When I was at school in Wellington, New Zealand, in the 1960s, the great shame for us boys was having other people see our underpants.
Girls, of course, were fair game. We could chase them and catch them and lift their skirts for a peek; we could watch them hanging upside-down on the climbing-frame or doing handstands against the wall and showing to the world their school blue, bottle-green, white or patterned knickers.
But we didn’t like even other boys seeing our underpants, so boys’ communal changing for PE or swimming was a torture by itself.
Miss Barratt was our teacher when we were nine, and she knew our dislikes very well. When anyone misbehaved in her class – and I was the very first in that year to push her this far – she had an established procedure.
She would put down her book or chalk or whatever and would tell the rest of the class to do the same. Then she would order the culprit, in this case me, to go and fetch his gym shoe from the wire-framed cupboard against the wall. This I did with a sense of foreboding.
All I had done wrong was to rock my chair back on to two legs. “Chairs have four legs, children, for your safety. Perhaps this will help you to remember that.” Alas, when I rocked back too far – crash! – the chair fell over, and so did I.
I walked over to her desk and handed her my gym shoe, small and rubber-soled. I still wasn’t sure exactly what was going to happen, though it didn’t take much guessing to work out that the gym shoe was soon going to make sharp contact with its owner, only not in the manner the maker intended!
“Come over here,” said Miss Barratt, walking to the middle of the open space in front of the class, “and face the blackboard.” This left me with my back towards the rest of the children, and I could feel their eyes watching, fascinated, with the ghoulish anticipation of the young.
“Now unfasten your trousers and let them drop!” I froze. At least, my head turned towards her, my mouth dropped open and the colour drained from my cheeks; but the rest of me stood absolutely still. Surely she couldn’t mean that? Everybody would be able to see…
“Come along,” she said, “we haven’t got all day.”
My fingers began to fumble with buttons, and eventually my grey flannel shorts started to feel dangerously loose. I held on to them, hoping against hope that I might have misheard.
“Let them drop!” she repeated, and I loosed my grip. The shorts flopped around my ankles; but my heart sank faster, and my eyes began to fill with tears of humiliation. “Now bend over and touch your toes,” said Miss Barratt, “and don’t stand up until I tell you!”
A small boy’s bottom, encased in tight white underpants, must make a fine target – and when its owner is bent over, causing the white cotton to stretch even tighter, then no teacher worth her salt could possibly miss.
But it wasn’t the pain I remember, even though she gave me three hard whacks with that gym shoe; and it wasn’t the pain that caused my face to go crimson and my tears to flow for the rest of that afternoon. It was the humiliation of having everybody in the class, girls and boys alike, see my trousers round my ankles and my underpants on show.
I never forgave Miss Barratt, and even though she punished many others that year in the same way – including me again on a number of occasions – it was that first one of the year that sticks in my memory to this day.