Writing Lines

I remember writing lines as a punishment at school. It didn’t happen very often, mostly because I got very good at staying within the text of the rules if not the spirit, and by not getting caught on those occasions where I decided I knew better. My counsellor would be among the first to point out that I’ve never met a rule that didn’t make me want to dig my heels in. The flip side as many will agree is that I rarely meet a barrier I don’t want to push against.

What was fascinating to me at school was how the punishment was often subverted by those undergoing it. Sometimes the punishment would be what most would understand by representations in media as varied as The Simpsons and Harry Potter. Most people think of lines as variants on “I will not tell lies”, or “I will not sell bridges to gullible Americans” – repetition as punishment in the hope the message will sink in.

At our school it was often more incentive. We had to check out pages of special blue paper with exactly 25 lines on each side from our House Master. We then had to fill those lines with at least seven words a line, copying from a text. I imagine at least some of you can already see where this went.

The most passive aggressive response to this punishment was to draw out a 7×25 grid on each side and fill those boxes. Sometimes we would just copy a text, other times we would do it in reverse, or vertically. 

For those teachers and prefects who didn’t bother reading the results we got more inventive. There was a fad for putting in random words, and then for making patterns, like writing in a spiral. Then some bright spark noticed that no one ever specified what text had to be copied, so all bets were off. Hedgerows and older siblings’ bedrooms were searched for copies of Penthouse and the like (ah the joys of pre-internet Britain), and stories and articles duly remixed in patterns on the page.

Did the punishments ever stick? What do you think? Lines were designed to waste our time, and were treated with contempt accordingly. Perhaps this explains a bit more about my approach to rules: that they are there to make you at least think for a moment about consequences before you break them good and hard.

It’s all about personal responsibility you see, owning the consequences of what you do and recognising what drives your responses to situations. 

Those line writing exercises may have slid off my back like water from the proverbial duck, but at the same time the reverse of them as a repetitive mental exercise can be a useful tool. 

When I’m thinking over things that have got under my skin and I’ve worked out why I’m letting stupid things irritate me, it can be a useful exercise to set myself some mental lines as a corrective. Instead of telling myself “I will not rewire the physics lab bench supplies”, or “I will not set fire to the bin”, I instead set my own boundaries like: “I will not be an entitled jerk when someone doesn’t message straight back”

What lines should you be writing for yourself?

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