There were teachers like this in many schools until quite recently. Many of them (including some I have known) would now be in prison for what they did.
I am no fan of D.H. Lawrence, finding his preaching, stentorian tone grating a lot of the time, and also believe his politics to have come close to fascism. To some extent he seems to justify the actions of Ursula here. I find this one of the most disturbing passages I have read in much mainstream literature, but likely quite accurate in terms of how easily children could be dehumanised by teachers who saw them as ‘things’. Before we sentimentalise teachers past and present, let’s remember how many there have been who used their positions as an opportunity to get high off their own power and give an outlet to their own hatred, taking it out on defenceless children.
From D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (1915)
She knew by now her enemies in the class. The one she hated most was Williams. He was a sort of detective, not bad enough to be so classed. He could read with fluency, and had plenty of cunning intelligence. But he could not keep still. And he had a kind of sickness very repulsive to a sensitive girl, something cunning and etiolated and degenerate. Once he had thrown an ink-well at her, in one of his mad little rages. Twice he had run home out of class. He was a well-known character.
And he grinned up his sleeve at this girl teacher, sometimes hanging round her to fawn on her. But this made her dislike him more. He had a kind of leech-like power.
From one of the children she took a supple cane, and this she determined to use when real occasion came. One morning, at composition, she said to the boy Williams:
“ Why have you made this blot?”
“ Please, miss, it fell off my pen”, he whined out, in the mocking voice that he was so clever in using. The boys near snorted with laughter. For Williams was an actor, he could tickle the feelings of his hearers subtly. Particularly he could tickle the children with him into ridiculing his teacher, or indeed, any authority of which he was not afraid. He had that peculiar gaol instinct.
“Then you must stay in and finish another page of composition,” said the teacher.
This was against her usual sense of justice, and the boy resented it derisively. At twelve o’clock she caught him slinking out.
“ Williams, Sit Down”, she said.
And there she sat, and there he sat, alone opposite to her, on the back desk, looking up at her with his furtive eyes every minute.
“Please miss, I’ve got to go on an errand”, he called out insolently.
“Bring me your book,” said Ursula.
The boy came out. Flapping his book along the desks, he had not written a line.
“Go back and do the writing you have to do,” said Ursula. And she sat at her desk, trying to correct books. She was trembling and upset. And for an hour the miserable boy writhed and grinned in his seat. At the end of that time he had done five lines.
“As it is late now,” said Ursula, “you will finish the rest this evening.”
The boy kicked his way insolently down the passage.
The afternoon came again. Williams was there, glancing at her, and her heart beat thick, for she ducked his whitish head under the desk, and attracted the attention of other boys.
“Williams,” she said, gathering her courage, for it was critical now to speak to him, “what are you doing?”
He lifted his face, the sore-rimmed eyes half smiling. There was something intrinsically indecent about him. Ursula shrank away.
“Nothing,’ he replied, feeling a triumph.
“What are you doing ? ” she repeated, her heart-beat suffocating her.
“Nothing,” replied the boy, insolently, aggrieved, comic.
“If I speak to you again, you must go down to Mr. Harby,” she said.
But this boy was a match even for Mr. Harby. He was so persistent, so cringing, and flexible, he howled so when he was hurt, that the master hated more the teacher who sent him than he hated the boy himself. For of the boy he was sick of the sight. Which Williams knew. He grinned visibly.
Ursula turned to the map again, to go on with the geography lesson. But there was a little ferment in the class. Williams’ spirit infected them all. She heard a scuffle, and then she trembled inwardly. If they all turned on her this time, she was beaten.
” Please, Miss ” called a voice in distress.
She turned round. One of the boys she liked was ruefully holding out a torn celluloid collar. She heard the complaint, feeling futile.
” Go in front, Wright,” she said.
She was trembling in every fibre. A big, sullen boy, not bad but very difficult, slouched out to the front. She went on with the lesson, aware that Williams was making faces at Wright, and that Wright was grinning behind her. She was afraid. She turned to the map again. And she was afraid.
” Please, Miss, Williams ” came a sharp cry, and a boy on the back row was standing up, with drawn, painted brows, half a mocking grin on his pain, half real resentment against Williams ” Please, Miss, he’s nipped me,” and he rubbed his leg ruefully.
” Come in front, Williams,” she said.
The rat-like boy sat with his pale smile and did not move.
” Come in front,” she repeated, definite now.
” I shan’t,” he cried, snarling, rat-like, grinning. Something went click in Ursula’s soul. Her face and eyes set, she went through the class straight. The boy cowered before her glowering, fixed eyes. But she advanced on him, seized him by the arm, and dragged him from his seat. He clung to the form. It was the battle between him and her. Her instinct had suddenly become calm and quick. She jerked him from his grip, and dragged him, struggling and kicking, to the front. He kicked her several times, and clung to the forms as he passed, but she went on. The class was on its feet in excitement. She saw it, but made no move.
She knew if she let go the boy he would dash to the door. Already he had run home once out of her class. So she snatched her cane from the desk, and brought it down on him. He was writhing and kicking. She saw his face beneath her, white, with eyes like the eyes of a fish, stony, yet full of hate and horrible fear. And she loathed him, the hideous writhing thing that was nearly too much for her. In horror lest he should overcome her, and yet at the heart quite calm, she brought down the cane again and again, whilst he struggled making inarticulate noises, and lunging vicious kicks at her. With one hand she managed to hold him, and now and then the cane came down on him. He writhed, like a mad thing. But the pain of the strokes cut through his writhing, vicious, coward’s courage, bit deeper till at last, with a long whimper that became a yell, he went limp. She let him go, and he rushed at her, his teeth and eyes glinting. There was a second of agonized terror in her heart : he was a beast thing. Then she caught him, and the cane came down on him. A few times, madly, in a frenzy, he lunged and writhed, to kick her. But again the cane broke him, he sank with a howling yell on the floor, and like a beaten beast lay there yelling.
Mr. Harby had rushed up towards the end of this performance.
” What’s the matter? ” he roared.
Ursula felt as if something were going to break in her.
” I’ve thrashed him,” she said, her breast heaving, forcing out the words on the last breath. The headmaster stood choked with rage, helpless. She looked at the writhing, howling figure on the floor.
” Get up,” she said. The thing writhed away from her. She took a step forward. She had realized the presence of the headmaster for one second, and then she was oblivious of it again.
” Get up,” she said. And with a little dart the boy was on his feet. His yelling dropped to a mad blubber. He had been in a frenzy.
” Go and stand by the radiator,” she said.
As if mechanically, blubbering, he went.
.The headmaster stood robbed of movement or speech. His face was yellow, his hands twitched convulsively. But Ursula stood stiff not far from him. Nothing could touch her now: she was beyond Mr. Harby. She was as if violated to death.
The headmaster muttered something, turned, and went down the room, whence, from the far end, he was heard roaring in a mad rage at his own class.
The boy blubbered wildly by, the radiator. Ursula looked at the class. There were fifty pale, still faces watching her, a hundred round eyes fixed on her in an attentive, expressionless stare.
” Give out the history readers,” she said to the monitors.
There was dead silence. As she stood there, she could hear again the ticking of the clock, and the chock of piles of books taken out of the low cupboard. Then came the faint flap of books on the desks. The children passed in silence, their hands working in unison. They were no longer a pack, but each one separated into a silent, closed thing.