When I was growing up corporal punishment was considered an essential tool in rearing children. ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ was a philosophy shared by almost everybody. So it was no surprise it was also endemic in schools, where teachers legally acted ‘in loco parentis’.
I can’t remember all the times I was strapped or strapped in school. But I can remember this incident for two reasons. Firstly, because I felt I didn’t deserve to be punished, although you can make your own judgement on that, but, secondly, this was the last time I was strapped because it happened about four or five weeks before the end of the school year and our final exams.
Ursula and I sat adjacent to each other for a good number of classes. We weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend or anything. In fact, I think the class was originally simply organised alphabetically. Over the years, some other students moved around to different places, but we hadn’t. We had become good classmates but nothing more. In fact, during break periods Ursula would socialise with other girls in the class and I would mix with some of the boys. Nevertheless, we had become good classmates within school.
In the afternoon, as we walked into our next class, Ursula was rushing to get to the end of a joke she had begun telling me when we had left the previous classroom. Our next class was Religious Instruction and Sister F was already waiting at the top of the class. Sister F was not a regular teacher but came in from a nearby convent to teach Religious Instruction, probably because the other teachers had no time or did not want to teach it. Of course, everyone was talking and Sister F banged the desk and told everyone to stop talking. There was an immediate silence, and then, as we sat down, Ursula whispered the punch line of the joke to me. Whispered, but clearly not quite enough, because Sister F heard her and called her out.
Ursula stood up, realising she was in trouble.
“Go straight to Mrs B and tell her I sent you for talking in class,” said Sister F.
Sister F had never been so strict before, so we were all taken a bit by surprise. Ursula was blushing, clearly a little embarrassed. She would never misbehave and I think the only reason she continued whispering after Sister F told us to be quiet was because she had only the last line of the joke to tell.
So, she turned and left the classroom by the door at the rear of the room and we continued on with the lesson, all of us being very quiet.
After only about 2 minutes, Ursula returned, looking very quiet and serious. As she came back so quickly, I was hoping that Mrs B might have excused her behaviour when Ursula had explained she wasn’t being insolent or disrespectful. Mostly, teachers looked after their own discipline, but a few teachers, especially like Sister F, who weren’t real teachers, would send girls to the deputy head or boys to the head teacher. Ms B was the deputy principal, but she also taught Domestic Science. When someone was sent to her like this she would step out into the corridor and punish them with her strap, which we always called ‘the leather’. But having to deal with a steady stream of misbehaving girls was very disruptive to her own class, so if there were too many interruptions she would have the girl return to her at lunchtime or after school had ended. So, it was possible Ursula had been told to return after school.
I scribbled on a note paper, ‘Let you off?’ and pushed the note under Ursula’s eyesight. After a while, Ursula wrote on her own notebook, ‘She is coming back,’ and the look on her face suggested that she had not got off.
Literally within another two minutes, Mrs B entered the classroom at the back door and called Ursula.
Ursula stood up again.
“Who were you taking with?” Mrs B asked her.
When Ursula stayed silent, Mrs B raised her voice. “Who were you talking with?”
It was clear Ursula’s silence was being perceived as defiance, so I stood up, even though I hadn’t actually spoken in class, only listened. As soon as I stood up, Mrs B addressed us.
“Out, both of you,” commanded Mrs B, and Ursula and I turned and walked out to the rear door of the classroom.
We were in a corridor between two classrooms and Mrs B had ‘the leather’, the strap, in her hand. I had never been punished by Mrs B before, so this was new to me. Boys didn’t take Domestic Science and generally only girls were sent to her for discipline, so in the five years I had been in the school I had never been punished by her.
There was little said. Mrs B simply faced Ursula and said just one word. “Right.”
Of course we both knew what to do.
Ursula held out her hand. I couldn’t remember when Ursula had last been punished. I could see she was almost crying and I noticed her eyes following the arc of the strap as Mrs B first raised it and then brought it down swiftly, aimed at Ursula’s upturned palm. As she should have known, watching the strap was a big mistake because instinct always took over and she withdrew her hand at the last second, the strap missing her hand completely. Naturally, that did not please Mrs B.
“Do that again and you will both be coming to the office to have it on your bottom.”
I tried to catch Ursula’s eye, anything to get her to focus away from the strap. For a second, she returned my stare just as Mrs B brought down the strap again. Still Ursula tried to pull back her hand, but not quick enough and the strap made contact, making a loud crack, which would be heard all along the corridor, and leaving a red mark right across her palm.
Immediately, Ursula jumped, her hand went under her armpit and she squeezed it as hard as she could. We all did that when we were caned or strapped on the hand but whether it did any good it was impossible to know.
After maybe half a minute, Ursula held out her other, left, hand. Mrs B clearly expected Ursula to again pull her hand again so she held her left wrist and then swished down the strap with as much force as she could. Ursula let out a cry, then bent over, her two hands alternatively squeezed under an armpits and then between her knees.
Mrs B now turned her attention to me and, as she faced me, I held out my right hand. I was probably more used to getting the cane or strap than was Ursula. In any event, I focussed on Ursula and her ministrations and ignored the strap as much as I could, although I could still see it out of the corner of my eye as it descended. I heard the whack, and it seemed to take a second before I felt the pain across my palm. Now I too was almost in tears. Of course, I couldn’t help following Ursula’s example, squeezing my hand under my armpit.
Then I had to hold out the left hand. By this time, Ursula had calmed a bit and was watching me while she still squeezed her hands between her knees. I looked back, trying to keep my eye and mind on Ursula rather than ‘the leather’ as Mrs B drew the strap up and then swished it down as hard as she could on my hand.
Another scorching pain across my palm and I was again forced to squeeze both my hands under my armpits.
“Now, I was surprised to find you being so disrespectful to Sister F,” said Mrs B. “And I will not tolerate any more insolence towards her. If either of you, or anyone else for that matter, is reported again by Sister F then it will be a lot more than two strokes and it will be in the office.” She said this with the clear implication that we would be getting it on the bottom. I think we might have apologised and then we were dismissed.
We tried to retain as much dignity as we could when we returned to the classroom. Of course, everyone could hear our strapping as only a thin door separated us from the class. But we held our arms down, even though I had a throbbing pain in both hands and I am sure Ursula was feeling the same. It was clear she had tears in her eye, maybe I was the same, and I could see she couldn’t hold her pen properly. I could only do it with difficulty.
That was our last class for the day and afterwards Ursula apologised for getting me into trouble. But of course she wouldn’t have been talking if I wasn’t listening to get the end of the joke, so I accepted I was as much at fault as she was.
Ironically, after all these years, I cannot remember what the joke was about, so I cannot even say that it was worth getting punished for.