A story from Scotland set in the 1960s
By Joanna Jones
Amazing though it may seem today when virtually all secondary school pupils take a (sometimes very expensive) mobile phone with them, half a century ago some schools regarded a watch as being forbidden, as being too valuable an item to risk the rough and tumble of school life.
* * * *
Ailsa was starting to panic. The watch she had bought a year or so ago, from the proceeds of babysitting for a few of the neighbours, was not in her pocket. She always took it off in French. For some reason Certificate of Sixth Year Studies (CSYS) French was taken by the Headmaster once a week, one of two hours a week he chose to teach a class. The other, ironically, was a ‘conversation’ class with some of the second year who struggled (the bottom set, so to speak); almost the exact opposite from the small group of us studying at what would be the equivalent of Upper Sixth A-level in England.
He was in his early sixties and very traditional in his views on some things. One was on ‘valuable’ items, which should never be brought into school. They could get broken, be subject to being misplaced, or worse lead to accusations of theft. To be discovered with something he considered ‘valuable’ was likely to have a single outcome: The Belt.
Watches were the most obvious ‘valuable item’ that was forbidden. Maybe, Ailsa thought, twenty or thirty years ago that may have been the case, but it was now the late sixties, and watches need not be that expensive. Hers was a fairly simple practical one, and quite a few of her fifth and sixth year colleagues discreetly wore one; she guessed that probably about a third of the sixth years did so.
That it was forbidden was common knowledge. Her classmate, Ian, had been belted earlier that year in French, having been spotted slipping it off his wrist before entering the class, not realising Mr McKinnon was somewhere behind him.
The headmaster had not been amused, and given Ian a full six in front of the remaining seven of them in the small class, one other boy and six girls.
While Ailsa had seen numerous boys and girls getting belted in her time, Ian’s was noteworthy for the strength their headmaster had put into each stroke, and the fact it was six. Ian was an intelligent, well-behaved boy by nature, and had not been belted since primary school. To say six had been a shock to the system for him would be an understatement.
Finally the classroom was small, designed for tutorial groups or sixth year subjects no doubt, so his punishment had been literally only a few feet in front of her. The whole thing had been rather shocking.
After that Ailsa had wondered whether to stop wearing her watch, but instead like her friends, knew that it generally hid itself well under her blazer sleeve and felt it was worth the very small risk to know the time easily, especially as she often visited friends after school, and needed to ultimately get a bus home. Further, Ian had been exceptionally unlucky to be caught.
Few of the other teachers made an issue of watch wearing, at least amongst the fifth and sixth years. In fact most ignored it, though one or two would have comments such as: “You’d better not let Mr McKinnon see you wearing that!”
Ailsa knew of none though that would willingly send a senior pupil to the head on such a matter, although quite a few would deal with younger pupils for that infraction, especially the two PE teachers, who had suffered a few lost/query stolen watch issues in their time no doubt.
Returning to her current predicament, Ailsa fruitlessly searched her pockets for the fourth time, then emptied her school bag out completely to ensure it had not slipped into some corner, a desperate hope, as she always put her watch in her inside blazer pocket when it was not on her left wrist.
It was nowhere to be found. Racking her brains she could not think where she could have left it. She started to mentally retrace her steps to help her. It was still the afternoon interval so she slipped in to the empty class where they had French. It was not lying on the floor, or anywhere near her desk. She checked it had not been kicked into some corner, but it was a fruitless search.
Then it dawned on her. The toilets: Had she put it on the edge of the basin as she washed her hands after the lunch break, meaning to slip it into her blazer ready for French rather than put it back on?
Dashing there, she found nothing, of course, neither around the sink nor on the floor. It had gone. The slow realisation upset her. Her watch had disappeared, probably for good, and she could not ask a teacher. Found or not she knew she would end up being belted and she had no desire to experience that fearsome weapon. The few girls who had experienced it at their secondary school were invariably in tears afterward and would barely talk about it after, even if witnessed by her classmates.
Ailsa was upset with herself for a few days. Her parents tried to persuade her to ask in the school office, but she could not bring herself to risk it. Both parents, while sympathetic and disagreeing with the rule as being a bit old fashioned, made it clear that if she broke a well advertised rule there was little they could do to prevent the consequences. There was no hope of them storming into the school to prevent their ‘darling daughter’ getting her hands warmed, or to complain after. Nobody’s parents did!
Her mother tried to encourage her to ask, knowing that she had saved quite a bit to get the watch. She told her that the belt was not so bad and that she had had it often enough (apparently it was impossible not to in her day). Okay it was painful but it was soon over, she said. Ailsa could not bring herself to agree with her mum.
There was always a faint hope that it might turn up, that a friend may find it in a corner, though she knew in her heart it was a pretty forlorn one. By the following weekend she resigned herself to using her savings again to get another. There was a rather nice one in the local jeweller. Ailsa was naturally careful with money, and with a couple more baby sitting jobs she should have sufficient to cover it.
After lunch on Tuesday she waited for Mr McKinnon with the others for their French class.
To her shock and horror, before he started he produced a familiar object with a silver face and plain red strap.
“Ailsa Dawn Kennedy, would this be yours?” He asked.
She stared at it, before realising that her face meant she would not be able to deny it. “Yes, Mr McKinnon, but…”
“But how did I know it was yours? Well there are only two pupils with those initials in the school, and this watch does not look like it belongs to an Andrew!” He turned the watch over on the desk in front of her as he spoke. There were a few light smirks from the class at the Headmaster’s attempt at some humour.
Ailsa was not smirking as she looked at the three neat initials she had scribed neatly with the point of her compass on the back of the watch case. She had forgotten about that.
She looked nervously up at the Headmaster, praying he would just tell her to put it away and never bring it into school again. However, in her heart she knew that he was going to apply a sanction, well not just A sanction, but THE sanction. She felt a panic welling up inside of her.
“I assume the reason you did not ask at the school office if your watch had been handed in was because you know the rules.” Mr McKinnon’s voice had perceptibly hardened.
Ailsa nodded as she replied quietly: “Yes, sir.”
“And I assume you can think of no reason why I should not deal with the matter as I dealt with Ian last term?” He glanced at Ian as he said this.
Ian quickly dropped his eyes to his desk at the Head’s unwelcome attention and reminder.
Ailsa was already struggling with her fear as she whispered: “No… but, please Sir…”
However, her pleas were clearly going to fall on deaf ears. Mr McKinnon was already threading his two tailed tawse out from its location over his left shoulder, under his suit jacket.
“Put your watch away safely, take your blazer off, then come here.” He told her firmly.
Numbly Ailsa slipped the watch into the inside pocket of the blazer, then stood and shrugged it off, hanging it on the back of her desk chair.
She felt the sympathetic looks of her friends gazing at her as she joined the headmaster at the front of the class.
It had never occurred to her that she might be found out like this; never occurred to her that she was not going to have a choice between trying to get her watch back and getting the belt. Ailsa was in a mix of shock and panic as she stood in front of the headmaster. He was not especially tall, but well built none the less, with his receding grey hair giving him a rather austere look. His right hand was at his side, the two foot strip of thick leather in it, with the tips of the two tails roughly level with his knees.
Mr McKinnon did not give her much time to think. “Hands out, Ailsa.” He ordered.
Trying desperately not to let her panic show, or the tears welling up to start, Ailsa slowly did what she was told, putting them, left-on-right, directly in front of her. She watched him flip the belt up onto his shoulder. His eyes, she noted, were now concentrating totally on her delicate palm.
“Don’t move.” She heard him say before the leather tails suddenly arced down to land with a slap on her waiting flesh.
A fraction of a second later any hope that the belt was not as bad as people made it out to be left her. It was worse than they said, nothing had prepared her, could have prepared her for the shocking sting in her left hand. She knew her mother had been under-exaggerating the pain, or perhaps she got it sufficiently frequently that she became somehow inured to it. That was not possible for Ailsa. This was, after all, her first experience of a belting.
The Head gave her a brief second as she screamed and then gasped in shock, before ordering her other hand out. She looked incredulously, desperately, at him, but eventually did as she was told. Her classmates were watching, she had to be brave…
Both hands were now in agony. As the head ordered her to swap her hands again the tears started to fall. Closing her eyes she did as she was told.
The pain doubled. Despite the headmaster’s orders it took a minute before her left hand was cradling the right ready for the fourth stroke. Her body was shaking all over as a result. Grimly squeezing her eyes shut she waited for the fourth slap to arrive, giving further pain and tears.
As she tried to wave her hands, clamp them together she prayed it would be over. Please, perhaps he might let her off with four; she was a girl after all, maybe….
“And again, hands out!” she heard him order. The hope left her: it was to be exactly the same as Ian: A full six. He ignored her half hearted pleas, as he told her firmly she still had two more to go. Eventually the left hand was uppermost in front of her again.
She screamed again, but this time somehow managed to keep her palms out in position and swap them. ‘Please just let this be over,’ she thought desperately.
With a final slap and scream it was. Barely able to see, she clamped her hands under her arms trying to squeeze the pain out of them and took the few steps back to the desk.
Mr McKinnon looked at the sobbing wreck in front of him. He was unlikely to get much done with the early part of the lesson as a result of her (in his view deserved) punishment. “Ailsa,” he said more sympathetically. “Go clean yourself up. But make sure you are back here in ten minutes!”
She did not need to be asked twice. With a muttered thanks, Ailsa left the class heading straight for the girls’ toilets. Free of the need to show any pretence of control, her tears redoubled as she half walked, half ran to the privacy that they would provide.
The cold water on her palms helped a bit and after five minutes or so she managed to wash and wipe the worst of the tears off her face.
More slowly she made her way, still sniffing, with her hands still clamped under each arm back to the class.
She would never wear her watch to school again.