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School Discipline

Button Boys

St. Thomas Aquinas School for Boys was a small boarding school outside New Orleans that ran from the mid-nineteenth century to the late 1950s when it finally closed down in a period of reorganization by the local bishop.

With fewer and fewer parents willing to send their boys away to boarding school as early as the seventh grade, St Thomas lost too much of its enrollment in the lower three grades to continue.

In its heyday, the school had only about 250 boys, most from well-to-do Southern homes.

The school was organized into two separate campuses divided by a private road.

The lower school was located on one side of the road and the upper school on the other.

All the teachers, dorm floor mistresses, and housemistresses were nuns, as was the school nurse.

While the school accepted a small number of day students from the area, most students were boarders who lived in two-story dormitories, each with a central staircase flanked by wings of alcoves on both levels.

Unlike separate rooms with doors, alcoves had curtains, making it easier for the floor mistress to carry out surprise inspections after lights and at all times of the day.

The upper school has three dorms, the lower school two. With ten alcoves to a corridor, each dorm housed 80 boys.

Each corridor of alcoves has an apartment at one end where the floor mistress lived, four to a dorm.

The floor mistresses, in turn, reported to the house mother, usually an older nun who lived in a more extensive lodging attached to one end of the dormitory.

The school also included a good-sized gym, a library, two classroom buildings, each with a large study hall, and an infirmary with a full-time, live-in nurse.

The normal method of discipline in the middle school was corporal punishment.

These ranged from simple hand spankings and slipperings to more extended paddlings.

For the larger boys in the upper school, work details around the campus were assigned for any misbehavior.

In this way, the school saved considerable money on upkeep while instilling good work habits.

For some parents, work details were not good enough and they made special arrangements with the headmistress for the school to continue using the same methods of discipline used in the lower school.

While most parents were happy to have their boys switched over to work details at age sixteen, about one-fifth of the boys were still subject to spanking through the tenth grade, and a handful even after that.

The worst part about being spanked in the upper school was the humiliation that came from having your peers know all about it and being teased by them.

All boys, wore the same uniform seven days a week, regardless of their age.

The uniform consisted of brown or black tie shoes, dark socks, grey flannel pants (or shorts in warmer weather), a white, button-down shirt, a blue school necktie, and a navy blue blazer with three brass buttons.

Normally, all three buttons were unbuttoned when the jacket was worn.

This allowed the school to add a little humiliation to its system of punishment by what was known as “button boys”.

“Button boys” were those who had been caught in some mischief and sentenced to a spanking or to a work detail if they were in the upper school.

Depending on the severity of the offense, the guilty culprit had to button one or more of their three brass buttons and keep them buttoned for a twenty-four-hour period.

Any “button boy” caught with a punishment button unbuttoned was immediately sentenced to three “buttons”.

This system of “button boys” gave the school administrators a quiet yet highly effective way of publically marking any boys due for punishment.

Since older boys had to do work details, buttons weren’t a big problem.

Some older boys even used them as badges of honor.

But for boys in the lower school and older boys whose parents requested that spankings be continued as a method of discipline,

it was highly embarrassing to walk around campus all day with one or more of one’s shiny brass buttons secured in the button hole.

Even a hundred yards away, it was immediately apparent to all is someone’s blue blazer was buttoned up.

Needless to say, button boys in the lower school received a great deal of teasing from the other boys.

They were also subjected to embarrassing questions from the other nuns.

Buttons were assigned as follows. For lesser offenses such as lateness for class, meals, or for chapel, messy rooms at the morning inspection, incomplete or sloppy homework during class, poor performance on tests, failure to pay attention, or whispering or passing notes in class,

the nun present simply said, “That’s one button, Billy Wilson”. Or “Samuel Johnson, you may fasten a button-up for that little stunt.”

The name of the guilty party and the nature of the offense would also be noted in a little black notebook.

For more serious offenses such as back talk, rudeness, getting out of bed after lights out, or talking in the chapel, the culprit had to fasten two of the buttons.

And for the most serious misbehavior such as swearing, fighting, lying, cheating, smoking, masturbating, or possession of contraband like girlie magazines, alcohol, cigarettes, or transistor radios, the unfortunate boy was assigned three or more buttons.

Since the jackets only had three buttons in front, offenses that merited more than three were simply carried over to the next day.

In theory, there was no limit on the number of “buttons” one could earn in a single day though few boys had ever earned more than five.

For younger boys, one and two-button offenses were handled by the boy’s floor mistress after dinner in the privacy of her apartment.

Older boys were assigned work detail in the afternoon instead of sports.

Every night, after the boys had cleared the tables in their large, communal dining halls, all of the boys except younger button boys reported to the main classroom building for an hour of study hall in one of two large halls.

Button boys were escorted back to their alcoves by their floor mistress and told to change into their pajamas.

After a half hour of study, they reported to the private apartment of their floor mistress at the end of their floor at 7:30.

Any boy caught in a three-button offense stayed in his alcove until he was fetched by the house mother who took him by the hand to her private quarters.

With ten boys on each corridor, there was often at least one button boy knocking at the door of each floor mistress at 7:30.

And with fourty boys in each of the dormitories, the dorm mothers had a three-button offense two or three times a week.

While each nun had their own way of administering corporal punishment, an unofficial school policy insured a fairly standard system was applied throughout the lower school.

Floor mistresses invariably began with an extensive review of the culprit’s misbehavior and a lengthy scolding.

After the nun told the youngster how he would be punished, she usually placed him in the nearest corner for ten or fifteen minutes of corner time. If another button boy was waiting, he was usually brought in immediately and the process repeated while the first child waited in his corner .

The second culprit was then placed in another corner to await his punishment.

When the first boy’s corner time was up, the nun brought him out of the corner and gave him a second, thorough scolding which frequently reduced him to tears even before his spanking began.

She then placed him over her lap and administered a thorough correction designed to be remembered for the rest of the week.

There was no exception to this basic rule. And there was a minimum of five minutes of spanking for each button.

The rest was up to each nun. Some used corner time afterward as well.

This increased the boy’s humiliation while reminding him of his juvenile status vis a vis an older, fully clothed, mother figure. If two boys were due for a spanking, some nuns spanked each culprit in the same room with the other boy doing his corner time.

Others took the first boy into another room and spanked him there before bringing him back to the little parlor and fetching the second culprit.

Generally, the more serious the offense, the more humiliation was used to ensure the lesson lasted long after the administration of discipline.

With three-button offenses, spankings were always administered by the dorm mother.

As with lesser offenses, extensive scolding and corner time were used, both before and after.

Three-button punishments always began with thirty minutes of bare bottom corner time followed by sound, five-minute hand spanking, and another ten minutes of corner time.

The house mistress then switched over to a paddle, slipper, or hair brush to administer a second five-minute spanking.

She then returned the sobbing culprit to the corner for another ten minutes.

The punishment ended with a final five-minute paddling, slippering, or hair brushing followed by a half hour of corner time.

All in all, a three-button session with the house mistress usually lasted an hour and a half and was remembered for the whole semester.

Few boys committed three-button offenses more than once a semester.

Though most boys managed to stay in place over the dorm mother’s knee during a hand spankings, many lost control during the second and third installments of a three-button punishment when the housemistress used a hairbrush or paddle.

Any boy who tried to get away during a paddling or who reached back with his hands more than twice was transferred to a paddling bench which the school carpenter had made for each of the dorm mothers (including the upper school dorms for those boys whose parents requested spankings)

. Each spanking bench was a padded, horse-like structure about one foot wide, four feet high, and five feet long.

Each had soft, padded, leather restraints attached to the four legs with a wide strap to hold the culprit’s waist securely in place.

Once a boy was strapped onto a spanking bench, there was nothing he could do but sob his way through the rest of his paddling.

Though the floor mistresses did not have spanking benches, they often used a handkerchief to secure the hands of larger boys before putting them over their knees.

If necessary, they also placed their right leg over the legs of the squirming culprit to make sure he stayed in place during his spanking.

With boys sentenced to paddlings over the bench, any corner time was served while strapped in place on the bench while the housemistress went about her normal business.

Since corner (or bench) time lasted a little more than an hour for three-button offenses,

it was not unusual for others nuns to come and go from the apartment of the house mistress while a sniffling, red-bottomed boy lay strapped over the spanking bench for all to see.

Because many boys came from far away, there were always four or five who could not go home for the four-day holidays at Thanksgiving and Easter.

Some even had to stay for a week vacation in the spring.

Though most of the nuns and dorm mothers were also off on holiday, school policy required two dorm mothers to remain in residence.

Those few boys who had no home to visit during Thanksgiving or Easter simply moved in with one of the two dorm mothers or with the nurse at the infirmary.

In the privacy of a house mistress’s home and in the absence of enough staff to supervise work details, older boys were handled just like younger boys when they got into mischief.

Knowing how embarrassing it was for an older boy to be treated like a younger one, the house mistresses were all too happy to punish the slightest naughtiness in an older boy with a spanking.

For minor offenses, the correction was administered in the spot with the housemistress putting down what she was doing, spanking the Culprit, and putting him in the closest corner.

A punishment nap followed no matter what time it was unless it was after dinner. In that case, the well-spanked culprit was undressed and put right to bed for good.

For more serious offenses over the holiday, it was possible to employ more extended corner time before and after a spanking or to divide the spanking up into an immediate spanking and a later bedtime spanking after dinner.

To free up time for themselves, the housemistresses always used afternoon naps and early bedtimes for younger boys who were “visiting”.

Other forms of juvenile punishment included the use of nightly sponge baths and one-piece sleepers which the school had obtained from Sears for normal use in the infirmary.

Thus aolder boy staying over with a dorm mother for spring vacation could find himself undressed and put into a sleeper each afternoon and again in the evening after his nightly bath.

All of the sleepers had flaps in the back for easy spankings.

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