from A Squandered Life / The Strap '58

....immediately set alarm bells ringing down the vacant corridors of my mind.

I seemed to have a succession of teachers conspiring to protract my misery and to bring about my downfall. I simply couldn't get into the rhythm of work, play, work, play. There always seemed to be an overwhelming imbalance in favour of work time, with the play time flitting away like litter on a dead and windblown street. I couldn't seem to concentrate on the right things at the right time. I was called “dreamy” and “lazy” by professional adults who seemed to know what they were talking about.

It all culminated in my sixth year when I encountered the disturbed and chaotic Mrs Tinkler. This deranged madcap spent much of her time hollering at kids and telling us “I'm not afraid to fail anyone - even the children of important people.” This last was usually accompanied with a glare at me. I hadn't a clue what she was on about, but years later I discovered that my dad was Chair of the PTA at the time. The fact that I was unaware of this, or even of what a PTA might be, didn't seem to occur to Tinkler as she set about demonstrating her complete indifference to authority and social status. So my scholastic ineptitudes and complete lack of academic confidence were compounded by this mad harridan's erratic methodologies and I found myself dropping to the bottom of just about every scoring mechanism in existence.

I wasn't the only “victim”. She assaulted a boy called David who wept and later told his mum. The next day the Principal (or Head) took the unprecedented step of appearing in our classroom and politely asking Tinkler if she would leave for a moment. He then cross-examined us about the previous day's events. To my eternal shame, neither I nor any of my classmates overcame our induced timidity to stand up and say, “Yes, the fucking bitch hit him.”, but I guess enough seeds of doubt were sown because, although she finished the year with us, she wasn't in post the following year. Unfortunately, she took the liberty of failing me in the process and I experienced the ultimate humiliation of having to repeat the year. This was compounded by having to carry my final report card home and deliver it into the hands of my certain-to-be-livid dad. I found him shaving and, full of remorse and guilt, fessed up. To my amazement he never blew. I suppose he may have been forewarned but in any event he seemed resigned to my status as one of life's failures and let it go without major incident.

The following year I landed in the bosoms of a significantly more sedate teacher called Mrs Burnell and an even more warm and supportive itinerant French teacher called Madame Beautrum. Both these were sometimes, with their glasses, heavy make-up and hard hair-dos, frighteningly authoritarian in group settings but had the capacity to exude comfort and reassurance in one-to-ones. Madame B in particular seemed to find time to explore my empty self-esteem to say things like, “But of course you know the sixteen verbs. Just stop a minute and think.” which, upon doing, I discovered I did. “Tu vois?” she smiled.

But it wasn't all plain sailing. One day Burnell had her back to us when Sally Johnston threw an eraser at me which ricocheted off a desk and then, appallingly, off the very blackboard upon which Burnell was busily chalking. There was an ominous silence as she stopped chalking and slowly turned, dark eyes ablaze, to ask in slow and steely tones, “Who.... threw.... that....?” The silence extended into a time tunnel of stillness until Sally couldn't take the tension any more. “I did Miss,” she quietly owned up, “but I wasn't throwing at you. I was throwing at him.”

The blazing black eyes slowly swivelled towards me (thanks Sal) and fixed me in their immobilising beam. The awful truth emerged that, yes indeed, Sally had merely been returning fire. This was clearly an offence worthy of a sending to the Principal's office but, frighteningly, on this occasion Burnell actually accompanied us and went in ahead of us for a word.

Sally and I sat outside contemplating our fate. “Do you think we'll get The Strap?” she asked timorously. In my dozey world this hadn't even occurred to me but immediately set alarm bells ringing down the vacant corridors of my mind. “The Strap”. The legendary punishment device of which we'd heard so much but seen nothing. My trepidation was tinged with a strangely eager anticipation. At least I'd get to see the damn thing.

As Burnell swept out of the office without so much as a downward glance at us, we were summoned. The Principal, MacIntosh, the same pleasant bald little man who had cross-examined us in Tinkler's class the previous year, gravely appraised us of the seriousness of our misdemeanours and of the fact that, regrettably, we were to be awarded one stroke of The Strap to each of our pale and clammy hands.

One stroke each hand in exchange for seeing the thing itself didn't seem such a bad deal to me, but my strange sensation of fear mixed with excited anticipation was shattered by the sound of Sally bursting into tears. To my utter astonishment, she began, through her tears, to beg for clemency. Sally was no push over. She was a tough perpetually jesting punch-your-lights-out tomboy kind of a girl. I was aghast. So to it seemed was MacIntosh, who, almost immediately, relented and, with firm strictures that this sort of thing “must not happen again” released us back into the wild. I was still watching Sally as we turned to the door and thought I caught a flicker of a smile.

Safely outside she said, “Well, got us off that one didn't I.” I was impressed. Still am. But I never did get to see The Strap.


© 2013 Deacon Martin

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