This is one of my most vivid memories of the time, so I’m confident that this account is accurate. I have changed all the names though. I went to an East London comprehensive school which I attended in the late 1970s. I had a pretty uneventful time at school. I was a moderately good kid and by the fifth year I had managed to avoid getting into any serious trouble. I had been shouted at on odd occasions, and I had been occasionally tasked to write a four-page essay about why I shouldn’t do something, but otherwise I’d never had any real kind of punishment, not even detention.
In the fifth year, we were taken to some kind of freight depot as part of our careers course. As we got off the bus, someone behind me threw an apple at the back of my head. I picked the apple up and turned to see the lad laughing. I flung the apple back at him with force, but he ducked and it smashed into the side of the head of a girl standing behind him. The girl, Carol, immediately burst into tears.
I was mortified and went to try to apologise. Carol’s friends were having none of it, and furiously berated me. Meanwhile, somebody fetched our head of year, Mr Jessop. He listened to Carol’s friends’ account of what had happened, and he checked that Carol was ok and wasn’t hurt. Then he asked me for my version of events. I said that what the girls had told him was true, but that I hadn’t intended to hit Carol and that I was really sorry.
“Come to the metalwork room when we get back to school,” he said, and then walked off.
We all knew what that meant. Carol’s friends were triumphant and taunted me about the whacking I was going to get. For my part, I still felt horribly guilty about making her cry, and I think I felt that I probably deserved it.
A little later, I spotted Carol on her own and I went over to say sorry properly. I’d never really spoken to her before. She was a quiet, shy girl and didn’t say much, but she seemed to appreciate my apology.
Everyone had left when we got back to school, and most people headed home straight from the bus. I went to the metalwork room, as instructed. It felt extremely lonely walking through the empty school, knowing what was in store for me. The cane wasn’t the most often-used punishment at our school. I would think probably over eighty percent of boys completed school without ever having received it. It was even rarer for girls. It was also less common for fifth-years to get caned. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was felt that physical punishments were somehow less appropriate for boys of that age. Perhaps they just didn’t think it would be as effective on a great big 15/16-year-old.
When it was used, the miscreant was usually sent to their head of year, or one of the other heads of year if theirs wasn’t available. As well as being our year head, Mr Jessop was also our metalwork teacher and very occasionally, during a metalwork lesson, a boy would turn up with a note from a class teacher asking for him to be punished. Mr Jessop would take the boy out into the lobby area outside the metalwork room. At this point we would all turn off our machines so we could listen to the whacks. It was usually three or four strokes, sometimes two if the boy was a first-year. Normally we wouldn’t see the immediate effect that it had on the boy. The only time we did, was on one occasion when some lad was larking around in our metalwork class. Mr Jessop tore into him about how dangerous his actions were, and then took him outside and gave him four strokes. The boy came back into the room rubbing his bottom and looking flushed and a bit shocked. I guessed that I would probably also get four.
When I arrived at the metalwork room, Mr Jessop was waiting for me in the lobby where he always delivered his canings. It was a large area where we would wait before our metalwork lessons. It was otherwise unused, apart from storing a few spare desks and chairs. He was holding his cane. It wasn’t a traditional hook-handled school cane, it was just a length of bamboo of the type that my dad used for training his runner beans. It didn’t look like the same cane that I’d seen him fetch before, though. This one looked pretty thick, and didn’t look at all flexible. I remember feeling a sudden rush of anxiety when I saw it.
“You’ve never had the cane, have you Pearson?” he asked.
I replied that I hadn’t.
“Well, you’ve really let yourself down then, haven’t you?”
He pulled a chair out from the pile and placed it in front of me.
“Put your knees up against the chair and lean over with your palms on the seat,” he said.
I adopted the position.
“OK, now don’t get up until I tell you to.”
He lifted the back of my school blazer up and folded it over my back out of the way. He delivered the strokes with about a five second interval between them. I remember how the first stroke echoed in the empty space. After that, I was too preoccupied to notice. I had heard a regular miscreant say that the cane didn’t hurt, but if THIS had been his experience, then it was a ludicrous lie. These strokes were harder than I had ever imagined. I couldn’t see how much effort he was putting into them, but it felt like a lot. The first one made me suck through my teeth but was endurable. After the second stroke the pain seemed to multiply. After the third stroke, I yelled out and my knees twisted as my instincts fought with me to get away.
“Keep still, Pearson. You don’t want me to miss!” he said.
The fourth stroke landed and I cried out again. My legs were trembling but I relaxed a little as I waited for him to tell me to stand up. Instead, a fifth stroke landed. This one was the worst, maybe because I wasn’t expecting it, or maybe because I had unclenched my buttocks, thinking that it was over. By this point I was wailing.
A sixth stroke followed and this time he did tell me to stand up. As a six-foot fifteen-year-old, I had wanted to receive my punishment with dignity, but I was sobbing like a little kid. Mr Jessop looked a little taken aback by my reaction.
“Alright, Pearson, It’s all over now, lad! That’s the full six-of-the-best. It might seem a bit rough for your first time, but that’s what fifth years get.”
He fetched me a glass of water and a length of paper towel which I used to blow my nose. He stood with me while I drank the water and recovered my composure.
“What you did was dangerous, Pearson. I couldn’t let it go. Hopefully, that will be your last caning as well as your first, eh? OK, off you go, lad.”
I expect all of this makes me sound like a total wuss. Well, it’s true to say that I wasn’t the toughest of kids, but this was my first experience of physical punishment and it had been a lot worse than I expected. When I realised that I was going to be caned, I hadn’t felt particularly anxious about it. I’d known other boys who had been on the receiving end, and it didn’t seem as though it was very traumatic for them. Sometimes they made jokes about it. How bad could it be? Obviously, I had NO IDEA!
It was a good thing that there was nobody around to witness the state I was in. I was a mess. At least nobody would know that I hadn’t taken it ‘like a man’. I went to the toilets to splash some water on my face, and couldn’t help pulling down the back of my pants and surveying the stripes in the mirror. While I was doing this, the caretaker absently walked in and we startled each other.
“No need to ask what’s up with you,” he said, as I pulled my trousers back up. “Don’t worry son, I had lots of whackings when I was at school. You’ll live!”
I didn’t tell my parents. Apparently, if you had an entry in the punishment book, your parents would normally be informed at parents’ evening, but there was no parents’ evening in the fifth year other than for those who were staying on to sixth form, so that never happened and they never knew. It wasn’t mentioned in my school report.
When word got around about my punishment, one of the more regular troublemakers came and spoke to me. He was one of the very few others who had been caned as a fifth year. I told him that I hadn’t been expecting six, but he confirmed that fifth years always got that many. He said that younger kids also very occasionally got six, but only if it was for something really serious. He also told me that the thick cane was only used on fifth-years and it was a lot worse than the punishments he had received in previous years.
“Fuckin’ hurts, doesn’t it?” he said. “Made my eyes water!”
That made me feel a bit better.
Later, somebody told me that, on the day of the incident, they had overheard Carol on the bus telling Mr Jessop that she had forgiven me and didn’t want me to be caned. It seems this had cut no ice with him. He apparently told her that my actions had been extremely reckless and that someone could have been ‘seriously injured’. It was nice of her to try, though. I hadn’t really spoken to her prior to the incident, but we had a nodding acquaintance afterwards, and she’s on my list of Facebook friends, even though I haven’t seen her since school, so no hard feelings on either side.