In his memoirs, Falaka and Nights, Ahmet Rasim wrote at length about his school days a century ago, when teachers in Ottoman schools held rods so long they could hit their pupils without even rising from their seats; our teachers encouraged us to read these books, perhaps to show us how lucky we were to have been spared the pre-Republican, pre-Atatürk era of the falaka [= bastinado]. But even in wealthy Nişantaşı, in the well-endowed Işık Lycée School, the old teachers left over from the Ottoman period found in some “modern” technical innovations new tools for oppressing the weak and defenseless: Our French-made rulers, and especially the thin hard strips of mica inserted into their sides, could, in their practiced hands, be as effective as the falaka and the rod.
In spite of myself, I almost rejoiced whenever someone else was disciplined for being lazy, uncivilized, stupid, or insolent. I was happy to see it applied to one gregarious girl who came to school in a chauffeur-driven car; a teacher’s pet, she was always standing up before us to do a croaky rendition of “Jingle Bells” in English, but this earned her no clemency when she was found guilty of doing sloppy homework. There were always a few who hadn’t done their homework but pretended they had, acting as if it was somewhere in their notebook if only they could find it. They’d cry out, “I can’t find it right now, teacher!” just to delay the inevitable for a few seconds, but it only added to the violence with which the teacher smacked them or pulled their ear.
When we’d moved on from the sweet and motherly women teachers of our early years to the angry old embittered men who taught us religion, music, and gymnastics in the upper grades, these rituals of humiliation became more elaborate, and there were times when the lessons were so boring that I was glad for the few minutes of entertainment the punishments provided….
I’d watch these scenes—first a scolding, then an angry shower of books and notebooks, while the rest of the class sat in frozen silence—thankful I was not one of those hapless pupils marked for humiliation. I shared my good fortune with about a third of the class. If this had been a school for children of all backgrounds, the line that set the lucky ones apart might have been more distinct, but this was a private school and all the pupils came from wealthy families. In the playground during recess, we enjoyed a childish fellowship that made the line disappear, but whenever I watched the beating and humiliation, I, like the awesome figure seated at the teacher’s desk, would ask myself why it was that some children could be so lazy, dishonorable, weak-willed, insensitive, or brainless. There were no answers to my dark moral probings in the comic books I’d begun reading; their evil characters were always drawn with crooked mouths. Finding nothing, either, in the shadowy depths of my own childish heart, I’d let the question fade away. I came to understand that the place they called school had no part in answering life’s most profound questions; rather, its main function was to prepare us for “real life” in all its political brutality. And so, until I reached lycée, I preferred to raise my hand and remain safely on the right side of the line.