[Caribbean Literature]

Mr. Skinner's long strap

Lakshmi Persaud

[This passage was chosen for inclusion in the Postcolonial Web by the author. The comments and questions are by GPL.]

In the following passage, the author beautifully conveys children's terrifying experience at the hands of a cruel teacher. As you read it, ask yourself how the author makes the tension build and why she tells us that "the sun is fierce and angry and smoke rises from the pitched asphalt roads."

Although I was good at mental arithmetic and at reciting poems before the school, spelling was my Achilles heel. I had a great fear of being beaten and Mr. Skinner's long strap was for me an instrument of terror. I hated it. I had witnessed particularly brutal forms of corporal punishment administered by teachers and parents, which had left children quivering and whimpering. This execution of the human spirit affected me greatly.

Understandably I took pains to learn my spelling but the mere presence of Mr. Skinner was enough to create doubt and hesitancy as to the spelling of a word about which I had been certain in the cool quiet walks of our vegetable garden. Oral spelling tests were held on Thursdays at 2 p.m. At that time of the day, the sun is fierce and angry and smoke rises from the pitched asphalt roads; distant glare dazzles. It is a time when birds and dogs sleep soundly, not opening even one eye when you stand before them.

But we in Standard Five would be wide awake, jumping and bouncing as drops of water on a red hot plate. On this particular Thursday, for some reason we were especially anxious as we waited outside in the dusty school yard for Mr. Skinner to take his class. Three girls could not contain their anxieties. They jumped up and down as if possessed and were tiring to look at. Two others made a dash to the lavatory. The entire class was buzzing with sounds of letters ofthe alphabet. Thirty-five ten year olds stood under a spreading mahogany tree, grouped in a semicircle broken in places by the anxious movements of the wretched.

No one appeared to be looking directly at the open corridor which led from the school to the yard, yet the moment Mr. Skinner hurried into it, the entire class knew, Words were hurled into our semicircle like stones, 'He's coming.' Then, 'Oh my God!' followed by a wild scramble. Quickly pages would be turned. A last look at a difficult word, then another and another. Some wrote a code letter with their toes on the ground, of no significance to anyone but themselves.

Whether he sensed our fear I cannot tell, for his voice was measured and calm. He pulled his curled smooth hard strap from his pocket and flexed it in preparation for the task ahead. Then the dreaded command came: 'Close books.' As if shuffling a pack of cards he held the leather strap in both hands, furling and unfurling it. 'If you have tears prepare to shed them now,' he said. A lost bird flew past, calling. In the stillness of the afternoon heat he tested the strap several times -- vwhop-vwhop -- into the air. I didn't know those much repeated words were Shakespeare's. I thought-- we all thought then, that they were Mr. Skinner's. [59-60]

How does the narrator affect our reactions by prefacing the scene in the classroom with the remark that she has "witnessed particularly brutal forms of corporal punishment administered by teachers and parents" [my emphasis] -- particularly given the fact that her parents seem so ideal, such lovely, gentle, nurturing, supportive people?

What can we conclude from the fact that Mr. Skinner has appropriated Shakespeare, or that the Bard's words appear within a scene of children's terror and suffering? Why does the author include the sentence, "A lost bird flew past, calling"?


Persaud, Lakshmi. Butterfly in the Wind. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 1990.

Main Web Page Caribbean Trinidad and Tobago Lakshmi Persaud

Last modified 17 January 2003