A girl at a mixed boarding school gets equal treatment
by Sally Cavendish
My name is Julie Brown. I was born in 1963 and, for most of my schooldays, attended an all-girls schools. Then, in 1979, my liberal-minded parents decided that I would benefit from a broader education incorporating, to my great excitement, boys!
Several traditional boys’ boarding schools of that period had started admitting girls into their sixth form, and I was happy to join the queue, completing my schooling at a well-known establishment in the South of England. Boys to the right of me, boys to the left of me; it was too thrilling for words. I had better draw a veil over some of my youthful escapades, but one episode from that period is as vivid now as forty years ago.
Although the days of corporal punishment in schools were numbered, boys at my school were still subject to the same disciplinary regime as their fathers and grandfathers before them. If they stepped out of line, they could expect to receive the cane, and an entire mythology had grown up around this fearsome instrument of chastisement.
Girls at the school, naturally, were not subject to corporal punishment in any form. It was assumed that we were the better behaved sex, for whom such harsh sanctions were unnecessary. Sexual equality was all very well, but there were limits. But the different treatment of the sexes led to some glaring inconsistencies.
Take the changing-rooms. Outside the girls’ changing-room, there was a prominent sign on display: ‘BOYS CAUGHT IN THIS CHANGING-ROOM AT ANY TIME WILL BE SENT TO THE HEADMASTER.’
We all knew what such a visit would entail. I can still see the blotchy, tear-stained face of a boy called Hopkins, who got six of the best from the headmaster after being caught in our changing-room by the gym mistress, Miss Harding.
Outside the boys’ changing-room, there was no such warning sign. Had the school authorities just calculated that no sixth-form girl in her right mind would be seen dead wandering in and out of the boys’ changing-room? If they had, they had reckoned without the risk-taking tendencies of children of both sexes.
My best friend at school was Georgie Mead, who was always daring me to break the school rules, whether it was by having a cheeky fag behind the cricket pavilion, or going into the village without permission.
On the day that is etched on my memory, Georgie had prevailed on me, against my better judgement, to sneak into the boys’ changing-room with her and wolf-whistle at a boy called Simpson as he was having a shower. I am not sure Simpson would have minded. He was a cocky so-and-so and his father was a Tory MP. But the plan came unstuck from the outset.
“And WHAT do you think you are doing?” roared a familiar voice in our ears, just as we were about to charge through the door of the boys’ changing-room. It was the gym mistress, Miss Harding, a former junior tennis champion. “Explain yourselves!”
Georgie tried to bluster her way through, as she always did, with some guff about having lost her way in the dark, but as it was four in the afternoon, that was not going to cut any ice with Miss Harding.
“You may think this is funny, Mead, but I doubt if the headmaster will see the joke. This way!”
Seconds later, we were being marched along a series of dusty corridors to the headmaster’s study, which overlooked the front quadrangle. Dr James Rankin was a rather aloof figure, not the touchy-feely sort at all, and neither of us had ever had occasion to visit his study in the six months we had been at the school. To say we were quaking in our boots would be an understatement. We knew we were in big, big trouble.
The headmaster was working on some papers at his desk and looked mildly irritated to be interrupted by our little delegation. But I could see irritation turning to anger as he listened to Miss Harding’s account.
“You say that Brown and Mead were about to enter the boys’ changing-room? Is this true, girls?”
We nodded miserably.
“What in heaven’s name were you thinking of? Come on, speak up.”
“We were just messing about,” said Georgie, which drew a loud snort from the headmaster.
“Messing about? Messing ABOUT? Your parents haven’t paid good money to send you to one of the best schools in the country for you to mess about. You’re supposed to be young ladies and behave like young ladies at all times. Messing about indeed! If I caught boys behaving like this, they wouldn’t sit down for a week. That’s the trouble with modern co-educational thinking.”
What Dr Rankin had to say about modern co-educational thinking will never be known, because at this point Miss Harding intervened.
“Headmaster, do you think I could have a word with you in private?”
“What’s that, Miss Harding? Oh yes, of course, of course. You can wait outside, girls. Hurry up, hurry up.”
For the next eleven and a half minutes, going by the clock in the corridor, Georgie and I were left to stew while our fate was discussed. We were so petrified with fear that we hardly dared look at each other. I tried to eavesdrop, but it was impossible to hear a word of what was being said outside the solid oak door. Then, finally, Miss Harding emerged. There was a look of quiet satisfaction on her face.
“I will let the headmaster inform you of your fate,” she said, with a wry smile, shepherding us back into the study.
Dr Rankin was standing in the middle of the room, holding a cane in his hand. Ominous. You can only imagine the thoughts swirling around in my head.
“I have reviewed your case from every angle,” he announced, “and in consultation with the gym mistress, come to the following conclusion. If boys had been caught in your changing-room, they would have been given six of the very best with this.” He whipped the cane through the air to emphasise the point. “Rightly or wrongly, I am not authorised to discipline girls in the same way. However.” There was a long pause, as if he was deliberately keeping us in suspense, which I suspect he was. “Miss Harding has advised me that, if I felt that corporal punishment was advisable in this instance, she would be happy to do the honours. So I have decided to give you a choice. Either you submit yourself to six of the best from Miss Harding or you will be gated (restricted to the school grounds) for the rest of the term. Which is it to be?”
Georgie and I exchanged glances. She obviously did not like the look of that whippy cane any more than I did, but the prospect of being gated for nearly two months, which was what the alternative would have amounted to, was just too awful. It would have meant not a single trip into the local town, which pupils of both sexes did every weekend.
“I’ll take the caning,” said Georgie, trying to look brave and failing by a country mile.
“I’ll also take the caning.”
“Good,” said Dr Rankin, obviously glad to have the whole sordid matter concluded. “I have to get off to a meeting, so I will not be able to witness your punishment, but I am sure Miss Harding will give you something to remember. Over to you, Miss Harding,” he ended, handing her the cane.
Seconds later, we heard the door close behind him and we were alone with our nemesis.
Looking back, I strongly suspect that this was not the first time Miss Harding had had to administer corporal punishment. The way in which she set the scene, moving a high-backed chair into the centre of the room, had an air of practised confidence. When the chair was positioned to her satisfaction, she turned to us.
“I am assuming that neither of you has been caned before?”
We shook our heads.
“Then let me explain the procedure. You will be caned in alphabetical order, so you will be first, Brown. When I tell you to assume the position, you will raise your skirt and bend over the back of the chair, with your hands placed on the seat. I will then administer six strokes of the cane over your underwear. If you move or cry out, you will receive two extra strokes. At the end of the caning, you will stay in position until I tell you to rise. You will then thank me and adjust your clothing. Is that quite clear? Good. Brown, you may assume the position. Mead, I want you to stand in the corner with your hands on your head.”
Numbly I moved into position and raised my skirt as ordered. Luckily, from my point of view, the navy school knickers I was wearing were quite thick by modern standards. But that was the only thing going for me. I felt horribly, horribly vulnerable.
Miss Harding took up position to my left and, seconds later, there was a swishing sound followed by a loud thwack as the cane found its target. The pain was indescribable, unlike anything I had experienced before. I wanted to cry out, but I was too scared to. I just froze while Miss Harding went mercilessly about her business.
The fourth stroke was the hardest yet, landing in the crease at the top of my thighs, which were totally unprotected by my knickers. No wonder the threat of a good caning struck such terror into generations of schoolboys! As the fifth and sixth strokes found their mark, I knew that this was an experience I would never forget, or never, ever want to go through again.
“Right, Brown, you can get up now and adjust your clothing. What do you say?”
“Thank you, Miss Harding.”
“Good girl. Now stand in the corner with your hands on your head while I deal with your friend.”
Despite the stinging in my poor buttocks, which I was desperate to rub, I was not altogether sorry to have a ringside view of Georgie’s caning. After all, she was the one who had suggested sneaking into the boys’ changing-room! She was a little plumper than me and her well-rounded backside, bent over the chair, was extremely pleasing on the eye. Miss Harding did not hold back. She administered six stinging strokes of the cane and Georgie, to her credit, took them pretty stoically. But it was a relief to escape the living hell in which we had found ourselves and get back to the girls’ dormitory in one piece.
Naturally, when we told our friends about our adventures, they thought the whole thing was hilarious, but the laughing stopped when Georgie pulled down her knickers to reveal the extent of the damage: six livid raised welts, turning purple in places.
My marks were, if anything, even worse. I slept on my stomach that night, racked by painful memories.
© Sally Cavendish 2020