At the girls’ school I attended from age eleven, corporal punishment was a regular occurrence, but back at primary school, spankings were rare and when they happened they were big news. Only the headmaster ever spanked the pupils, with a female teacher present if the pupil was a girl, and although very few children ever experienced it, it was an accepted fact that when he spanked he spanked extremely hard.
So I was understandably nervous on the one occasion I found myself outside his office, my destiny unknown.
I was seven or eight years old and sitting at a table in the school dining hall eating lunch. There were eight of us at the table, four boys and four girls. The headmaster took lunch in his office while the teachers ate with the kids, but they were all sitting at tables with children deemed likely to misbehave, and our table was not considered such. The incident happened out of the blue and lasted just a few seconds, but because of what happened afterwards I have never forgotten it.
I attempted to stab a potato with my fork. Instead of sticking into the vegetable, it flipped it, tiddlywinks-style up into the air and across the table, landing in the middle of the plate of a girl called Nicola and splashing her with gravy. We all laughed, apart from Nicola who picked up the stray spud and threw it back at me. I returned it the same way and she batted it away so that it landed in the lap of one of the boys, who in turn threw it at one of the others who was laughing at him. In seconds, chaos had descended and all of us were throwing food across the table at one another until we felt ourselves being seized by the hands of a group of teachers who had come running.
All eight of us were marched out of the hall and down the corridor where we were forced to line up outside the headmaster’s office. The thought of what might lay in store for us terrified us all. Miss Smith went into the office to explain to the headmaster what had happened, while Mrs Barrett stood guard over us as we all stood silently in the corridor, quaking in fear.
Eventually, Miss Smith and the headmaster came out, their expressions serious. He walked along the row of terrified children, giving us a withering look before he spoke. He lectured us on how disrespectful our behaviour was towards the dinner ladies and cleaners who would have to deal with the mess we had made and pointed out how messy our own clothes were that we would have to wear for the rest of the afternoon.
“Count yourselves lucky that I’m not going to slipper the whole lot of you,” he said.
So, he wasn’t going to slipper us. What a relief! I could feel the tension in the corridor dissipate as we all relaxed and allowed ourselves to breathe. However, he had not finished.
“So, which of you started it?”
No one answered.
“Miss Smith, you saw the whole incident. Perhaps you can tell me.”
Miss Smith walked along the line towards me. I felt my knees go weak but before she reached me she laid her hand on Nicola’s shoulder.
“This one,” she said.
Nicola burst into tears.
I held my breath, certain that Miss Smith was about to put her hand on my shoulder and say, “And this one.”
To my relief, she said nothing more.
“Very well, the rest of you can go,” the headmaster instructed us, and Mrs Barrett shooed us out through the door to the playground as poor Nicola was ushered into the office.
In the playground, we were instantly surrounded by other kids demanding to know if we had been punished. We were happy to tell them that no, apart from a telling-off, we hadn’t, but we didn’t know about Nicola. We were all dying for her to come out and let us know what happened. However, she was taking a very long time. What could be keeping her? We had all assumed she would be getting a spanking, but surely that wouldn’t take long? We stayed around the door she would have to come out of if she was coming to the playground. We wanted to be the first to question her as we were personally involved.
Maybe, we thought, she had been sent home, a phone call made to her mum to come and collect her and deal with her as she saw fit. Or maybe her punishment had been being made to clean up the mess we had made in the hall. Belatedly it occurred to me that she might just be crying in the toilets, waiting for the bell to ring, unwilling to have to face us with all our questions.
“Here she is!” someone shouted.
Nicola came out and we immediately surrounded her. She was still crying and she was now wearing her PE kit instead of the dress she had worn when we last saw her. Although she was embarrassed, she told us exactly what had happened, which explained why she had been so long.
Nicola had followed the headmaster into his office and stood facing his desk as he walked behind it. He told her she was going to be punished, opened a desk drawer and took out a plimsol; that’s the slipper, as it was known. At the sight of it, Nicola had wet herself in fear. Miss Smith had had to take her to the changing room and put her in the shower and when she was clean she had had to put on her PE kit, wash her knickers in the sink, go to see the caretaker to get a mop and bucket, go back to the office, mop the floor where she had weed, return the mop and bucket to the caretaker and come back to the office, after which at last the headmaster had put her over his knee and pulled down her shorts. He explained that this extra aspect to her punishment was because she had made such a fuss, and given her six of the best with the slipper on her bare bottom.
Of course, when I got home that afternoon my sister made sure my mum heard that I had been sent to the headmaster, but as I had not been punished no action was deemed necessary, much to Rebecca’s disappointment.
Nicola was not so lucky. Her mother was unimpressed by the gravy-stained dress, wet knickers and having a daughter that had been naughty enough to get slippered at school. Nicola had been sent her to her room to wait until her dad came home from work, whereupon she had another spanking in front of her brother, who made sure everyone at school heard about it the next day.