In the not so subtle hierarchies that exist in school, there are a series of practices that those at the top of the ladder subject to those at the bottom. These are compounded at boarding school, where the students who are left largely to themselves, forge their own ritualistic privileges and are reinforced by the very system in which they live. At my boarding school, “strapping” was one such practice.
Strapping was a social privilege the year twelve students, of the male boarding houses in particular, enforced on those below them. It occurred during meal times in our boarding house dining hall, where a senior student would finish his meal and proceed to hand his dirty dishes, napkin and all, to a student in a year below him to take up to the kitchen to be washed. If that junior student refused, well, he had better pray, because inevitably those senior students would eventually get a hold of him when teachers’ eyes were occupied elsewhere, lift his shirt up whilst he was restrained, and whip him across his belly with a belt, often leaving a welt to be proud of. It rarely ever came to that, so the name of the practice, strapping, helped serve as a reminder of the consequences to those who refused.
Now of course, there were rules and loopholes with any such ingrained ritual that needed to be observed for it to continue through the years. The first was obvious; you could not “strap” someone who was in a year above you at school, under any circumstances. The second; you could not strap someone who had been a boarding student longer than you. The last rule; the “rads knife” trumps all. It was a knife that was inscribed with a former student’s nickname and carried a legendary status that immortalised him due to the fact that whenever a student came across it, they were able to strap anyone in the boarding community, including the ladies, and the recipients could not refuse.
With such a practice came the associated political gamesmanship of it all. I once saw a year seven lad find the rads knife one day at a lunch time, his eyes lit up like Christmas morning, and he then proceeded to give his dirty dishes to a year twelve student who had been terrorising him that term. What a foolish error. In his shortsighted bloodlust for revenge he had forgotten that the rads knife is fleeting, and that the meals were regular. With no guarantee of protection of the trump card, the rest of weeks worth of meals, the whole dining hall bore witness to a year seven student carrying a stack of filthy seniors’ plates that went up to his eye line. He had to do the trip from his table to the kitchen in two stints due to the magnitude of the retribution.
I only saw one occasion of a student refusing. It was filled with high drama given our propensity for boredom in the dining hall and our knowledge of their continued mutual disdain over the years. The man who was strapped was a popular footballer in my year and refused a strapping from an admittedly less popular senior. But the system prevailed and the student graciously remarked “thanks fuck face” when handing over his dishes. In any other context, the senior would not have messed with the younger lad who was still twice his size, but such was the way of the system, and even the boy in my year knew that his pride would be his downfall. The strapping was refused, and there were witnesses. Later that evening, the entire senior cohort of my boarding house hunted the boy down, restrained him, and made his belly look like the flag of the United States.
Some senior students had their quirks about the whole thing, a few seniors strapping anyone younger than them at whatever table they happened to be on, out of convenience. Some liked to target specific people, for whatever reason, mature or not. I started in the boarding school community at year eleven, which meant that I had missed out on years of potential strapping from other seniors, the boys in the year above me saw it as doing the rest of the boarding house a favour by making sure I took up as many plates as possible in that one year to make up for lost time and opportunity. There were the odd ones who had their moral compasses sturdily fixed by that age and did not partake in practice ever, those gentlemen. Of course, such was a scenario, where one senior would walk over to you with a stack full of plates, say “thanks mate, how kind of you to offer your services,” and you simply had to take it in your stride, lest you react unfavourably and risk further embarrassment in the form of social ostracism or more dirty dishes. Some seniors even took liberties with the practice, using it to extract exaggerated revenge on a younger student by getting the plates of students from year levels other than seniors. Year tens, year nines, year elevens, all of their plates gathered by a senior and handed off to their victim. Since it ultimately came from a senior, it still counted. You could try arguing the minutiae of the system, you could even attempt to give those non senior students back their plates, but why risk the possibility of embarrassing yourself with yet more plates? You wouldn’t. You would cop it, and do what was expected, thus perpetuating the system. All of this served as a reminder of our implicit adherence to a system that was never designed to be fair, and only served the interests of those at the top, and for what? A small convenience? Yet strapping continues to endure in the boarding house I hear, despite teachers’ best efforts to stamp out this form of bullying. The reason it remains is the same reason why nothing really changes in society; we are driven by the belief that we too will one day be the strapper and not the strapped.