A girl’s dislike of PE gets her into trouble. By a new writer to us.
by Mr W
Katie liked almost everything about school. At her young age of eighteen, she looked forward more often than she looked back, and she lived for the present as it was. So she rarely paused to evaluate things, but if she had, Katie would have probably concluded that these really were the happiest of days.
She was a top performer. A place awaited her to read law at Cambridge, providing she obtained the necessary grades at A level next term. Katie had passed her mock examinations with excellent marks already, just a few weeks before. She was taking English, Latin and Greek, and an additional A level in Religious Studies, which she worked for in her own time with the support of a couple of staff. The headmistress, Miss Maine, was herself a classicist and took particular pride in nurturing Katie’s ability. Miss Maine had arranged for a lecturer to visit the school weekly to give Katie additional tuition reading Greek poems and plays.
Katie liked almost everything about school, but she did not like games. She had intelligence and good memory, but when it came to physical ability and coordination then her brain just did not seem to provide her with the same advantages. She was lost on the hockey field. Hands, legs, stick and ball rarely worked together, and games lessons for her could not end soon enough. It was excellent news for Katie that her Greek literature tutor called at the school on a Wednesday afternoon when his university also offered sports activities instead of lectures. So for most of the two years of her sixth form, Katie had avoided games classes altogether.
She also had responsibilities as a befriender to younger pupils in need of support, and she was a member of the school council. It did not pass unnoticed that Katie was an expert in contriving to place these activities in her diary at the same time as her weekly PE lesson in the gym! She had barely entered the gym during the first two terms of this, her final year; no more than three times, certainly. And now it was nearly Easter. Most of the next term would be study leave. Maybe she would never have to complete another PE lesson at all.
Miss Maine put a damper on these happy thoughts.
“Now Katie!” Miss Maine stopped her as they passed each other in the corridor. “I’ve noticed that you’ve been missing a lot of PE this term. I know that you do a lot of other things, which we all appreciate, but PE is important for us all as well.” She spoke firmly but not unkindly. “As you get older, Katie, you will learn that the management of time is one of the most important things. Sometimes you can’t just do the most important things and ignore something else. The something else, which you have avoided, then grows in importance too, and must be dealt with. So, Katie, you must attend your PE class this week. Miss Griffiths has to complete an assessment of all the sixteen to eighteen-year-olds. All the schools in the authority have to do this, to measure how fit and healthy we all are.”
“Yes, Miss Maine,” Katie replied obediently.
Try as she might, it seemed to her that she was not going to manage to wriggle out of PE this time.
It was not that Katie had any obvious physical reason to dislike games. She was of average height and weight, and she was not particularly unfit. She enjoyed walking, spending hours sometimes exploring a historic town while lines of translation progressed through her head. English into Latin, Greek into English. She wondered whether it would ever be possible for her to translate Latin into Greek without first thinking of the words in English.
PE was the last period on Thursday afternoon and so Katie then trooped into the changing room with a couple of dozen other girls from the senior school; fifth as well as sixth formers. She changed into her pristine white polo shirt, red gym knickers and a knee-length red games skirt. Her kit felt so fresh and new; it had hardly been used. Next to her, the other girls’ outfits looked worn and slightly faded.
Miss Griffiths appeared, ticking off names from a sheet. She frowned.
“Katie!” she exclaimed. “I haven’t seen you for weeks. I haven’t seen you for games, or for PE. Where on earth have you been?”
Katie reminded Miss Griffiths of her Wednesday afternoon tuition and explained that she had always provided a note from Miss Maine, to cover her absences from PE.
“Well, thank you for gracing us with your presence today.” Miss Griffiths acknowledged gruffly. “Let’s see how you get on with this particular assessment.”
The girls were divided into six groups of four. Miss Griffiths told them that she had to time and measure their various activities so that an aggregate score for the whole school would be produced, in order to measure the effectiveness of their physical education. This was a project being trialled by their particular education authority.
Katie was in a group with three fifth form leavers. They had little more enthusiasm than did Katie, although they welcomed the PE class in preference to their academic work. A series of mats were arranged over the gym floor. The groups set about their tasks, working in rotation from one end to another. They had to demonstrate flexibility, touching their toes, completing sit-ups, press-ups and squats. They had to catch a heavy medicine ball, run with it and throw it through a hoop. They had to sprint six consecutive ten-meter lengths of the gym, while Miss Griffiths recorded their times.
None of this was too arduous and Katie was relieved that her PE lesson was passing by. Then the gym was cleared and all the groups assembled together.
“Now the vaulting horse!” Miss Griffiths called.
The vaulting horse! Katie was terrified of the vaulting horse. She was utterly terrified. This fear went back to five years before. That was when Miss Griffiths had used the gym lesson to teach the class how to use the vaulting horse. She had her pupils run-up to it one by one and try to propel themselves clean over and onto the landing mats beyond. Many of the girls had struggled with this while Miss Griffiths shouted encouragement and cajoled the less able.
Two girls were placed at either side of the horse, in case anyone slipped or fell from the padded top. These two girls were told to catch anyone who did, although Miss Griffiths gave them no precise instruction and no opportunity to demonstrate that they knew what they had to do.
Katie had shuffled to the back of the queue, but halfway towards her turn one of her classmates made a game effort to push herself right over the horse. When she was at maximum height her foot caught the edge of the padding, she lost her balance and fell face downwards from the side. The ‘catcher’ beside her seemed to freeze and failed to stop this poor girl from her fall. Katie remembered the sickening crack as she hit the wooden boards, away from the landing mats. Katie remembered the awful sight of her, unconscious for a few moments, her arm hanging loosely from a fractured shoulder. Everyone was ushered out of the gym while Miss Griffiths sent someone to rush for first aid. The ambulance arrived about ten minutes later.
Katie never saw this classmate again. After a short hospital stay and recovery, the girl started school again at another establishment closer to her home. But the fact that, for young Katie, she had just seemed to then disappear added to the terror that this incident left in her mind. The vaulting horse! Katie was petrified.
Four girls carried the vaulting horse out into the middle of the gym, while mats were laid down. Katie noticed that now the mats were placed generously all around. The assessment began, group by group. Many girls still struggled to vault, and several got over by sitting on the top and simply sliding off. Miss Griffiths grimaced and ticked her sheet. Katie ran up to it and stopped. She slapped her hands onto the top. It seemed to be so high, even higher now that she was standing next to it.
“Come on!” Miss Griffiths shouted. “Have a try! Go back and try again!”
Katie’s heart was pounding. Here she was, face to face with her fear. Everyone was watching and Miss Griffiths did not seem at all pleased. She walked back to the starting point and ran forward again. Then Katie stopped. Her hands rested on the padding in front of her.
“I said try!” Miss Griffiths shouted. “You are not trying! You can at least jump up and sit on it! You have one last chance! Now make an effort!”
Katie felt herself starting to panic. Why this, what had she done to deserve this? She walked back and ran up again, more slowly this time. Then she stopped.
“I can’t, Miss Griffiths, I can’t,” Katie said quietly. “I’m terrified of it!”
Miss Griffiths scowled at her. “You haven’t even tried, not once. I gave you three chances and you refused to obey me! You are not above this class, young lady! You shall be punished for wilful disobedience!”
Katie felt devastated. It felt so unfair. Here she was, compelled to attend this stupid class, and now she was to be punished, simply because she was afraid. It was so unfair. Katie knew that her punishment would follow quickly. For wilful disobedience, she could be slippered. She had never been slippered before. But Miss Griffiths was empowered to give her up to four strokes on the behind with a plimsoll. Any further amount of physical punishment lay in the hands of Miss Maine only. Or she could be given a detention. By the look on Miss Griffiths’ face, she could expect the worst.
Katie was hardly aware of what was happening as she helped to tidy up the mats. She thought about just walking away and going to see the nurse. Surely the nurse would understand that she was genuinely afraid. But everyone was watching her and the fifth form leavers seemed to think that her predicament was hilarious. If she walked away now, it might make things worse and the story would be all over the school. The older pupils looked away from her and shuffled off to change.
The fifth formers could hardly disguise their interest when Miss Griffiths confronted Katie in the changing room.
“Give me your plimsolls!” she began.
Katie’s spirits sank further as she removed her footwear. It looked like the slipper for her. Miss Griffiths had slippered girls here before, next to the shower area, out of sight of the changing room but well within the hearing of all the class.
“You deserve detention, Katie.” Miss Griffiths began. “That would make up for just one or two of the gym classes you have missed. I have a good mind to give you an hour’s detention right now, running around the grounds.” Miss Griffiths looked up through the skylight. “I would give you that detention now if it was blowing a gale and raining. A good run for an hour in the pouring rain would teach not to miss games too. But it is fine and dry outside, lucky for you, young lady.”
There was a short silence.
“The showers are really cold, miss.” A younger voice piped up.
Miss Griffiths looked suddenly interested.
“The showers are cold!” She repeated. “What a good idea!”
Katie looked even more miserable.
“I’ll take the slipper, Miss Griffiths,” she suggested meekly.
“Oh yes, you will, young lady!” Miss Griffiths assured her. “But first you can enjoy a cold shower, which will clear your mind for you to think properly in future about obedience!”
Miss Griffiths marched over to the shower area and with a theatrical sweep of her arm juggled the shower control to ‘on’. There was a juddering and banging in the ancient pipework as water gurgled and churned. Miss Griffiths plunged another lever downwards, to where once the faded label on the tiles had read ‘cold’. One by one, four showerheads in a line spluttered into life, as first intermittent and then steady streams of water gushed out and splattered onto the concrete floor.
The older girls were sitting quietly, looking at their feet and trying to get dressed as quickly as they could. A group of younger ones gathered behind Miss Griffiths, peering around her so they could see what was about to happen.
“In you go, young lady!” Miss Griffiths smirked.
“In my gym kit, Miss Griffiths?”
Katie stepped cautiously past her. Water was gathering in the sunken floor and immediately soaked into her socks. It felt really cold. There was a loud pattering sound as the first shower sent waves of splashes bouncing off her cotton top. Her hair quickly flattened and plastered itself to her neck. She hurried beyond the first shower but straightway felt the jets of water from the second on her legs.
“Go on, right under, right under!” Miss Griffiths commanded.
Katie shuffled a foot further and felt a sudden coldness as her polo shirt soaked right through. Streams of water ran down her skirt and the red material turned a darker shade. She felt her shirt clinging to her, the outline of her white bra was vaguely visible as the water compromised her modesty and showed up the curves of her young figure. Water surged over her feet as it gathered beneath her more quickly than it drained away.
Miss Griffiths turned around to the excited group of observers behind her.
“Now get changed quietly!” she shouted. “Or you will be joining this young lady very quickly indeed!”
The fifth formers scurried back to their benches. Miss Griffiths went out to the corridor, perhaps to check that there was no-one else around. She returned and closed the double entrance doors behind her. Katie stayed exactly where she was. The shower seemed to be getting colder and colder. Several minutes passed. Miss Griffiths looked into the shower area every now and again. Katie was feeling really cold. Her fingers were turning red and she felt prickly sensations on her scalp and around her neck. She tried to distract herself by remembering the new words of Greek she had read yesterday, but she found now that she could not keep them all in her head. She gave an involuntary shudder.
Miss Griffiths looked in at her again; she had one of Katie’s plimsolls in her hand.
“Is that nice?” She asked. “Y-Y Yes, Miss Griffiths!” Katie was trying to keep as dignified and composed as she could.
“Come here!” Miss Griffiths said sharply.
Katie was relieved to step out of the jets of water, but Miss Griffiths made her stop almost immediately, under the first shower.
“Turn around, away from me!” Miss Griffiths ordered. “And bend over to touch your toes!”
Katie did as she was asked. Miss Griffiths reached forward and quickly, before her arm got splashed, flicked up the back of Katie’s gym skirt, exposing the red gym knickers which Katie had on over her own underwear. Miss Griffiths swung her arm back, but as she did so a wave of water ran from Katie’s back, washing her gym skirt down into place. Splat! The plimsoll struck the sodden material, but Katie did not feel a thing. There was little room for Miss Griffiths to swing her arm, and the thick skirt, thick gym knickers and ordinary knickers too gave Katie good protection. Miss Griffiths swung again in frustration as a spray of tiny droplets responded to her from Katie’s skirt.
“Keep still, girl!” Miss Griffiths said crossly.
She lifted up Katie’s hem again, but as Katie lowered her back further in response another wave of water returned the skirt to its rightful place. Splat! Slap! Katie was so numb with cold that she wasn’t even sure whether she had received the punishment or not.
“Out here, young lady!” Miss Griffiths shouted, beckoning Katie to leave the shower area and join her in the wider tiled entrance.
Miss Griffiths switched off the showers while streams of water dribbled from Katie’s clothes. Her face was very pale and she was shaking.
“Now we will do this properly!” Miss Griffiths flexed the plimsoll menacingly. “There is not enough room for a proper spanking under the showers. I will do it here, where I always do.”
Katie was suddenly filled with an overwhelming sense of righteous indignation. She forgot that she was shaking with cold; she forgot that she was wringing wet and she forgot the humiliation which had just been heaped upon her. Her eyes caught the teacher’s stare and Katie glared at her with a spirit possessed by the anger of injustice.
“You will not,” she replied in a voice of calm authority, which in years to come was to be listened to with respect in the courtrooms of England. “You have administered the full punishment within your authority, Miss Griffiths!”
There was dead silence beyond the partition in the charging room. No-one dared to move or lift even a sock.
“If you think I deserve further punishment, then that is at the discretion of Miss Maine only. Let us go now and speak to her. Let us go together.” Katie’s voice shook as she trembled, not with fear, but with cold. “Let us discuss with Miss Maine how you have treated me already, let her see for herself what you have just done to me, come, let us go together now. I will take any punishment I deserve from Miss Maine.”
Miss Griffiths was speechless. Moments of silence passed. “Go and get changed,” she finally replied. “And leave here, go!”
Katie walked over to where her clothes were, a trail of water still dripping behind her. Miss Griffiths turned around and marched out. There were audible gasps. The older girls started murmuring, “Well said, Katie, Well Done, Good for you, Katie!” Several squeezed her cold hands as they got up to go.
Now it was the younger fifth formers who just stared at their shoes and changed quietly. Katie had a spare pair of pants at the bottom of her schoolbag. She wrung out her bra and went home without wearing it. It was nearly an hour before she felt warm again; her toes and fingers ached as they came back to normal.
Lurid stories spread around the whole school from the next day onwards. In these exaggerated tales, Katie was said to have almost drowned in the shower trough, she was said to have passed out, younger children heard that Miss Griffiths had resuscitated her and even massaged her heart. Katie was said to have turned completely blue, or sometimes it was red or even completely white, as if she was dead.
The stories reached the ears of staff. Miss Maine spoke to Katie the following week.
“Is there anything you need to speak to me about, Katie?” she asked.
“No, Miss Maine, not really,” Katie replied.
“About last Thursday?” Miss Maine prompted. “What happened last Thursday?”
“Oh, nothing really,” Katie smiled. “Nothing that I couldn’t cope with!”
Miss Maine straightened herself. “You should have come up to see me then,” she whispered. “I will not, under any circumstances, have any pupil of this school be ill-treated. Not by anyone.”
Katie wondered what she should say.
“It was the vaulting horse, Miss Maine. I’m really terrified of it. I saw that young girl seriously injured five years ago, and I still hear, in my head, the crack when her head hit the floor. I still have nightmares about it. Miss Griffiths would not understand that I was really frightened. She said that I was being wilfully disobedient.”
Miss Maine grimaced. “Miss Griffiths believes it right that she knocks that fear out of you, Katie. But I do understand what you have said. Miss Griffiths will not be with us next term. And I have things for you to do this Thursday and Thursday next week. You will be excused from gym lessons for the rest of this term.”
“Thank you, Miss Maine,” Katie replied.
The school dispensed with the post of gym teacher that Easter. A new position of sports coach was advertised and filled by the start of the summer. Gym lessons continued, but from then onwards they were conducted with proper regard for safety. Katie never saw Miss Griffiths again. From time to time over the years that followed she remembered that afternoon. Her career in law flourished; she became well known for her advocacy in human rights cases and Katie drew inspiration from that great sense of injustice that she had felt. In court, she spoke up with that same clear voice on behalf of those who have no voice, in the way that she had found her voice that afternoon when she spoke up for herself.
© Mr W 2019