Love, Life Stories

The three toxic displays of discipline I suffered through in school

People forget how impressionable children can be but we’re always watching and learning as kids. And we remember.

The past few years, I’ve become quite aware of the kind of person I am. The way I speak, the way I hold myself, the way I react and act – these have all been put under a microscope, assessed, and continuously amended – an ongoing work in progress. Initially, I realized my first instincts rarely reflected the action I would like to carry out. In fact, those instincts were rooted in something dark, something toxic. Something spawned of anger and frustration and abuse. I asked myself why.

Why do I get irritated at the most trivial things at times? Why do I feel the need to exercise control in situations where I have no business doing so? Why are simple errors triggering? Why is my first instinct to lash out at times? I definitely did not act on those instincts. In fact, ask anyone who is close to me and they’ll describe my temperament as cool and calm but it bothered me that those instincts existed in the first place. Where did they come from?

The answer is school. Or rather, the role models – teachers, supervisors, principal – I had during school. I’m not going to sit here and pretend that my school is to be fully blamed, or that the impact it and the people within left is totally negative, but I did spend 14 years of my life in one school. That’s more than half of my life.

And those were my impressionable years. So while I engaged with diverse cultures, subjects and personalities, I came across a uniform face of discipline – harshness. Three specific styles of discipline stand out. These are the ones which burrowed their way in and took root in my bones. These are the ones I’ve fought to dismantle and step away from:

1. Verbal abuse

A white man in a light blue shit and striped blue tie is yelling. He is looking straight on and his expression is contorted in anger.
[Image description: A white man in a light blue shit and striped blue tie is yelling. He is looking straight on and his expression is contorted in anger.] Via katemangostar on freepik
If I asked a question with a glaringly obvious answer, I was called stupid. If I stepped out of line, I was yelled at first, rather than being scolded sternly and calmly. I had fingers wagged in my face. Words yelled centimeters away from it too. I was spoken rudely too and looked down upon, I was told to “shut up” if I dared to speak up in defense, and I was told “not to be stupid”. And here’s a phrase that was a daily occurrence – “Non-Arabs! Get out!” I attended an English-centric school in an Arab country and was part of the handful of “Non-Arabs”. My ethnicity didn’t exist. I was a non-being.

And all of this was prefaced by setting a controlling environment filled with mistrust and basic human rights violation such as random bag searches, and at one point, a body pat down. What were they looking for, you may wonder? Cell phones, makeup, mp3 players, cameras – the contraband of a conservative world.

2. Physical abuse

A brown-haired woman in a black shirt is seated at a table. She is angry and holds her laptop above her head, ready to smack it down.
[Image description: A brown-haired woman in a black shirt is seated at a table. She is angry and holds her laptop above her head, ready to smack it down.] Via jcomp on freepik
It’s odd how the mention of physical abuse conjures up images of beatings, acts which leave physical markings. In comparison, then, it makes punishments like being slapped on the hand or wrist with a ruler seem tame. And when I mention that I had a teacher throw markers at our – their students’ – heads to get our attention, it’s downright laughable. But abuse is abuse, no matter how you dress it up. This is one example. Others featured light manhandling, a slight shove to get in line, or throwing things (teaching materials) on the floor, across classrooms, in frustration.

Small acts, one might say, but over time, such behavior has a way of normalizing itself in one’s eyes. It makes it seem okay to react in frustration – anywhere, anytime – through angry, physical actions. 

3. Public humiliation 

A young Asian child looks on solemnly as she leans against the back of the chair.
[Image description: A young Asian child looks on solemnly as she leans against the back of the chair.] Via Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash
Honestly, this always seemed petty to me. The very concept of shaming someone into behaving is barbaric because it’s achieved by putting a person down. And I always felt that it’s a power play. The punisher might feel vindicated for “putting the student in their place” but ultimately, they’re just causing psychological harm.

Standing in a corner, facing the wall, in front of the classroom so you can think about what you’ve done? Sitting on a stool with a cap that has the word Idiot or Stupid or Dunce written on it? Or being put in a chicken position? My school largely employed the first option along with sentences of standing outside of the classroom until one of the hall supervisors came down to yell at you.

How we’re disciplined as children impacts our psyche. However, the instincts you have don’t say anything about your personality. That is conditioning. What you do next, after consideration, is a true reflection of you. In short, there’s always time to unlearn the bullshit. Some will say I’m whining, that this kind of discipline is needed to sort out “bad seeds”. Or that, personally, they’ve suffered worse and they’ve turned out fine. That’s a bullshit argument because all it endorses is a repetition of this form of toxic discipline when there are much, much, better ways of disciplining a child.

Strictness is a necessity, abuse isn’t. Why feed into a form of discipline that allows harm when there are much better, healthier ways of handling a situation?