A UK School Memory

I attended a mixed comprehensive school in Hampshire (UK) during the 1980s. Corporal punishment was quite rare and mainly consisted of a slipper (gym shoe) applied by teachers to a clothed backside. Canings could only be applied by the headmistress or her deputy. By that time, sex equality had become the norm in a number of areas, including school discipline. That said, it still seemed more boys than girls were slippered in class. So, as a girl, the issue of corporal punishment was not something I thought much about.

By the age of 16, I had received just two one-hour detentions. These were served after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and usually there were between four and eight pupils present of varying ages. We were only allowed to sit there in the classroom. We couldn’t read a book or do our homework, so they were mind-numbingly boring. If anyone misbehaved in the detention class, they would be made to stand facing the large blackboard fixed to the front wall. Further misbehaviour was understood to result in the slipper, but that never happened in either of my detentions.

During my time in the fifth form, several girls were starting to smoke. I think by then we were sometimes able to pass as older than we actually were, and so were seldom questioned when we went into a newsagents to buy cigarettes. Things were much less stringent than they are now.

One day, two friends and I decided to try and buy a packet of cigarettes and some matches. We went into a shop that was at least a mile away from school and our homes so we wouldn’t be recognized. I’m sure the shopkeeper was suspicious, but he sold us what we wanted anyway. Of course, we were excited by our success and I remember us going straight away into some nearby woods and trying our first cigarettes. It was awful! We coughed and choked and began to wonder what the attraction was.

Because I’d paid the greater amount, I had the ‘privilege’ of keeping the cigarettes until the following evening, when we intended to try them again. I kept the cigarettes and matches at the bottom of my school bag so neither my parents nor our teachers would be able to see them. Apparently, though, a member of staff had seen us coming out of the woods, knew we didn’t live near there, and thought it more than likely we had gone there to smoke.

The following day at registration in our form room, the three of us had our bags and pockets searched, and of course I was discovered to be in possession of the cigarettes. I was told I would be reported to the headmistress who would want to speak to me later in the day.

At the morning break, I got teased a lot. I was one of the quieter, better behaved pupils anyway, and the boys especially were quite excited that a mild-mannered girl like me had been reported to the headmistress. There was a general understanding, although I never saw it written down anywhere, that getting caught smoking or with cigarettes in your possession meant you would automatically be caned. So, I was worried.

During the third lesson of the day, our school secretary came into our classroom. Immediately I saw her, I guessed why she was there. Sure enough, the teacher soon looked up at me and told me to go with the secretary. I collected my work together, put it in my bag and left the room to several shouts of glee and excitement, which our teacher quickly silenced.

The secretary and I walked to the headmistress’s office in silence. We passed a couple of pupils in the corridor, who stood aside and let us pass. They both looked at me with some sympathy, as though they knew why I was being escorted in the direction of the headmistress’s office. We arrived at the door, the secretary knocked and immediately pushed the door open, and I was pushed in with a hand on my back. The secretary came in too.

The headmistress, Miss M, was a total stranger to me. She rarely took lessons, and I’d never spoken to her. She looked at me over her metal-framed spectacles and pointed to the carpet in front of her desk. My nerves increasingly on edge, I obeyed her silent instruction while she held an A4 piece of paper and studied whatever was written on it. While she was reading, I looked at her, a middle-aged woman with grey hair tightly swept back into a bun at the back of her head. Her office was tastefully furnished with light wood furniture and pretty pale blue upholstery and curtains.

Eventually, she finished reading and spoke to me in rather a sneering tone about what an awful thing smoking was, how bad it was for my health, how smelly it was, and that it was strictly against the rules of the school. When the lecture stopped, for some little time she was silent, presumably deciding what my fate would be. I supposed, as headmistress, she could be as severe with me or as lenient as she saw fit.

Then she spoke. With a very calm voice, she told me that smoking or being in possession of smoking materials meant an automatic caning, which was much as I expected. She asked if there was any reason I shouldn’t be caned. I thought for as long as I dared, but nothing remotely credible came to mind, so I simply shook my head. It felt as though I was sentencing myself. Then she told me she would give me just three strokes and that I was to count myself lucky. That was her absolute minimum penalty for smoking.

The headmistress immediately stood up and went across the room to a tall cupboard, a bit like a wardrobe. She opened the door and probed inside, while I stood and worried whether I would be required to hold my hand out or bend over. On that day, I was wearing normal school uniform consisting of a red blazer, grey pleated skirt, white blouse, white knee-length socks and black shoes. Some schools by this time were allowing girls to wear trousers if they chose, but not our school.

The cupboard door closed with a bit of a bang and I looked up to see the headmistress approaching with a small, thin cane in her hand. It was not much more than two feet in length, about the thickness of my little finger, and pale yellow in colour. It actually didn’t seem that scary.

Standing next to me, the headmistress told me to remove my blazer, fold it neatly and place it on her desk. As I was doing that, she asked me if I was right or left-handed. I told her I was right-handed, and she then told me to unbutton the left cuff of my blouse and fold it back. Was she going to cane my wrist, I wondered?

My hands were shaking as I tried to prepare myself as she asked. It was a real fiddle to get the button on the cuff of my left sleeve to undo, and I was aware of both the headmistress and the secretary waiting patiently. Eventually I got it undone and then I neatly folded the cuff back with two folds so my wrist was well free of the sleeve.

Miss M told me to hold my left hand out, palm uppermost. As I did so, I could see my hand wobbling about with my nerves. She said to try and hold my hand as steady as I could so the cane hit me cleanly. If the stroke wasn’t properly delivered, then she would have to apply the stroke again. I tried to cooperate as best I could, and all of a sudden the cane sliced down across my palm. I never knew such pain before. It really hurt, and I immediately tucked my hand under my right armpit.

She gave me a few moments, and then I was instructed to hold my hand out again, which I did as best I could. The cane was whipped down again and I experienced the same awful pain a second time. I could feel tears starting to run down the side of my face as I again comforted my poor hand under my armpit.

The headmistress then asked if I wanted the third stroke across the same hand, or if I wanted to take it on my other hand. I struggled to even think. With hindsight, I’d have asked if I could take it on my bum, but at the time I said to do it on the same hand. I held my left palm out without being asked, and she quickly delivered my third stroke, which hurt just as much and possibly even more than the previous two.

Tears were really flowing down the sides of my face by then, and the secretary held out a box of tissues. Clearly, she had experience of watching girls, and perhaps boys too, being caned. When I’d settled down a bit, I was told to do my left cuff up and put my blazer back on. I could see three red lines across the palm of my hand as I struggled to fasten the button. The secretary helped me with my blazer and then I was dismissed.

By this time, there wasn’t long to go before the bell would sound for lunch, so I was allowed to clean my face up in the toilets and spend any remaining time in the school library until the end of school registration in my form room. I reported for the final registration of the day and, of course, everyone was looking at me with quizzical faces, including our teacher.

I never told my parents I’d been caned.