Maths Lesson

by Derek Morrison

Looked out of the high window
Outside the rain poured down
It was first class on a Monday
And Jimmy Skinner had a frown.

He was a teacher of some repute
For ferocious temper on short fuse
So Jimmy Skinner’s expression
Much increased our Monday blues.

“All, show me your home-work!”
Came the  curt command
For we had his last class on Friday
So our weekend he’d planned.

Now towers over each pupil’s desk
Eyes gaze down in protracted pause
Judging each child’s attempts
Before declaring, applause, or tawse.

“But where is your home-work?”
For he had reached the last
“I couldn’t do it sir”
Lit Jimmy’s fuse for the blast

This miscreant was now dispatched
To the front of the lengthy queue
So that numeracy be encouraged
From counting each blow that’s new.

The condemned awaited their fate
But first came a symbolic pause
Allowing Jimmy Skinner to unlock his desk
To select the ‘best‘ of his tawse.

But the expected didn’t happen
For reasons I’ll now explain
For what then next occurred
Transcended any tawse’s pain.

Jimmy Skinner was now ready
“Why didn’t you do the homework as I asked?”
Again a pathetic, “I just couldn’t sir “
Jimmy’s volcanic fury; now unmasked.

“Liar! …” exploded from his mouth
And his right arm took savage swing
His blow then connected with the face
With as much power as he could bring.

For the recipient, time became frozen
Stunned, he was felled to the ground
No sense of pain or anything
Just memory, of the whip-crack sound.

A great silence then descended
And the shock was everywhere
For even the hardest of the lads
Had never made such anger flare.

Jimmy knew he had gone too far
And so he quickly left the room
As his target picked up himself
His slapped face began to bloom.

“He can’t get off with that”
Some of the hard lads would say
But Jimmy was also Deputy Head
So could pretty much have his way.

Though in his savage punishment
And by unleashing his inner beast
Jimmy’s total loss of control
Had miscreant’s status increased.

Jimmy then came back into the room
His hot temper now much cooled
Sent the queue back to their desks
For he’d demonstrated that he ruled.

He continued as though all was normal
Expounding his abstract proofs
As though the audience had not witnessed
A more concrete set of truths.

Jimmy Skinner was not a bad man
Though surely frustrated by his fate
Of reluctant miner and farmer progeny
Viewing his beloved maths with hate.

Like others, his answer was to beat us
Force fear lessons in our head
For if we were to just strive harder
We’d understand what was said.

What he, and others, failed to grasp
They had created environments of pain
Where love of learning could not evolve
By thrashing lessons into brain.

What later fate befell the miscreant
With pathetic “I couldn’t do it sir!” plea?
A new connected digital world awaited 
For that stunned miscreant, he … was me.

[To listen to this verse select below]

N.B. See also Poor Johnny of Seann Cathair (Cyberstanza, 17 April 2017)


Def: Tawse
A ‘taw’ is a Scottish term for a thong or a whip. The plural form ‘tawse’ took the form of a leather strip with one end split into a number of tails. Tawse could be made by a local saddle maker but, as the illustration (note the price list) at the top of the verse shows, a major supplier to Scottish schools was John J Dick (still trading today) who offered a range of said products.    

Maths Lesson should be read/listened to in conjunction with my other work on the theme of learning and punishment Poor Johnny of Seann Cathair (Cyberstanza, 17 April 2017). The aim of both these verses is not to offer tales of unfortunate victims or the preferred more modern mantle ‘survivors’ because, in the 1950’s world described, nearly all such children could claim to be so. Corporal punishment was so normalised because it was sanctioned by the state and in most cases, those delivering it, truly believed it to be an unfortunate but necessary part of their pedagogical armoury; although a minority undoubtedly were less objective in their delivery.

Schools can, at times, undoubtedly be extraordinarily difficult environments to work in and so teachers need to be masters and leaders of both individual and group dynamics. Easier said than done and so, perhaps surprisingly, I find my now ageing self, understanding what made Jimmy Skinner the maths teacher and Deputy Head snap that day. It wasn’t personal. He just believed I couldn’t be bothered to do the homework and so I should be prepared to take the expected punishment in lieu of effort. Not delivering said punishment would, therefore, undermine his position and only encourage others to do the same. My unfortunate error was to tell the truth. Had I said I had forgotten (or some other obvious schoolboy excuse) then the tawse would have been sufficient. But I claimed that I couldn’t do the homework because I didn’t understand it, and that was an insult to his teaching. Compounded with whatever else was going on in his life at that moment was enough for me to become the unfortunate target of his momentary loss of control. Nowadays, he would certainly have been instantly suspended, probably dismissed, arrested and prosecuted, and even imprisoned.

But back in those days, it was business as usual. It was so business as usual that it’s interesting to reflect on whether some of those authors and scholars who contributed to the educational theory and practice canon of particularly the 1960s, 70’s and even 80s had teaching backgrounds in which they themselves participated in this ‘robust’ approach to enforcing and maintaining class discipline. If so, I assume such participation must have engendered some dissonance with their later published writings that so informed my own and others teacher training and degrees in later life.


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