Once, in the last term before graduation from my high school in Madrid, I stayed late for a rehearsal of our school play. It was an adaptation of Don Quixote, and we were practicing really hard. I was to play the landlady at an inn the Don stops at.
I was hurrying to the drama studio. My route happened to take me past the headmaster’s office and, as I passed it, I couldn’t help but hear that something was going on. There was a strange sound, like a gust of wind whistling through the air followed by a thud. A second later I heard a gasp. Then a voice spoke.
“You’re feeling that, aren’t you, boy?”
“Yes, sir,” a small, breathless voice replied.
“Three to go. Stay down.”
And then the same whistle and thud.
I couldn’t believe it. I was listening in on a caning! I knew that it happened, of course, but as I’d never been caned, and corporal punishment was only given ‘after hours’, the idea that I’d hear one in progress had never entered my head.
At this school, caning was informally known as ‘Gym shorts at four o’clock’. It was given to both girls and boys, and was quite formal. If sentenced to a caning, you would be ordered to go directly to the sports changing rooms at the end of the last class. You’d then change into your gym shorts and a T-shirt. The worst part at this stage was that there’d usually be a sports team changing for practice, and as you weren’t on the team they all knew exactly what you were changing for.
Dressed in your thin gym shorts, you’d make your way in trepidation to the headmaster’s office. I’d occasionally see kids in tears at this stage, especially younger ones. It was fear of the unknown that awaited them.
That day, I stood outside in the empty corridor and listened to the boy being caned. It was a bit like witnessing a car crash. I was simultaneously afraid and fascinated. How did it feel? How much did it hurt?
The lad received three more strokes. I hid around the corner and watched him hobble uncomfortably out and make for home.
I was too curious. I had to hear more. I began to lurk around the school after last bell. I became a voyeur, peeking around the corner to see who was approaching the headmaster’s office nervously in sports wear. Most days someone satisfied my curiosity. Roughly 70% of the time it was boys.
The swish-crack of the cane didn’t vary much. What was said certainly did. Sometimes the headmaster sounded sympathetic. He’d say things like, “Don’t cry, it’ll be over soon.” Or, “It’ll stop hurting in a bit, don’t worry.” But there were other days when he seemed to be relishing his task, as if he were determined to assert dominance over the student. “Holding your tongue, are you? Let’s see if four more strokes will loosen it!”
He did loosen a fair few tongues. A minority shouted out. Some moaned. Some gasped. A few stoic kids did manage to keep silent, earning my great respect.
I saw the boys and girls emerge after the ordeal. Often, but not always, crying. Universally, they were clutching their bottoms. I never interacted with them. I didn’t want to compromise my secret interest.
Of course, I was caught eventually. I was almost glad to be. I knew what I was doing was wrong and I’d overheard so much that my curiosity as to what went on in that study was at boiling point. I’d not just risked a caning, I’d practically courted it.
I was there, tuned in to a boy being thrashed. As is often the case, I’d been eavesdropping so often that I’d grown careless. I didn’t notice that the pause between strokes was longer than normal. I didn’t hear the footsteps until it was too late. The door flung open. The headmaster had moved too quick for me to even think of running. And there he was, his veins popping out in anger.
“I knew it!” he roared. “I knew we had someone sneaking about listening to my punishments. Get in here at once!”
My heart racing, partly from the surprise, I stepped into the study.
The boy had stood, and was rubbing his bottom, looking over his shoulder at the commotion. The headmaster slammed the door closed.
He addressed the boy. “This young lady has been enjoying your suffering. You will shortly be granted your revenge with the opportunity to witness hers.”
The boy, Rodriguez, looked at me. His face was pale. His hands were shaking. It was clear his own caning was uppermost in his mind.
“Bend over, Rodriguez. I’ll get you out of the way. I have more pressing matters to attend to.” And the headmaster cast a wicked grin at me.
Rodriguez bent over again, and I couldn’t help but stare at his bottom. It was tight and muscular. The headmaster seized the cane from the desk and, in a heartbeat, rained three rapid fire strokes down upon the boy’s bottom. I watched as the boy rose, his face scrunched up. He was evidently trying not to cry.
“Young lady, you will go at once to the changing rooms and return dressed in shorts and T-shirt. You have exactly ten minutes. Any delay will add to your punishment. Go!”
I ran as fast as I could. I changed out of my skirt and pulled on the shorts. Was there anything I could stuff down there for protection? A sock or a towel? No, the headmaster would see for sure. I hurried back to my fate, cursing my stupidity and bad luck. My curiosity, I was realising, had not really extended to actually being caned. As much as the idea fascinated me, I was now feeling very afraid and alone.
I knocked on the door.
I pushed through the door. The headmaster stood in the middle of the room, holding his cane by the crook end. Rodriguez stood against the wall, watching me closely.
“Here,” said the headmaster. He indicated where I should stand. I stepped forward.
“For eavesdropping on private matters, four strokes. For your unconscionable enjoyment of the suffering of others, your lack of empathy, five more. Place your feet apart, bend over and touch your toes. No rubbing. No standing until you have permission. Is that clear?”
I bent over, feeling the blood rush to my head, feeling my cheeks redden with embarrassment. The headmaster stood back, taking aim. I held my breath.
The first stroke emptied my lungs as if I’d been punched in the stomach. And then a few seconds later, the pain made itself known, flooding across where the cane had struck. I wanted to grab my bottom.
The second stroke landed just below the first, and even harder. The pain raced across my backside.
“Let’s pause a little, shall we?” said the headmaster. “We don’t want the experience to be over too fast.”
He strolled casually around his office. He stopped at his desk, then tidied a few papers. Still bent over, still feeling the sting of the cane across my bum, I saw him glance at his watch. He walked over, took up his stance and delivered a fearsome third crack across my behind, which exploded with pain again.
I cried out, my voice shrill. The headmaster stood back, flexing his cane.
“Is this evening’s entertainment to your satisfaction, girl?” he asked. “Is what happens in my study so enthralling as to make you want to catch a second episode tomorrow night?”
Not knowing what to say, I shook my head.
The fourth stroke slashed down, and the caustic sensation redoubled. This made me gasp.
The headmaster now laid his cane upon the desk, opened a thermos flask and took a leisurely swig of tea or coffee. I wondered if I could get away with a quick stretch. It isn’t easy touching your toes for long. No, my heart sank as he stood again and picked the cane back up.
Stroke five whipped down. I was about to cry now, the pain was so bad. It felt like someone had drawn scissors across my rear end. The sixth stroke to my buttocks landed on flesh that had already been cut into by the cane. That did it. Tears flowed.
Strokes seven and eight I got through by giving voice to my pain, crying out as loud as I could. Then it was time for the last one. The headmaster seized the cane and swung it with all his might. It struck my tender bottom hard and I was thrown forward, I lost my balance and tumbled on the floor.
“Now get out, both of you,” the headmaster growled.
Rodriguez helped me up and we hurried out of the room. I ran to the girls’ bathroom and sobbed until I couldn’t cry any more. When I emerged, Rodriguez was waiting for me.
“He went too far,” was all he said, and offered to hug me.
Rodriguez and I became firm friends. We left school soon after for university but stayed in touch by letter and email.