Carelessness in the wrong environment, and no-one is safe from punishment
by Joanna Jones
My name is Elaine, and I went to school in Scotland in the 1970s. As far as school discipline went there were punishment exercises (lines), or there was “The Belt”. Detention did not exist, nor was the cane allowed.
“The Belt” was a strip of thick leather about two feet in length with one end cut into, usually, two or sometimes three strips. It may have been called a tawse elsewhere, but at our school it was never called that. All teachers could “belt” if they wished and there were never any rules formally discriminating methods of punishment for boys and girls.
In the lower years it seemed to be about a weekly occurrence that some boy, or boys, would get it for some misdemeanour, either in front of the class or in the corridor outside. However, at least at the school I went to (one that was in a reasonably well to do area), it was fairly rare for a girl to get it. I remember a couple of occasions when one of the more troublesome girls got it from our home economics teacher (a girls only activity – boys did woodwork) and a couple more related to our PE teacher in the first couple of years, but it had never happened since either in a class I was in, or to any girl in my circle of friends. A few girls may have got it from the Head or Deputy for smoking or some such but I never knew for certain which rumours were true.
By the time we were in our fifth year (equivalent of lower sixth in England) doing our ‘Highers’, getting the Belt was almost unheard of, even amongst the boys, as most of the ‘troublemakers’ had left school after their O-Grades in fourth year.
The majority of my friends went to university direct from fifth year at around seventeen. However, my university gave me an unconditional offer, but to start a year later, as they had a strong preference for students to be eighteen on the course I wanted to do.
I went back to school and did my CSYS (Certificate of Sixth Year Studies) in biology and chemistry as well as a couple of extra Highers. However with no pressure for me, and for that matter about half the year that remained, many of us basically had a year off intensive study.
As a result of that and the small class sizes, the teaching was pretty relaxed. I expect teaching a few interested young people is much more fun than a large class of recalcitrant first years.
Our chemistry teacher kept an informal relaxed atmosphere which worked pretty well among the six of us; five boys and me, the only girl. However, on occasion we tended to take a bit of an advantage of that, which led to a gentle warning that chemicals need to be treated with respect. Later we got a similar slightly harder warning after a solution was split due to a severe “lack of concentration” by one of the boys, that we needed to behave, and that we were not too old for his belt if things went too far.
I suppose none of us really thought he meant that at the time, especially as he also did not have a reputation as a regular “belter”, but we did calm down for a while.
However, about a month later we were doing a fairly complex reaction and I was measuring some water for a dilution. James rather cheekily pinched me causing me to lose my measure, and getting a few smirks from the others. As I emptied the measuring cylinder into the sink and started again I decided to get him back equally later, again, in fun.
However, when I pinched his bottom he gave such a start that the apparatus we were sharing crashed to the floor with a mixture of glass and (fortunately fairly dilute) acid everywhere. Happily, no one was standing near the impact site.
I was mortified and James in shock. The laughs of the other four boys (they claimed later at our appalled faces) were cut short as the teacher, Mr McDougall, came across shouting: “That is enough.”
I started to make to pick up the glass, but Mr McDougall ordered: “Leave it! All of you, step away.”
He then donned some gloves and started to clear up the mess, saying as he did so: “Elaine, wait for me outside in the corridor.”
I felt very embarrassed as I went out and stood next to the door like a naughty first year. I was very glad that the corridor was deserted, and stayed so. I was of course wondering what was going to happen, but at that point all I expected a mighty telling off.
After what seemed an age, but was probably about ten minutes during which he cleared up the mess, I heard an angry chemistry teacher telling the boys off, and that there was nothing funny that they should have laughed about. He said they were lucky nobody had been hurt.
Finally he said: “There needs a bit more calm in this class and I am going to get it.”
There was a pause, and then I heard: “Calum, hand out!”
Another pause, then a loud SLAP. That only meant only one thing: The Belt.
Three loud ‘Slaps’ later each boy had had been belted once, except James. James admitted to being partly to blame for the accident and got two, both on the same hand, as a result.
I listened in disbelief to the clearly hard slaps of leather on flesh emanating from the room, and to one or two gasps, especially from James on his second. I also started to panic as the reality that I was probably going to get belted too sank in.
I remember standing there trying to persuade myself that it would be different – “girls don’t get the belt” – for me. But that was a desperate wish to keep me from running away I think, rather than an expectation.
Finally, having finished with the boys, he came out into the corridor. I saw the belt hanging loosely in his left hand (he was left handed) and my hopes of some reprieve left me.
I remember starting to bluster and plead in equal measure, but he cut me short. I then had a very uncomfortable few minutes while he emphasised the need for lab safety, outlining what could have happened if the acid had landed on someone, or the glass cut anybody. He also took me to task for even trying to clear up without wearing the proper protective gear. All the time the belt was waving loosely in his hand as he talked. I could barely take my eyes off it as I stared down floorwards during his lecture.
At the end I already had damp eyes, partly as a reaction to the realisation of what could have happened, and partly (well mostly) in anticipation of what was coming. Finally he got to the point. He did not like belting girls, but he felt that I needed a short sharp shock to remind me that sixth year was not all fun and games.
He didn’t tell me how many. All he said was: “Right, Elaine, hand out.”
I knew what to do; I’d seen it often enough. Slowly I put my hands out straight in front of me with my left hand directly on top of the right. I cannot describe the sick feeling I had as he stood opposite me and laid the tawse along the length of my hand as he prepared. The leather felt cool against my palm as it rested there for a moment. Then he raised it up right over his shoulder and, after a brief pause, brought it down hard. I remember watching mesmerised as the two tails arced downwards to my waiting hand. The SLAP was incredibly loud and seemed to echo down the corridor.
The pain in my hand hit home, and I remember gasping and waving my hand around, I tried to be quiet but tears were now falling copiously down my cheeks.
Mr McDougall was unmoved. “And again, same hand.” He said.
It is much harder to put it out a second time, but slowly I forced my hands back into position. Another SLAP echoed down the corridor coupled by a large gasp from me as the agony in my left palm increased.
I was hoping he would let me off with the same as James, but it was not to be… After a few seconds cradling my poor hand, I heard him say: “Right, other hand.”
This time I stuck my hands out with my right on top. My white palm stared up at me asking why I was allowing this to happen. It certainly did not want to feel like my left now did. However, of course there is no real choice. As he brought the belt down my nerve nearly failed me and I jerked backwards slightly. As a result the impact landed more on my fingers, which felt worse than it had on my palm. I gave an angiushed cry of pain as that one hit.
I heard Mr McDougall say: “Come on, last one, and keep still this time!”
I reluctantly pushed my hands out again and closed my eyes tightly as the leather descended for the final time. The horrible pain hit again after the final slap echoed down the still thankfully deserted corridor.
As for so many boys I had seen in the past, I stumbled back into the classroom, my agonised hands clamped under armpits, with a tear stained face. Even after the pain had subsided the embarrassment of becoming a reluctant member of the very small group of ‘naughty’ girls to have been belted made it difficult to calm down properly and the handkerchief I had was pretty soaked by the end of the lesson.
I never really lived that experience down for the rest of the year, although in retrospect I grudgingly had to admit I probably deserved it.