A girl needs to get the ghosts out of her system
By Joanna Jones
Caroline is tormented by guilt over an event from many years before, and needs to try to put things right before she leaves school. A story told from the teacher’s perspective, with an element of truth in it.
* * *
One of the most unusual occasions I used the belt was also the last. At the time I taught English in a secondary school near Edinburgh, and it was in the early-to-mid Eighties.
We knew that corporal punishment was to be outlawed from the start of the next school year by the Regional Council and, as a result, the advice from the school management had been to avoid, or at least cut down on, using it as a general principle since that had become clear. An early moratorium had been rejected, as it was felt easier to start a new discipline regime with the start of the new school year in mid-August. I had generally complied, with the exception of a couple of boys who pushed their luck way too far and, at the time of this story, in the second half of June with little more than a week to go till the end of the school year, I fully expected never to use it again.
On Friday, just after lunchtime, Caroline Sanders knocked on my door and asked if I was free for a time.
I was surprised to see her as she was a sixth year and the exams were over. While most of them had come back for the last few weeks to help out with the school sports day and other things, most of the time they stayed in either the prefects’ room or common room socialising before they all went their separate ways to university et cetera. As the year was small, just over half of those in the fifth year went straight to university, they had formed a close knit group.
The other thing that surprised me was that she seemed unaccountably nervous. I could see no reason why that should be the case. That year I had no formal responsibility for the sixth years, nor indeed taught them directly.
“Come in Caroline,” I called. “Bring a seat across, if you want a chat. I am on a free period. So, what can I do for you?”
However, she either did not want to sit down or did not hear me. She came and stood very nervously opposite my desk with her hands clasped together, pressing gently on her skirt, in front of her. “Mr Coles, I…, I have a bit of a confession to make.”
I raised my eyebrows and wondered what she could have possibly done that could have affected me, unless it was that she’d ridden her bike into my car in the school car park or some such, which seemed highly unlikely.
This seemed a bit too formal and she clearly was struggling to unburden herself of whatever was on her mind. I felt it would be much better to put her at her ease, so I replied: “If there is a bit of a story here I think you should sit down and then tell me about it.” As I said this, I brought a chair from one of the class desks and placed it on the other side of mine at the front of the empty classroom.
Somewhat reluctantly she sat down and stared at the desk. She seemed to be struggling as to where to start.
Eventually I decided to speak first. “So, what’s all this about then?” I asked in the most encouraging voice I could manage.
“Well,” she started. “Do you remember you taught me when I was in second year?”
“Yes,” I said. It was an easy class for me to recall as it was the top stream of the year with an exceptionally strong set of pupils.
“Well,” she continued. “There was a boy called Ian who tended to play up a bit. One day you had had enough, and when he gave you one smart remark too many you belted him.”
“Yes?” I replied. I remembered the boy too. Ian was very clever, but liked to show off. Usually he managed to get away with it, but clearly on that occasion he had gone over the top.
“You gave him a full six and as a result he was crying when you’d finished.”
My thought at this point was that he must have gone well overboard, or I was in an especially bad mood. I rarely gave more than four when I belted, and more usually one or two. The fact that he was crying did not surprise me though; six with my belt was not something most pupils would want to experience, far less repeat.
Caroline continued. “At the end my neighbour whispered something to me about Ian crying which I am ashamed to say I found rather funny and I gave a short laugh.”
I thought that was all of it, so I said: “Well, although it was not very kind, that was a long time ago and people often say or do silly things when they are younger. You are a very mature and responsible young person now. That you have told me this shows how conscious you are of your actions.”
“But, but that isn’t the worst of it,” she interrupted passionately. “You heard! You, you thought the laugh came from David Strachan, who was behind me.”
As she took a deep breath I began to see where this was going, as a recollection of the incident started to come back to me. I remembered discussions in the staff room amongst those teachers who didn’t use corporal punishment that Ian was getting a bit out of hand. I told Ian that I was going to take into account his overall behaviour when I “awarded” him a sixer. I also remembered the interruption at the end. It was one of only a couple of times that it happened. Usually a class was deathly still after a punishment, not wishing to provoke the ire of a teacher who might be “in the mood” so to speak.
She restarted her story. “You told David to stand up, and said how despicable it was to laugh at another’s misfortune and that since he thought it so funny he could have the same as Ian. David denied it and you asked who it was then, but he didn’t tell on me. I had the chance to own up, but I was too scared.”
Caroline was in tears at this point, and I was relieved to see that she seemed to have come prepared, as she had pulled out her hankie and was rubbing it against her cheeks.
I recalled David’s denials now too, but I just had assumed it was a lie to avoid the severe belting I had awarded him. In retrospect, although I was sure at the time it had been David, perhaps I should not have assumed it was a boy. On the other occasion it had been a girl giggling too. Belting girls was much rarer, and many seemed to believe they were somehow exempt from it, often until it was too late.
Caroline, through the snuffles, finished her story to the end that I now knew. “You belted David hard, six times. He was clearly upset by the time you’d finished. It should have been me that you belted though. I, I am such a coward.” She finished.
I looked at her for a few seconds while I gathered my thoughts. Finally I replied, as kindly as I could: “Caroline, if you were such a coward, you would have never come to see me today. As I just said this was all a long time ago. I am sure you have learnt a lesson from that already and that is the main thing. I assume for example you apologised to David afterwards for example.”
“Yes, many times. At first he was still angry, but I know he forgave me ages ago. David’s a good guy,” she sniffed. “But that does not make it right though does it? I can’t forgive myself yet.”
“Well,” I said. “I hope by coming to see me you can put this behind you, and you have my forgiveness. As I said before you have grown into a conscientious and honourable person, who I am sure will be a credit to the school in future.”
I expected that to be the end of the matter, and for her to thank me and leave. However, she just sat there looking at my desk.
Confused, I asked her, again as kindly as I could: “Is there anything else, Caroline?”
“Please, I know you said it is past and I should move forward now but,” she paused. “But, I still feel that I, I need to be punished.”
I have to say I believe I looked at her somewhat incredulously when she said that, as I could only think of one punishment that she was considering. Eventually I responded. “Caroline, the fact that you have been clearly beating yourself up over this for a long time before coming to see me seems like punishment enough.”
She looked at the table and whispered, as much to herself as to me I think: “Not to me it isn’t,” and then she looked at me.
After what seemed an age I realised that I was going to have to ask the question that was clearly on her mind, and said: “You surely don’t want to be belted?”
“Yes! No!” was the panicked response. Then she seemed to calm slightly, taking a deep breath. “I mean, no I don’t want to be belted, I am really scared of it. But I should have been belted then and I am ashamed that I couldn’t stand up and take my punishment then. So now I feel I should be belted, I must take the punishment that I dodged then. So yes, I want you to belt me, give me the same that David took for me when he didn’t tell on me back in second year. Please, I hope you can understand. I know this seems stupid, but I know I won’t stop feeling ashamed about it until I feel I have paid the price I should have done then.”
“What you are asking is not stupid, if that’s what you really feel. However, I think this is excessive and a bit foolish. I am not sure that this is wise for either of us.” I replied. I then started to think more carefully about what was being asked. I was not very keen on this at all, if truth be told. However, there was desperateness in her that I found quite disconcerting.
When she spoke again, her voice echoed that look. “Please, it’s taken me weeks to summon up the courage to ask you. I don’t know what I’ll do if you say no.”
Although I was not happy about it, eventually I said yes. The relief in her face was replaced quickly with nerves as I extracted my belt from my drawer and laid it on the desk.
“Would it be okay if David witnessed this?” She asked. “I would feel better if he could see that I’ve been punished.”
This was getting more and more complex, but I was committed now, unless… “David did not put you up to this did he? This is your…”
“Yes!” she interrupted me before I could utter the word ‘choice?’ “He’s spent most of the last few days trying to persuade me not to come, and when that failed then to persuade me just to apologise as he was sure you would not belt me unless I asked. He said it was just stupid for me to get belted for this.”
“He seems to be of the same view as me then.” I replied. “Very well, you’d better go and fetch him. I owe him an apology in any case. When do you want to come back, assuming of course he can’t persuade you at this last minute to see sense.”
I was not particularly surprised when she blushed slightly. “I asked him to come with me for moral support and he eventually agreed. He’s waiting outside for me, but I didn’t tell him I wanted him to watch.”
I watched as she went to the door and the two of them came and stood this time next to my desk. I saw their eyes resting on my belt, still lying on my desk.
I started. “David, I owe you an apology, it seems, for both unjustly accusing and punishing you a few years ago. I am very sorry that I jumped to the conclusion that I did.”
David nodded and replied: “I guess I was unlucky, but I did refuse to tell you who did it, so I could not expect to get off scot-free. You’re not going to belt Caroline are you? I can’t see the point, sir.”
“You and I are of the same view but Caroline seems very determined. Caroline,” I turned to her. “There is nothing here for you to feel guilty about. You know neither of us hold a grudge nor think you need to put yourself through this.”
Her answer was simple. She simply stuck her hands out, left-on-right, and then said: “Please, give me the same as you gave David, and please do it properly. I know what you are saying, but I, I need to forgive myself.”
I looked at David who just shrugged. Picking up the belt I motioned for her to stand away from the desk and face me.
“I gave you six, David?” I confirmed, and received a nod in reply.
I placed the tawse, which was a fairly standard ‘heavy’ piece of leather (from Lochgelly of course) with two tails briefly on Caroline’s hands. I noticed she closed her eyes tight once the belt was over my shoulder. For a moment I wondered whether to moderate the force, but given what she seemed to need to experience decided against it, and brought the belt whizzing down onto her palm with an almighty ‘Slap’. Out of the corner of my eye I saw David flinch at the sound.
Caroline’s hand dropped slightly and she gave a little scream as the pain registered, but she immediately put her hands back into position, swapping them as she did so. Normally I belted hands alternately when giving more than two, as did most teachers, so she had anticipated what would have been my instruction.
I raised the belt over my shoulder once more, and after a brief pause sent it whistling down, landing this time onto her right palm.
“O-o-o-oh!” she cried as her right hand took the stroke. Tears had started rolling down her cheeks, but she still immediately returned her hands, this time left-on-right, to position.
“Aaaagh!” She shouted as the second stroke to her left hand slapped down. Tears were flowing freely now, but the resolve to see this through was still clear. After a brief pause she had her right palm up, once again proffered for my belt.
I slapped the two tails along her palm and fingers as she faced me. Her eyes were screwed tightly closed, and her teeth biting her lip, as it whistled down to the target.
“Oh No!” Caroline gasped as the sting on her right hand doubled.
David, who had been watching with a grimace, said: “Caroline, that’s enough isn’t it? You’ve taken enough!”
“No!” She cried as she stuck her hands out again. “I must see it through!” Then more to herself again I heard her whisper: “I must.”
I raised the belt over my shoulder once again and sent it cracking into her left palm. It was a perfect strike and very hard. For the first time, instead of managing to put her hands straight back out, she clasped them together in her midriff as she bent slightly as if trying to squeeze the pain away.
David moved to help her, but I stopped him, whispering quietly: “Let her do this herself.” There was no risk of her overhearing through the sobs she was making.
After ten seconds or so she stood straight again with her hands out, right-on-left, for the final stroke, and the last time I used a belt in school. I remember she was trembling both in her body and arms as she stood there watching me raise the belt over my shoulder, closing her eyes as usual once it got there. I paused briefly before finally sending down a stinging stroke to her rather petite palm.
Slap! Followed by a final scream, and then it was over. Immediately she was squeezing her palms between her thighs into the fabric of her skirt, once again bent over slightly as she did so, saying semi-coherently though sobs: “Thank you,” and: “I’m Sorry.” It was not clear whether these were all addressed to me or to David as well.
After a few minutes she had calmed down enough to go, and I watched David escort her gently out of the room to hopefully take her somewhere she could get cleaned up.
I saw Caroline once more, the following Monday, and she thanked me for my ‘understanding’ and ‘help’. She said it was like a weight off her mind, to be free of the guilt that she had felt about that incident for so long.
Perhaps it was a fitting way for my belt to retire, I thought.