A headmistress deals with abject rudeness
by Jonathan South
The muses smiled, and gave consent,
when, whisk, at once away I went!
And, what was still more odd and risible
I found myself become invisible,
And slyly seated on a stool,
Among a pack of females at school!
Well looking back, it wasn’t quite like that. I’d taken the job as school secretary at the start of the autumn term. It was a small day school on the edge of Harrogate run by the headmistress, Miss Rebecca Harding. The interview had gone well – we had seemed to get on – and it included other responsibilities including some basic book keeping and the like. “As school secretary you’ll find the role quite wide,” she explained to me. “I hope you’ll be happy, you can always approach me about your work if any clarification is needed. Rebecca was about fifty and seemed an appropriate balance of formality and approachability for a headmistress. About five foot eight, she had a good figure for her age topped by shoulder length black hair. Looking at her, and learning of her personality those first few days, I wondered why she was single.
And so I started, housed in a little office adjacent to hers. The girls all seemed quite happy at the school. It was a small private affair run by a board of Governors who met once a term. I had little opportunity to deal with the girls in any great way, except from time-to-time when I was required to issue new exercise books to them and the like.
You’ll recall the 1970s were years of change even in schools. I had attended a very similar one in York as a girl, which I left at sixteen. I should have stayed on, looking back, but it wasn’t me so I left and trained to type. Now fifteen years later this job was a super opportunity for me to break the monotony of traditional secretarial jobs.
Now you’ll understand that discipline isn’t usually a major problem at a girls’ school. There’ll always be some naughtiness, occasional bad behaviour and similar. In York it had been the same. Corporal punishment was of course still on the agenda back then; not at all schools, but certainly many. We all knew that our Headmistress kept a cane although it was not really mentioned very often. At the back of our minds we knew that from time to time when a girl really did something bad it was used. It was always a quiet private affair away from the gaze of day to day routine. It seemed to work, even the threat of it, as no-one dared to test our teachers’ patience too much. Rumours would be circulated among us every so often. “I think Julie got a whacking,” might be whispered in the cloakroom at the end of the day. Those who did suffer were suitably shamed, so there was no badge of honour for us. We just wanted to forget about it afterwards.
And, I admit shamefully, I experienced it twice. Once in the fourth form I’d stupidly cheated in a test to the wrath of my form-mistress, Mrs Ashcroft. Even then she’d been very discreet about it, taking me quietly to the Head after school that afternoon. Ten minutes later I embarrassingly emerged having had four firm strokes delivered across my bottom and a stern lecture.
Looking back, these occasional firm but quiet punishments seemed to work. Most girls in my opinion wouldn’t want to have to go back for more, or even have a first visit if they could help it.
Oh, but yes I did – stupidly again! It probably contributed to me wanting to leave. I’d started smoking occasionally and was caught. Well not caught but seen in my uniform on the way home smoking when I thought I was out of sight. I was called to be seen the next day by Hilary Wood my English mistress. Another lecture was followed by six strokes. I’ll never forget them, not the pain, although oh they stung, but just the shame. And that’s how I’ve always felt. I’m not a fan of wild beatings or anything but those two canings had taught me a lesson and I didn’t see any reason why any other girl who was deliberately disobedient shouldn’t have the same.
Now, back to my job as school secretary. I hadn’t thought much about discipline and punishment since the events I’ve described. School was for learning and I hoped I would be playing an, albeit very minor, role in helping it run well. Certainly Rebecca Harding didn’t mention discipline initially.
In my third week however, she had unusually asked me if I could have a word with her one evening before leaving. She was very matter of fact. “I’m sorry to trouble you with this, Susan, but I have to discipline a girl in the morning. It won’t take long but would you mind if you stand in and witness it for me. Mrs Wood, your predecessor, used to for me. I know it’s an awkward business and it doesn’t happen too often, but it is necessary. I don’t cane unless I really think it’s necessary but Jane Ratcliffe was cheeky to her form-mistress today and I think it’s a reminder she needs.”
I didn’t really know what to say. “Yes, yes of course that’s fine.” I replied.
“Thank you Susan. She’ll be along to see me after assembly. The Governors suggested we adopt a witness as a procedural improvement.”
And so I witnessed punishment for the first time from a very different perspective. The Head looked round my door the following morning and smiled at me. “Could you come in now?”
Jane waited in silence looking at the carpet, a girl of about sixteen. “This is Susan Glynn, the school secretary Jane. She will witness your punishment. Calm as ever, Rebecca Harding led Jane to a chair before her desk and quietly asked her to bend over it. “That’s it, further down,” she spoke. Then she lifted the hem of the girls skirt and pulled it roughly up to her back to expose her navy blue clad bottom. “Miss Glynn, please would you be kind enough to pass me the cane?” She pointed to the bookcase where a thin yellow rattan rested on the top. I fetched it and, in the few seconds it took to cross the room to pass it to her, I felt a cane for the first time ever in a very different way. It was cold, smooth, hard, and thinner than I had imagined.
I stood across from Miss Harding. Without any ado she raised the cane and swished it into the girl’s bottom. Jane winced just as I had and shook her head slightly. Ignoring the girl the Head paused, and then delivered five more strokes to the girl. She took them well grasping onto the chair she was bent over.
“Right Jane, get up. Thank you, Miss Glynn. I’m sure you’ll hope with me that that should be sufficient to help Jane think how she addresses members of staff from now on!”
That first caning I witnessed had a profound effect on me for a few days, I confess. I thought about the punishments I had received. I thought about Jane. I remembered the few moments I’d held that cane in my own hands. The hiss, the swish. The split-second crease as it hit the girls bottom. I never thought myself as soft. In fact the event seemed to harden my thoughts. It reaffirmed the impression my own punishments had made; it really was ‘cruel to be kind’.
And so from time to time in my first year Rebecca Harding would repeat the pattern when a girl needed punishing. A similar format was followed each time with my minor role observing but necessary.
On just one occasion she had asked me to stay behind and made us both tea to drink after the girl had left.
“I do appreciate you doing this Susan. If it wasn’t so effective I’d stop.” We’d chatted for twenty minutes or so, not entirely on matters of discipline. “It was, of course, more common when I was at school Susan. Many of our mistresses kept a cane in their rooms, and many more of us felt them!” She smiled as she spoke. “You’re happy to carry on Susan?”
“Yes, ” I stuttered at first. “Yes its fine. In fact, while I know it’s less popular today, I still think its sometimes just what’s needed.” I took a deep breath. “I admit that I myself was caned as a girl and it taught me a lesson I needed. I think you do the right thing. I’m pleased to assist, Rebecca.”
All tongues! As fast as they could chatter –
Sure never was there such a clatter
But one, much louder than the rest,
Amused them with a mighty jest –
A word! – she had picked up in the street!
A word this bard will not repeat!
Now, hushed at once, the little band,
Behold! The Governess, so grand
The schoolroom enters! – not a word,
Where all was riot, now is heard!
Each head, by her majestic look,
Bent down on sampler, or on book!
When, Lo, the gloomy lowering eye
Prognosticates a storm is nigh:
The benefits of the school in part were the small class sizes making learning much more focused. The girls of Upper Six Arts B were just eight in number, mainly reading English Literature for Higher School Certificate. As sixth formers they enjoyed more freedom and a slightly less formal uniform. Tunics gave way to plain white blouses and loose knee length black skirts.
On lunchtimes they often stayed in the classroom, sometimes working, reading or chatting together. This Friday was no different as the younger girls were forced to be outside. They chatted about the weekend to come, magazines they were permitted to bring in and their slowly developing social lives.
They were in fact a good class; there didn’t seem to be any girls who were left out despite their varying academic abilities. Now Liz Fry was a pretty average pupil; physically grown up if not mentally. Quite tall, as it seemed many sixth formers were, and with attractive mousey hair. She’d passed though the school well, minor scrapes and telling offs, but as the Head told me later never a caning!
What caused her that day to speak as she did I’ll probably never know. I was just told that as Rebecca walked down the corridor that Friday lunchtime she paused outside the class door to discreetly listen to her girls. She didn’t hear the exact phrase but there was no doubt that she had been insulted as she listened: “… Harding? A real shit. Not much longer to cope with her.”
Fuming she swallowed and took a deep breath. The girls laughed at Liz Fry and settled. Reaching for the door handle she swung it open, stepping inside.
The girls from their various positions around the room immediately fell silent and those that hadn’t seen her enter quickly turned to the front to unexpectedly greet their Head. Those sat on desks or the radiator at the back of the class sidled forward to chairs at desks and slipped down.
The head closed the door behind her. The room was again silent. She looked around every inch of the room glaring at the class. The girls nervously tried to look to her attention, but yet knew a serious problem had arisen.
Too sure a presage! Says the Dame,
“What girl, as down the stairs I came,
Dared utter that vile, filthy word
Which never in my school was heard?
If now this instant you won’t own
Who ’twas – I’ll whip you all – each one!”
All – all – were ready then to cry,
‘Twas not me, Ma’am – ’twas Betsy Fry.’
Miss Harding allowed the moment to linger to emphasise its gravity. Then having stared at the girls across the room she spoke. “Which of you, as I came past your door just now, chose to insult me, and not just insult, but with filthy language?”
Again the room fell silent as the eight girls looked down to avoid her gaze around the room. A minute passed.
“I heard one of you quite clearly. You would be advised to own up quickly whoever you are. I shall I find out which one of you it was. If I have to wait all afternoon I will, but I shall know who spoke that slight on me.”
She paused again. “Otherwise I shall punish you all, make no doubt about it, this is a serious offence, one I will not hesitate to punish, with the cane. Own up now or tell me who it was.” Her voice crescendoed. “What is it to be?”
The girls became more agitated. They looked round at each other before, with a little delay, two or three blurted out: “It was Elizabeth. It wasn’t me. No, it was Liz Fry.”
Liz Fry’s heart sank as she looked down at her lap. She glanced up to look at the girls who had spoken but no-one looked back. She was alone.
‘Who! Betsy Fry? – I’m quite ashamed –
such a great girl! – to hear her named;
But for this crime, a whipping ample
Shall be to others an example.
Indecent wretch! You, Sally Treacher,
Go run upstairs and tell the teacher
To bring that rod she made, just new,
And tied up with a ribbon blue;
Then such a punishment I’ll give
You’ll think on, long as you may live.
“Elizabeth Fry?” The Headmistress spoke. “Stand up, girl” Pushing her chair back with a squeal on the floor, Liz rose, wanting the earth to swallow her.
“I am very disappointed in you. How dare you use such language in my school, and not only that but to insult me, your headmistress. You are in serious trouble young lady!”
Again the room fell silent while the Head and single pupil stood facing each other some six or seven yards apart.
“Over the years you have all studied here you know that from time to time as required I have punished girls who have misbehaved in serious ways. They have been caned. I am pleased it is rarely required for you as sixth formers. You are not, however, exempt. Your language, Elizabeth Fry, deserves the most severe punishment I can issue!”
“Sally Treacher, please go to the school office and ask Miss Glynn to bring the cane from my study here. Quickly!”
The girl stood and nervously left leaving the seven remaining girls and the Head one again in an awkward silence.
No begging, miss, will be no use
For such a crime there’s no excuse
– No further talk!’ and now Miss Glynn
With the birch rod marches in,
So smartly tied up with a bow,
It might be deemed a rod for show;
Yet though thus elegant the plan,
and wide expanded like a fan,
When well applied, each twig apart
Would tend to multiply the smart.
The Head stared at Liz with a harsh look. Liz’s heart beat fast, her face blushed, now frightened and unsure what was to happen, her legs weakening, wanting to flee but with no escape.”
“Please, Miss Harding, I’m sorry, really sorry. Please, I’m sorry.” She blurted out unrequested.
Rebecca wasn’t standing for it. “Silence Elizabeth! We don’t wish to hear any more from you. You may be sorry, but I will make you very sorry in a moment.”
Across the school Sally knocked and entered my room gingerly. “Excuse me, Miss Harding has told me to ask you to fetch her cane from her study and bring it to our classroom quickly.” The girl looked pale despite her maturity.
This was new to me. “Very well. Go back, Sally. I’ll be along just now.”
I stood behind my desk wondering what had happened. My heart beat faster. I smoothed down my black dress and, with a firm resolve, left my room for the Head’s. I opened the door and entered, looked around to the bookcase and saw it resting there. I walked over and picked it up. I can’t describe the feeling when I held it again, such a feeling of authority and one I had little experience of, one I was beginning to crave. I flexed it and it gave easily into an arc. I tapped my hand, and in the few seconds admired its thinness.
There was a job to do. Holding its crooked handle by my side I left the room with purpose and walked down the empty corridor.
Sally had just returned and the door was open. I followed her in and saw the scene. The silent room now seven seated six formers and one stood, evidently nervous.
I looked to Rebecca, who nodded at me with the thinnest of smiles. “Thank you, Miss Glynn. I’m sorry to disturb you at lunchtime, but we have a most serious matter to deal with.”
She held out her hand to be passed the cane which she took and held across her thighs.
“Right girls, one or two of you may have had cause to visit my study to be punished while pupils at this school. Those of you will know how very effective this cane can be in modifying your behaviour. I don’t have to use it often, thankfully, but that does not mean I don’t think it is useful. What Elizabeth Fry has done today is a shameful example of misbehaviour that this cane will skilfully correct.”
She flexed the rod before her and walked now around the empty space at the front of the room. “This cane, Elizabeth Fry, will sting you horribly girl. I intend to teach you a lesson I doubt you will ever forget.”
‘You know, Miss Glynn, it is my rule,
when filthy words invade my school,
To use this instrument of pain
To whip and drive them out again:
So down with that vile hussy, Fry,
That I may flog and hear her cry’
The ready teacher then, Miss Glynn
(A thorough friend to discipline)
Proceeds the culprit straight to seize,
Crying, begging on her knees;
But vain her tears, and vain her prayer!
For laid, she was, across a chair,
The Head looked at me to mentally agree our action. Then, stepping forward, she brought the teacher’s chair from behind the desk to the open space and set it with its back to the class.
“Miss Glynn, please would you bring Elizabeth to the front of the class?”
I stepped forward towards the girl and to her side. It was my turn to lead. “Come, Elizabeth.”
She glanced at me nervously. “No, please! Miss Harding, I really am sorry.”
Ignoring her, I took the girl’s forearm and gently pulled her out of her place. The terror was mounting in her. She stepped out slowly now whispering: “I’m sorry… please…”
Realising she would only make a bigger fool of herself by struggling too much, Liz stepped forward with me to the chair back. In the corner of her eye Rebecca Harding continued to flex the cane in front of her, playing with it as though a toy.
“Bend over, Elizabeth.” I spoke out clearly. “Quickly now.”
Looking only forward, she slowly bent over the chair back. I placed my hand on her shoulder, not to force her, but as a clear message. The leather padding of the chair back pushed her bottom out and the top, while only a narrow strip, provided a rest for her tummy.
“Right down.” I requested as she fumbled resting her elbows and forearms on the seat and holding the edge.
Ignoring the seven pupils, all with eyes fixed forward, I stepped behind her and took hold of the hem of her skirt. Lifting it briskly, I pulled it up her thighs. Elizabeth Fry’s bottom was exposed to the class clad in grown up white nylon knickers that were now stretched tightly from the small of her back to between her legs.
I pushed the skirt up her back into a small roll and glanced over her; the scene was set. I looked over at Rebecca and nodded.
Anticipating the immense pain the girl was about to receive, I moved round to her head to face the class and placed my hands on her shoulders to steady her.
The Head now paused for effect, and then strode to the helpless girl’s side and swished the cane in the air before the class. “I hope this will be a reminder to you all that I will not tolerate bad language, rudeness or disrespect for staff. Is that clear ladies?” She raised her eyebrows and looked about the room.
“Yes, Miss Harding.” Jessica Parker led followed by the six other girls in an approximate unison.
The Governess now takes her stand,
The birchen sceptre in her hand;
With lofty air, inspiring awe,
and raised arm to enforce the law.
She shakes the whistling twigs and then,
Whip-whip-whip-whip-inflicts the pain;
Now pauses as missy roars aloud,
Sad warnings for the trembling crowd.
Then suddenly and with no warning, Rebecca Harding raised the cane back and brought it down and across firmly with a loud swish. The cane snapped onto the knicker clad bottom with a thwackkk. Elizabeth gasped as a red stripe started to burn her bottom.
Judging the moment, Miss Harding paused, took back the cane and delivered another sharp stroke squarely across the target. Again Elizabeth gasped and whimpered.
From where I stood with her classmates facing me, I saw their faces watching the beating, the slash of the cane, each stroke, and yet wanting to avert their gaze as well.
And with each stroke, the girls body which I held loosely, rocked forward although there was little give against the chair back.
The Head stood legs apart to steady herself in her task. Knowing the very part of the culprit’s bottom that would sting the most she aimed the cane at the seam of the girl’s knickers where the shiny triangle of material covering the most sensitive part of her bottom joined that that which went between her legs. Again it fell with a swoop and slapped down cutting a leg line to the flesh either side.
The stroke broke the pupil; the fresh pain culminating more than she could cope with.
”Ahhhhhhhhh!!” She cried. “Ahhhhh!!”
The caning continued. Miss Harding now delivered three more slow, but steady firm strokes as the girl dissolved from initial cries to deep sobbing at each blow.
“Please!! Ahhhhh!! No, please!!” She cried.
Crying ‘Oh dear Ma’am, pray do give o’er,
I will never say that word, no more.’
In vain; the rod’s reiterations.
These stripes I’m sorry to impart;
But ’tis for your own good you smart.
Who spares the rod will spoil the child
By me the proverb shan’t be foiled.’
this brought the conflict to a close;
When quick the smarting culprit rose,
Rebecca paused and looked at the remaining pupils in the class, not saying anything, but her message was so clear. Elizabeth sobbing, her legs and bottom taught and reddened where the cane had cut visibly leaving sore red lines.
I continued to hold her, unsure what was to follow until the Head resumed her stance.
“Don’t you ever let me hear you use language like that again.”
The cane swished and snapped right at the top of Elizabeth’s thighs.
She squealed: “Ahhhhhhhhh!!!”
“I’m going to watch you very closely, Elizabeth Fry, and if I have to repeat this punishment, I will.”
Again it fell, this time higher, creasing the white nylon as it bit into the bottom with a thwackkkkkk.
”Ahhhhh!! Noooooooo,” the pupil gasped.
I looked at Rebecca as she worked, amazed. She was so calm but intent.
Three more strokes fell but this time with no lecture. Just a now familiar pattern. The hissing swish of the cane. The whack of the cut onto the bottom. And the desperate cry of the pupil.
Without notice she stopped and walked away from the girl to the side of the room. She looked at me and nodded. “Let her up,” she asked quietly. I let go of her and stepped back myself.
Elizabeth remained bent over, sobbing, for a moment or so until she could draw together enough concentration to realize that it was over. Every thought was concentrated on the intense stinging and burning across her buttocks. She then slowly raised herself up nervously, knowing it had ended but unsure what to do to avoid further wrath.
The Governess, with awful state,
and head erect, resumed her seat;
Then calling up her victim, Fry
(sobbing and wiping either eye)
Descanted, with all due reflection,
On crimes provoking such correction;
But still, to heighten the impression
Of punishment for this transgression,
On a high stool she made her perch
And in her bosom stuck the birch;
Warning the school ‘gainst crimes and errors
by the grand triumph of its terrors.
“Turn around and face the class Elizabeth,” the Head commanded.
Awkwardly she obeyed, her face red and cheeks steamed with tears. Her fellow pupils tried to avert their gaze at her face. Still sobbing she stood eyes down at the floor.
Rebecca looked at Elizabeth. “Well, I trust that I have taught you a lesson?”
“Yes, yes, Miss Harding,” she replied at little more than a whisper.
“Good! Whatever you may think, I would rather not have to punish you like that, but you have seen that I will not tolerate your rude behaviour. You richly deserved that caning, young lady. You may think yourself grown up, but while you are a pupil here you will obey the rules and behave. If I have to repeat those strokes you may rest assured I will.”
She then turned to the class and walked along the front row of desks and then the rear still playing with the cane in her hands.
“And each of you should take warning, foul language is not acceptable and nor is rudeness to staff. I’m sure that none of you would like to suffer the punishment I have had to administer? Fry, stand and face the blackboard.”
Elizabeth turned and obeyed, still breathing awkwardly. Rebecca approached her and roughly pulled her skirt up again to reveal her knicker clad bottom.
“Hands on your head. Now!”
Again the pupil obeyed while the head rolled her skirt at the waist and tucked it into the band leaving her legs bare. The white triangle of her knickers contrasted with the red sore skin which was exposed.
“You will stay here as you are, Elizabeth, till afternoon class starts. Girls, you will spend the rest of the lunch break in silence in here.” Holding the cane by the stem she passed it to me. “Thank you, Miss Glynn, perhaps you’ll take this back to my room. I’ll join you shortly.”