I’m not making excuses, but you must understand that a thirteen-year-old grammar schoolboy in the early sixties was no different from any other fun-loving lad. A ‘revision’ homework was a cop-out for a master who hadn’t bothered to set something more substantial, and we treated it as a good skive(1). It was almost a tradition that there wouldn’t be a test to make sure we’d done the revision.
So it was when I was in the third form; 3A, the top stream, so I was expected to do well. Mr Seddon set a ‘learning’ homework. I didn’t spend much time on it; but he sprang a test on us the next day.
I still don’t really know what possessed me. We were nearly all in the same position; only the real swots would get good marks and ‘Truck’(2) couldn’t out us all in detention without looking stupid. So the worst we could expect was to have to re-do the learning. But temptation got the better of me and, ignoring school rules, the boys’ unwritten code of conduct, and my own conscience, I carefully placed the textbook on the bench seat beside me. We sat in those traditional one-piece school desks with seat and desk all one unit, and I had the good fortune to sit by the wall.
Unobtrusive ‘cogging’(3) is harder than you’d think. Nevertheless, I was slyly looking up enough information to avoid getting below half-marks. Then, out of the silence came a piping voice, a weedy youth called Broster.
“Sir, Sir! Lee’s got a book on the seat!”
In the time it took everyone in the room to stop writing and gasp sharply, some in disapproval of my cheating, but I think most in disgust at Broster, Mr Seddon was upon me. No time to hide the book. What are schoolboys’ left ears for? They’re for dragging offenders out to the front of the class.
I’d rashly thought I could get away with it, so I hadn’t thought about the potential consequences. If my form-mates found out, I’d be scragged at break-time and sent to Coventry(4) for a day or so. If a master found out, there was only one possible outcome; a visit to the headmaster for six strokes of the cane.
And a master had found out. More to the point, a very strict master had found out. There’d be no mercy even if the others pleaded my case, as some did. “Sir, can’t you let him off just this time?” “He wasn’t looking at it.” “It’s his first offence.” Etc. They meant well, but it was in vain, and it actually made me feel even worse.
‘Truck’ wrote a slip of paper, folded it and handed it to me. “You can guess what this says, Lee, so you needn’t unfold it. Just take it straight to the Head, and wait for his reply, of course.” Sarcastic b*st*rd!
Our form room was at the farthest end of the ‘long corridor’, so the walk to the headmaster’s room seemed endless, like the walk to the gallows. I knew what the cane felt like, but SIX! We never used the ‘six of the best’ cliché at my school, but I knew these strokes would be severe, to use the headmaster’s phrase. The only question was, how severe? It’s difficult to be brave when you know you’re in the wrong and you’re ashamed.
I reported to the school office. The headmaster was far too important to be disturbed by a mere boy. It was the secretarial assistant, a snooty girl all of seventeen years old, who spoke to the head on the internal phone.
“Mr Seddon has sent Lee of 3A to see you, Headmaster.”
A cheap, tinny loudspeaker crackled: “He can wait outside my door.”
So I was sent across the hallway to stand, very publicly, by the door. Everyone who passed would know why I was waiting, and tradition had it that anyone waiting the wait had to stand with his back to the wall, facing outwards, hands on head. So you had to face the passers by and there was no hiding your blushes. Moreover, despite the humiliation, the fear, and the shame, it would be the ultimate disgrace to shed even the tiniest tear.
Looking back, I’m convinced part of the discipline regime in our boys’ schools at the time was to harden and brutalise boys ready for their role in the expected war with the USSR.
Finally, Mr Fulwood appeared at his door.
“In here! Now!”
Not the friendliest greeting! I entered timidly and looked round the hallowed room. He never called it his study. Last time, the cane was already on the desk. Where was it now? Nowhere to be seen, but I didn’t take much hope or courage from that.
“Slip? Hurry up, Boy!” I handed over the slip. He read it carefully, tapping it in places with his pen. It was straightforward, so this was a charade to prolong the agony. “In your own words, I want a full account of this episode. Well?”
Believe me when I say owning up is even worse than being punished. Somehow, I stuttered and mumbled my way through my confession.
“Not very coherent, Lee. Repeat!”
So I blurted it out all over again.
“Do you know the punishment for cheating?”
“And do you suppose for one moment you’re an exception?”
“NO SIR INDEED, BOY! Six good hard strokes of the cane for you, my lad.”
Mr Fulwood donned his academic gown. He always wore it in public and it seems he thought it appropriate apparel for an execution. Looking back, I think it was meant as a mark of respect for the occasion and, to some extent, also to the boy who was about to be caned. Opening the cupboard, he reached up to the top shelf and took out a cane.
He laid it on the desk in front of him, where I could hardly take my eyes off it. It was thicker and heavier than the one he’d used the previous time, and at least six inches longer. Oh God! This was effing well going to hurt. But first was the ceremonial filling-in of the punishment book, while I had to stand waiting on the trap door, as it were, with absolutely no hope of a last moment reprieve.
Replacing the ‘black book’ in his desk drawer, he slowly gathered up his papers to clear a space on the desk. I could easily guess why, so it was hardly necessary for him to explain.
“We don’t want you creasing my papers, do we, Lee?”
At least it was almost time for the punishment proper. The preliminaries were beginning to unnerve me. He stood up and came round from behind the desk, picked up the cane and ordered me to bend over.
I meekly complied, gripping the far side of the desk as hard as I could. Meanwhile, I could feel Mr Fulwood lifting my school blazer and tucking it up over my back, to leave a clear target for the caning. Then those gentle and almost pleasurable range-finding taps of cane on bottom, as he shuffled to achieve the optimum stance. It was a bit like the WW2 ‘doodle-bugs’(5). When the tapping stops…
There’s no way of reproducing the sound of a school cane lashing down on a boy’s trousered bottom, stretched tightly over a solid piece of furniture. Equally, there’s no way of describing the sensation; not politely, anyway. The first fraction of a second is strange. You feel the impact but no pain. Then it explodes; a searing, burning agony in your bum cheeks; much, much worse than any spanking. And it seems to stay seated in your bum; like a wasp sting, it doesn’t spread and dissipate.
I didn’t count, but I think he must have waited about five seconds. That’s quite a long time, especially when you’re bent across a desk with five more strokes still to come. Again, the cane was laid across my cheeks to aim for a good hard stroke. Again, the cane lifted away and then once more that sound, quickly followed by even more excruciating pain as the cane landed squarely on an already tenderised pair of rather thin schoolboy buttocks. Four to go, and the hellish pain was increasing exponentially.
I’d vowed to take my six without blubbering or crying out loud. But this was so very much worse than my previous canings. Not only was he using that longer, thicker cane, but he was also determined to earn every penny of his salary for this caning. After just two strokes, I’d started to wonder if I could hold out. There was no shame in crying, but I really wanted to keep some dignity by taking the punishment ‘like a man’, as the saying goes.
The third stroke was like the first two, only worse. Likewise, the fourth. By this time, I remember, I was emitting suppressed grunts as each stroke hit home. That, and repeating the foulest expletives under my breath in an attempt to control the pain and my reactions. I don’t usually pepper my language with obscenities; I never have and I hope never will, so anybody who knew me would have been shocked by the stream of profanity spooling through my brain. Tears were flowing freely but, mercifully, I hadn’t broken and screamed.
The fifth and sixth strokes were different. My bum was already hurting so much that I didn’t really feel them. From ‘A’ level biology, I now know how sensory nerve endings work. They’re either on or off, so once all the pain sensors in a given part of the body have been triggered, you can’t feel much more pain. The last two strokes would, of course, cause more bruising, so it would take my bottom longer to recover and it would hurt for two or three hours more than if the head had just given me four.
At last, my caning was over. The actual execution probably took no more 45 seconds. For example, six strokes given at seven-second intervals would take 5 x 7 = 35 seconds. It just felt like half an hour.
“Very well, Lee, you can get up when you’re ready. I suggest you get up slowly; you’ll be in enough pain without making it worse. I hope you’ve learned a lesson. Get yourself back to class now, but you might want to go via the toilet block and wash your face. There’s no shame in crying after a whacking, but you probably don’t want the other boys to know, eh?”
“Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir.” I mumbled, frankly a bit surprised by his kindly words.
It wasn’t to be the last time he caned me. I never copied again, or did anything else to be really ashamed of. But there were several episodes of relatively harmless schoolboy mischief.
You’ll be wondering. So, yes, it did hurt to sit on the hard school seats. I couldn’t sit comfortably on hard seats for two whole days after my caning. And the cane marks still showed faintly on my bottom for over a week.
(1) English colloquialism – avoiding work.
(2) Nickname based on a now defunct British manufacturer of vans and lorries: Seddon-Atkinson.
(3) Schoolboy slang – copying
(4) Nobody would speak to me. UK slang.
(5) Flying bombs powered by a ram-jet. When the sound cut out, the engine had stopped and the bomb started its descent.