I attended a modern secondary school in the South of England in the mid 1970s. I was one of those boys who rarely got into any serious trouble, suffering only a class detention or two, or receiving some lines as punishment.
Back then, of course, the cane was the ultimate deterrent. However, unless you were one of the idiots who looked at the cane as an occupational hazard, it was simply a (very successful) deterrent. In reality, any child had to step well over the line before experiencing the cane.
There were several teachers authorised to use this implement – the headmaster, the deputy head, and the head of each school department. Rumour had it that of all the teachers you should avoid being caned by, Mrs Whitehead was the one.
She was the head of physical education (PE) and excelled at volleyball, tennis and water polo. She also excelled at caning! Again, rumour had it that a year or so before I entered the school, she had given a girl six of the best. Such was severity of the caning that the girl’s parents came to the school and remonstrated with Mrs Whitehead, making a formal complaint to the school. The girl was unable to attend school for a day or two.
Although not an unruly pupil nor deliberately naughty, one day I found myself with a group of boys entering a storage shed on the school playing field. It was one of those situations where to back out would have shown me to be a coward or, worse, a ‘chicken’. The risk of being caught was minimal, so I went along with the dare.
We didn’t do any damage to the shed but we were firmly out of bounds. I might add that we were also seen, albeit from a distance. An announcement made to the school made it clear that if any of the boys in the shed came forward of their own volition, their punishment would be substantially reduced. By the same token, if a boy’s identity was discovered later, he could expect the most severe punishment available to the dreaded Mrs Whitehead.
I spent a very uncomfortable evening at home, weighing up my options. I could keep my fingers crossed and hope I wasn’t recognised. But the stakes were high, and a severe punishment could only be six of the best. I don’t think the school was allowed to administer more than six strokes. But six of the best from Mrs Whitehead was unthinkable.
If I came clean, my punishment would be ‘much reduced’. But what did that mean exactly? I took that as detention. I convinced myself that I would come clean the next day at school and hope my punishment was detention, not an order to bend over!
On my way to school that morning, I was a bag of nerves. I thought that lunchtime would be the best time to approach Mrs Whitehead, and by then I was sick with fear. I literally gagged in the toilets, such was my level of fear.
With knocking knees, jelly legs and a dry mouth, I presented myself at Mrs Whitehead’s door. “Are you feeling unwell, Gordon?” she asked with concern on her face. “You’re as white as a sheet!”
My guts gurgled and I had trouble speaking.A blind woman would have been able to see that I was scared out of my wits, and I’m sure Mrs Whitehead could see my fear. To her credit, she showed a level of care and sympathy.
I did my best to explain why I had been at the shed, that I didn’t want to be called ‘chicken’ and had come forward to admit I was there. I stressed that we had caused no damage.
I was scolded, calmly, quietly, in a conversational way. Then Mrs Whitehead asked me whether I was prepared to give up the names of the other boys. At that point, I felt tears well up. I begged her not to say I had been to see her, to which she agreed.
Mrs Whitehead stood up with a deep sigh. She told me she would keep her part of the bargain – a much reduced sentence – if I gave up the names. I cannot find the words to express the level of fear I felt in that office at that moment. Mrs Whitehead then turned the screw. She pulled out her famous short legged vaulting horse that legend had it, she caned pupils over. She then asked me for one of the names.
Tears rolled, my guts gurgled and I was very close to wetting myself, even though I had used the loo before my visit. Calm as you like, like a cat playing with a mouse, she lifted a cane from a sort of umbrella stand thing behind her desk. She ran her fingers along the cane and flexed it right in front of me. She knew exactly what she was doing, playing on my very real fear. If my legs would have worked I might have made a run for it – at that point I bitterly regretted my decision to come clean.
Mrs Whitehead spoke again to clarify the situation. “Three strokes if you don’t give me a name – one if you do.” She swished the cane through the air in a downward stroke – I was so scared I was close to losing control of not only my bladder but my bowels too. I wanted to say: “What about the ‘much reduced punishment’?” But I simply couldn’t speak, such was my fear. I had never been in this position. I had been smacked a couple of times as a toddler, that was my only experience.
Mrs Whitehead just said: “Very well, Gordon. I admire you for coming forward. I can see you are nervous, but you know the rules and you were out of bounds. For that reason I want you to place yourself over the horse, please, now!”
I couldn’t believe I was about to be caned, and three strokes at that. I admit I was crying quietly, my legs somehow managed to get me to the horse and I leaned over and screwed my eyes shut as tight as possible.
“Right over, please, Gordon – up on tip toe, and grab the legs the other side.” Calm, measured, cool and matter of factly Mrs Whitehead waited until I was in the perfect position. She stood to one side I squeezed the horse legs so tight I couldn’t feel my fingers. I waited for the first searing, burning stroke.
I felt the light tapping of the cane on my upturned bottom. “Last chance, Gordon – give me a name.” I started to whimper – my fear level was off the scale. The waiting was pure torture and the cane swished through the air behind me to add more pressure.
Finally, Mrs Whitehead said: “Very well – three strokes it is.” The cane tapped against my bottom three or even four times – then there was a sharp snap and a stinging sensation. It hurt, yes, but nothing like as much as I had expected. I received a second stroke, much the same. It stung a bit but was bearable.
I waited, almost paralysed with fear, for my final stroke.
“Stand up please, Gordon.” I heard her say. Confused but relieved my ordeal was over, as I thought, I struggled to my feet. I turned to face Mrs Whitehead. She said: “Those two strokes were for your part in entering the shed. I owe you one last stroke, which I will forego if you give me a name. So, a name or the third stroke?” She stared me down, and I looked to the floor.
“Fine – if you are prepared to be the fall guy, then back over the horse, please.” I turned, bent right over, grabbed the legs again, got right up on tip toe and waited. The cane again tapped my bottom several times, then there was a pause as the rod lay across my buttocks.
Suddenly, I felt the cane being taken away, there was a whoosh and then the most excruciating pain I had ever felt flashed through my backside. It hurt so much I was in shock for a second, then the pain reached my brain and I bucked and opened my eyes and mouth wide before taking a deep breath and emitting a guttural howl. In short, it really fucking hurt!
I burst into tears – the pain was intense. I slid back slowly to my feet but had to lean against the horse for support. Clearly, the first two strokes had just been ‘baby’ ones to pressure me into giving up names. They were my ‘much reduced punishment’. The fear I had felt was now fully justified. Had Mrs Whitehead have asked me for the other boys’ names at that point, I would have sang like a bird to avoid another stroke like the one she had just put across my buttocks.
Mrs Whitehead calmly put the cane away. “You can leave when you ready, Gordon. Tell your form teacher you were with me, as you are late for class – I will confirm it when asked. You could have saved yourself that last stroke had you been a sensible boy – tell the others that when I find them, they will receive six like that last one. Off you go!”
As she was talking I was getting my balance, wiping my eyes and getting over the sheer ferocity of the last stroke, which burned fiercely across my bum.
I told my mates I had got three strokes. They were all shit-scared for weeks that Mrs Whitehead would find out they’d been involved – but she never did. I was the only one punished, for coming forward. What a prick!
I examined the damage when I got home. That final stroke had left a line across the very centre of my bottom which took three days to fade – and there was still a faint mark almost a week later. That’s pretty good for a stroke over trousers and underpants.
Later on, I thought again about the rumour of Mrs Whitehead giving that poor girl six of the best. I’m not surprised she was off school for a while. I only received a single ‘proper’ stroke, and that burned all night in my pyjama trousers!
Mrs Whitehead and I naturally crossed paths now and then and she would usually nod an acknowledgment at me. I nodded back – she scared the life out of me! I never stepped out of line again, never ever got caned and I’ve never volunteered or come clean about anything since!