“Turn around; now bend over the back of the chair.”
“Please, Sir! Please. I didn’t do anything wrong, Sir!”
I’d been on the verge of tears for the last few minutes, but now they were beginning to flow freely. I was terribly frightened of what was about to happen to me, but the worst thing was that I truly did not believe I deserved it.
I was only eleven years old and I had been at my grammar school for about four weeks. It had been made very clear to us from our first day that the cane was used reasonably freely (at my primary school it had been quite rare) and that it was used on girls as well as on boys (at my primary school, girls had never been caned) but that threat had not worried me too much. I was a reasonably well behaved girl so I had never really been in serious trouble at school, and I actually thought it was reasonable that if you were naughty you should expect to be punished. My parents spanked me when they thought they needed to, and I had been spanked a few times at primary school, and been given the ruler once and the slipper once. If I deserved it, I’d accept punishment and I think I would have said that if I had done something bad enough to get the cane then I would expect to get the cane.
But I really did not think I deserved this.
Before I continue, it is important to explain some history; things that happened before this that were part of the reason this happened. Just a week before, a group of five boys from my form had been caned, six of the best each, because they had gone into the girls lavatories. I had been one of the girls who had been in the lavatories when this happened, but I hadn’t been the girl who had reported them. I am pretty sure that at least some of the boys thought that I was. But I wasn’t.
I had a friend named Larry. We’d known each other since we were four and we’d been through primary school together. I was probably Larry’s only friend for a lot of his time at primary school because he didn’t make friends easily and when he did manage it, he lost them very easily. Larry was a very clever boy but he did not do well with other children and his behaviour could be strange at times. Nowadays, I would think they would say he had Aspergers Syndrome, but back then I don’t think anything like that had been heard of. He was just seen as a little bit strange.
Why was I his friend? I was clever too, not as clever as him, but if he was the cleverest boy in our classes, I was the cleverest girl, and we both got teased a bit because of that. I somehow wound up being his protector in some ways, and perhaps understood him a little better than most. By the time we had finished primary school, most of the children we were at school with had come to accept and tolerate Larry. Bullying was mostly in the past.
But early the previous year, Larry had accidentally exposed himself in class. We changed for PE together in primary schools, boys and girls in the same room. This was seen as fine as we never took our underwear off, although by the final year of primary school I certainly found it a bit embarrassing myself.
Larry was changing, though, and somehow he’d forgotten to wear underpants that day. Most of the class had found it very funny. And Larry had got it into his head that, because it was funny, it was something he should do again in the playground. I’d tried talking to him because I knew it was very inappropriate, but also because I could see that if he kept this up, it was likely to reignite the bullying by reminding everybody how strange he could be.
When I couldn’t get through to him, I did what I thought was the right thing. I went and told our teacher it was happening, expecting her compassion and understanding would lead to Larry being sat down and convinced by her that he shouldn’t do this. Instead he wound up getting three strokes of the cane on each hand in front of the entire school at assembly. I had not told him I was responsible for that. I had wanted to, initially, but I found myself comforting him afterwards and he was obviously bewildered by what had happened and I hadn’t dared tell him I was to blame.
He and I had both been among those from our primary school to go on to Grammar, and within a week of starting at the new school, people had started bullying him again. Not boys from our school, but boys who’d come from other schools. I tried to do what I could to protect him but it was difficult because I knew that being defended by a girl could make things worse for him. But that brings me to the day before the day I got the cane.
We had all heard the stories about the things that happened to you when you went to secondary school. The real stories and the made-up ones that we sometimes believed were real. One thing we were told was that there was a form of bullying where bigger children would pick you up, put your head in a toilet bowl and flush. I don’t know if it was true, or if it was, how often it actually happened, but I believed it.
So when somebody ran up and told me that some boys had dragged Larry into the boys’ lavatories to do it to him, I believed it and I decided that even if it was horribly embarrassing to him to be defended by a girl, I was not going to let this happen. So I ran over to the boys’ lavatories and went inside to protect my friend.
There was nobody in there. They were empty. I checked all the cubicles, then I walked out.
I looked for Larry but couldn’t find him until after break ended. We were in the same class, and I went up to him when we got into class to check he was all right, but he told me to leave him alone, which seemed a little strange, but he did things like that sometimes. It was best to leave him alone when he got into a mood.
The following morning, a note summoned me to see my Form Mistress, Mrs Downer. I barely knew Mrs Downer, but what I did know about her made me quite apprehensive about going to see her. She had a reputation as a strict disciplinarian. As Form Mistress, she was allowed to use the cane, but I’d heard that she was much more likely to use the slipper, and she was very likely to use that. I couldn’t given an exact count but it felt like at least once or twice a day somebody would return to our class having been slippered by Mrs Downer, and a couple of times boys had come back in after being caned by her.
When I knocked on her door and was told to come in, I could see the cane sitting on the edge of her desk, with the slipper; a beaten up old gym-shoe actually, sitting next to it.
“Yes, Mrs Downer.”
“I’ll come straight to the point, Melanie. You’ve been reported for going into the boys’ lavatory at break-time. What do you have to say?”
This is the point where I did something wrong. But I could see the cane and the slipper and they frightened me.
“I didn’t, Miss.”
She frowned and looked at a piece of paper she had on her desk.
“This report comes from a most reliable source, Melanie. Would you care to reconsider your answer? I warn you, lying always makes things worse.”
“I didn’t, Miss.”
“Very well. I suppose it is possible that you were mistaken for somebody else. Come with me.”
I followed her out of her office and down the halls to the school’s front office area. She told me to wait while she checked something and I found myself standing opposite the Headmaster’s office. As I waited, I saw the Headmaster himself walking down the hall.
“You, girl, are you here to see me?”
“Then why are you loitering here, and not in your classroom?”
“She’s with me, Mr McEvoy.” Mrs Downer had returned.
“Is she in trouble?”
“We’ll see. Come along, Melanie.”
She led me up a corridor I hadn’t been along before. This was the area where the seniors had their classes. We stopped outside a classroom and she opened the door. I heard the sounds of chairs as all the students in the room came to their feet.
“May I borrow Claire Jessop for a moment?”
I knew Claire Jessop. She had attended my primary school although she was quite a bit older than me, and she attended my father’s Church as well. She was in her last year of school at this point, and she was a Prefect. She came out with Mrs Downer.
“Claire, this is Melanie Harris. Did you see her going into the junior boys’ lavatories yesterday at break?”
“No, Mrs Downer.”
“I have a report here that says you did.”
“Sorry Miss, I saw her coming out.”
“Is there any possibility you are mistaken?”
Claire looked at me with an apologetic expression. “No, Miss. I was less than twenty yards away. A boy had run up and told me that there was a girl in there, and I was hurrying to see if I could catch them.”
“Could you be mistaken about who the girl was?”
“I’ve known Melanie for years, Mrs Downer. It was her.”
“Did you challenge her at the time?”
Claire looked away.
“Melanie’s a good kid, Miss. I didn’t want to get her in trouble. But then I thought about it. I’ve got a duty to do.”
“Yes, you do. And good kids don’t lie. Thank you, Claire. Come with me, Miss Harris.”
She led me back to her office. And when we got inside, she turned to me.
“What you have done is serious. Do you know what happened to the boys who did this last week?”
“Answer my question.”
“They got the cane, Miss.”
“Yes; now what they did was far more serious than just going into the girls’ lavatories. So if you had been honest with me, I would have been lenient and I would have just given you the slipper. Now,” and she picked it up, “it is going to have to be the cane.”
“I didn’t do it, Miss!”
I was lying, and I probably did deserve to be punished for that. But I was lying because I was frightened and because the only reason I was in this situation was that I had wanted to help a friend. I felt justified in what I had done.
“Bend over and touch your toes.”
“I won’t. I didn’t do it!”
She looked at me. “Do you want us to discuss this with the Headmaster, Melanie?”
I couldn’t see any reason not to, if she was going to cane me anyway.
“Yes. Oh, yes, please!” I think I was thinking what a mess I’d made of the situation by lying to Mrs Downer in the first place. Now I felt committed to the lie. If I could talk to the Headmaster, maybe I could somehow fix things and I didn’t see how I could make them worse. And the Headmaster, Mr McEvoy, had a reputation for being fair. Strict, severe, but scrupulously fair.
“All right, come with me.”
We walked back down to the main office. I was told to wait while Mrs Downer checked if the Headmaster had time for this. She went in to see him. I waited quite a while. Then the Headmaster walked out with Mrs Downer.
“Right, girl. Mrs Downer has told me what has happened. I’ll tell you right away that I don’t see much reason at all to doubt your guilt, but I’m a fair man and I’m prepared to be convinced otherwise. Go in there.” He pointed into his office. “And sit down. Think about exactly what you want to say to me. There’s pen and paper on the desk if you want to write it down. I’m going to go talk to Claire Jessop. Once I’ve got her version you can tell me yours. I promise you, you’ll get the benefit of the doubt. I just hope for your sake, I can find some.”
He walked off. I went into his office, and Mrs Downer accompanied me. I sat down and leaned over to get a pen and some paper and tried to work out what to write down. Mrs Downer had sat down in the Headmaster’s chair and sat there staring at me.
“We can end this any time, Melanie. Simply admit what you did, and I’ll be as lenient as I can be.”
I sat there hoping she’d say more. Tell me what leniency meant. I was frightened most of the idea of being caned. If I hadn’t lied, I’d have got the slipper. Did leniency mean that? I wish she had said what she meant by leniency because I didn’t know and I still don’t. If she’d come out and said that it would mean the slipper, I’d have owned up at this point. I had lied so I couldn’t claim total innocence. But she didn’t say and I lost all hope. I didn’t write anything down. I had nothing to say. I just sat there hoping for a miracle.
When the Headmaster returned, he wasn’t alone. He had Claire Jessop with him. He also had three boys from my form; Paul Burns, Adrian Ferguson and Larry Silver. My friend, Larry who I had been trying to protect.
“Stand up, Melanie.” He said.
“Claire, please confirm for me that Melanie is the girl you saw leaving the boys’ facilities yesterday at break.”
“Please confirm for me that Paul Burns is the boy who came to you and told you that Melanie was in the boys’ facilities.”
“Burns,” he turned to Paul. Paul was a bully and I wondered if the Headmaster knew that. “Can you confirm for me that Melanie is the girl you saw in the boys’ facilities, yesterday?”
“Yes, Sir.” He said with confidence.
“And you gave me Ferguson and Silver’s names as the two boys who were in there at the same time as you?”
“Yes, Sir. There were others too, but I don’t know their names.”
The Head now turned to Adrian, a boy who I really did not know at that stage.
“Ferguson, is Melanie the girl you saw looking over the cubicle wall at you as you used the facilities?”
I was astonished, “Sir…”
“Be quiet, Harris!” Said the Headmaster sharply. “You can speak at the end. Ferguson?”
“I didn’t!” I said. I was suddenly propelled forward. There was a noise and a moment later, a sudden sharp pain spreading across the right hand side of my bottom. Mrs Downer was next to me, and I realised she’d just given me quite a hard smack on the bottom.
“The Headmaster said to be quiet.”
“Thank you, Mrs Downer,” said the Headmaster. “Silver, can you confirm that Melanie is the girl you saw spying on you while you used the facilities?”
“Yes, Sir,” said Larry.
“Thank you. Melanie Harris, what do you have to say for yourself?”
“I didn’t do it!” I almost yelled it across the room.
The Headmaster looked at me, then said: “The rest of you can go.”
As they left, he walked over to a cabinet. He opened it and took out a cane. It was the most frightening thing I had ever seen.
“Go and stand behind that chair, Harris.”
“Sir, I didn’t do it!” Mrs Downer gripped my shoulder and took me to the chair.
The Headmaster walked over to join us.
“Turn around; now bend over the back of the chair.”
“Please, Sir! Please. I didn’t do anything wrong, Sir!” I was crying with fear and anger at the injustice. I had lied, but I hadn’t done the other things.
“No, I didn’t…”
There was a sharp pain on the back of my left leg, then a second later on the back of my right leg. Mrs Downer had bent down, lifted my skirt to expose my upper legs and had sharply smacked me on the back of both of them.
“Bend over,” said the Headmaster again.
There were two more smacks. These seemed harder.
The Headmaster said: “Thank you, Mrs Downer! Melanie, I am going to give you the cane. This is inevitable. It is not going to change. If you do not bend over, I am going to ask Mrs Downer to sit down and put you over her lap the way little girls get spanked.”
I was well aware of that position; my parents used it.
“And then I will cane you. It would be much more dignified if you simply bend over.”
I slowly bent over.
“All the way over. Good girl, that’s right.”
I felt my skirt being lifted up and realised my knickers were visible to the Headmaster. I had not been expecting this. I found out later it was something he did with what he regarded as the very worst acts of misbehaviour, and it was even worse for boys. He caned them on the bare bottom. If he did this, exposed a girl’s knickers, or had a boy take down his trousers and pants, it always meant six, but I didn’t know that and I was hoping desperately that I was only going to get one stroke.
I felt the cane being tapped on my bottom and then I felt the vicious sting of the cane for the first time spreading across my bottom. And it seemed to get worse even before the second stroke landed. I realised this was absolutely nothing like anything I’d ever experienced before. Every stroke seemed worse than the one before. I know I got six but I couldn’t have told you that by counting.
I did so in something like a daze. I couldn’t really believe what had just happened. Or that it was over.
And in a way it wasn’t. There were two more incidents to be endured that day, the first arising when I confronted Larry. And the second when my parents found out I had been caned.