear to ‘feed’ on itself. In effect this caused me to become more anxious and depressed and thus I began to have crying bouts. I recall, at this stage, as a 13 or 14 year old, I began to think about suicide.

It was seen as normal to receive the cane if a book or other item, so important to the school system, were forgotten and it was common to see a classmate caned for such an ‘offence’. The constant fear of forgetting something did nothing to aid in learning and my anxiety never ended. I had to live with this anxiety for two years.

1.Some of the boys from my class found some javelins on the playing field and began throwing them. Fortunately I did not touch any, although it was possible I would have as I had no reason to believe it would offend. However, back in the classroom a teacher stormed in waving a cane and demanded that those who had touched a javelin to ‘own up’. This teacher’s name was Mr Pooches, the physical education teacher. Those who owned up were marched up in front of the class and systematically caned. I do not know how many times but I recall very vividly how witnessing this brutal scene affected me. My heart was pounding and I was shaking with absolute terror. I could never forget this incident and I still feel sick when I recall it.

2.A very nasty incident I can clearly recall was seeing a pupil in class singled out and was caned in front of the class. His distress was very profound indeed and he cried for quite some time - the teacher perpetrator did not give a damn about his distress.

3.One other time, I forgot my gym shorts and I left them in the locker. I ran back to get them but then I was late. This qualified for the cane. The closing off” of feelings technique came into play. It was that Pooches teacher that abused me on this occasion. The one other time I got myself on the end of this abuse again was in a classroom and I don’t even remember why I “got it”. But I did, this time by a Mr Campbell, a metalwork teacher. This school was a very unpredictable place that seemed to have no sense or reason. It was run on fear, terror and abuse. My reactive feeling was this ‘closing down’ of emotion. This closing off of emotion was to prove to have a very devastating effect on me later in life.

During the crying bouts I mentioned earlier, I remember being put into the sick-room. However; I do not remember who was responsible for this but I came to know that this crying resulting from the anxiety was putting me into a safe place. At this time migraine headaches began to trouble me and these persisted up until I received psychotherapy treatment at Ashburn Hall Psychiatric Hospital (situated in Dunedin, New Zealand) in 1981.

However it was in my third year that the situation changed for the better at this school where I was concerned. I was very lucky to have a form teacher in the fifth form who was a humanitarian. His name was Harry Ward. Mr Ward was responsible for giving me charge as form captain. This was a very privileged position as I found I had the ‘power’ to decide how discipline was to be carried out in the class. I have to say though that this came about after a lot of counselling from Mr Ward and I began to feel he could be trusted. Looking back on this it seems so odd that such a situation could come about after two years of being exposed to brutal treatment. Looking back now, it seems that I was given empowerment which was initiated by Harry Ward. I was given control over my environment and what would happen in the classroom. There was no caning or nasty incidents in this final year. I still suffered anxiety - which persisted long after I had left school.

The appalling discipline practices I have described, certainly contributed to my anxiety and consequent feelings of powerlessness; and the ‘closing down’ of emotion which led to my death wish and consequent suicide attempts.

To sum up, Miss Collin and the other teachers described here were professional bullies who did not give a damn about a child’s fear and whether or not their actions would cause life-long psychological scars; were insignificant. The Education Authorities failed to recognise that a child’s future depended on the quality of education received and that the wellbeing of the child was going to determine the quality of life in the future. In later years a classmate from Miss Collin’s class did commit suicide. It can only be speculated what caused this tragic loss of a young life, of someone who I remember from primary school. This person was very well liked and the death came as a terrible shock to a small country community.

The very real horror is that the classroom conditions described in this autobiography were very common and were seen as acceptable. It could not possibly ‘do any harm’ and could only be ‘good’ for any child. Today, there are still some who want a return to these classroom conditions and re-instate corporal punishment in schools. They proclaim that it is 'good discipline'. The Education methods used were very unprofessional and were designed to control by fear and resulted in many cases; to psychological devastation. I saw this in group therapy in witnessing other members having to deal with their childhood abuse.

From what I have witnessed as a patient myself, I believe testimony to this fact can be given by any therapist who has worked in psychotherapy as well as by the survivors themselves.

Corporal punishment at home
I mentioned that I suffered depression in my childhood which had an underlying death wish. This childhood feeling has become very focussed in recent times and I think only the suicidal could have sufficient insight through experience to understand the mechanics of these self-destructive feelings. When I was punished in childhood, I was physically hit. This involved a weapon, usually a strap, a stick, any weapon that would involve inflicting physical pain and distress. During these events I can recall feeling that I did not matter and would 'close down'. Also, the violation was always justified by the abuser (in this case, my parents). During my times of depression and suicidal tendencies I can now recall the same feelings of wanting to disappear when I was physically hit, that I was not allowed to feel, was denied all feelings of anger, physical pain and emotional distress when the hitting was being meted out. I can remember that only the punishment counted.

The feelings as a child, of closing off and feeling a non-entity during this abuse, undoubtedly contributed to my suicidal condition. Little by little over time, the pattern was established as the abuse progressively continued and these feelings of wanting to 'disappear' became very deep-seated.

From what I witnessed during psychotherapy of others struggling to confront their childhood abuse, I discovered that the origins of these suicidal feelings are universal. I discovered that what I have felt has also been felt by others. I discovered that I was no longer alone with what I felt!.

I am speaking of treatment that was done to me which was condoned as "reasonable" treatment on children; (Section 59 of the Crimes Act). The feelings I experienced during these regular physical attacks and resultant panic from my childhood; were the same feelings I experience when I have been suicidal in adulthood. It was when I finally began to acknowledge my true emotions during psychotherapy treatment, that I began to understand my suicidal condition and reverse it. This could only be done by releasing the pain of the childhood abuse.

One of the most serious incidents of abuse I can clearly recall, happened at the hands of my father. What I am going to describe here, was a very serious assault on me. This incident happened, probably when I was about twelve years old. I can not remember exactly why I was physically attacked on this occasion but I can remember being accused of doing something that I actually did not do. And when my father discovered that I did not do what I was accused of, he made no effort to apologise or show any concern. This in itself was serious enough. The physical abuse needs to be described as it was a very violent assault on me which has had a long term effect.

My father began to accuse me. When I asserted that I was not responsible, he picked up a broom. He then used the handle of this broom to strike me. He began to hit harder and harder and he kept hitting me with it. I can remember the pain and the force of the weapon. While he was attacking me he kept saying "you did do it, you did do it".

He hit me mostly about the legs and also around my stomach. I can remember the bruises I had for several days after this vicious attack. This abuse occurred in the dining room at the family home. I can clearly recall my mother being present during this attack and she made no attempt to stop it. It seems she had approved of this vicious assault. This I think, is one of the most serious physical abusive acts I can remember happening by my parents.

I can not remember my immediate reaction as result of this abuse but I can recall the incident being "swept under the carpet". I have always remembered this attack by my father. It was several years before I spoke about it for the first time, and this was during psychotherapy treatment. Today, I can still significantly feel the emotional pain of this abuse when I focus on, or describe it. This long lasting pain which is still very much present after so many years, must indicate the impact such violence has.

I can certainly say now that during an attack like this, (which I have noted, some adults proudly describe as 'hidings') that I can still remember the 'closing down' process which is exactly the same closing down that I felt during a suicidal bout.

As a survivor, I strongly advocate that the Government follow the advice of the Children and Young Persons' and their Families Service, the Office of the Commissioner for Children, and the United Nations and Repeal Section 59 of the Crimes Act. An assertive stand needs to be taken to stamp out child abuse in the home. Then immediately follow this up with family planning, parenting courses, anger management and counselling for families under stress. This will no doubt, help reduce the high youth suicide rate for which this country has now gained a reputation.

In 1990 corporal punishment was abolished in New Zealand schools. Its use by parents is still permitted under Section 59 of the Crimes Act.

© Copyright: This material may be downloaded and used for adult education with the condition that the content is not altered or erased in anyway without prior permission, and that the author's name is displayed at all times. This is a true personal account of a life struggle resulting from childhood abuse.

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