My name is Brenda, and I was born in 1954. I received my early education at a Catholic parochial school in a small New England town.
During those years I received corporal punishment at school only once.
That was in the third grade, but my story really begins a year earlier. In 1961 I began the second grade at Saint J School.
Unlike the previous year, when we were immature first graders, my classmates and I were allowed to attend school assemblies.
They were held in the gym, and we all stood-eighth graders in the front, second graders in the back, and everyone else in between-for prayers, the national anthem, and announcements.
We must have looked like a sea of blue, with all of the boys wearing light blue shirts and all of the girls wearing navy blue uniform jumpers over white blouses.
The assemblies were directed by the principal, Mother Frances, a raw-boned Irish woman in her late thirties whose hair color was revealed only by the orange eyebrows that curved beneath the white cotton of her wimple.
An imposing figure in her flowing black habit, Mother Frances was also vivacious and kind
. However, at the first assembly I attended in 1961, she laid down the rules-no insubordination, no laziness, no playing the fool.
She warned that “anyone who couldn’t behave like a dignified lady or gentleman” would “get it hot and heavy” from her.
From the back of the gym I could barely see the paddle that she brandished, but I would soon get a closer look.
My second-grade class was coed, with boys sitting on one side of the room and girls sitting on the other.
My own seat was near the front of the room, with only one girl in front of me.
We were a fairly well-behaved group, but one boy,
Patrick, just couldn’t stay in his seat. He was scolded, he was made to stand in the corner, and still he couldn’t resist getting up to peer out the window.
By the third week, Mother Mary Agnes called in the principal.
In a routine that would soon become familiar, Mother Frances ordered Patrick to come to the front of the room.
After scolding him for his lack of self-control, she told him to get on his hands and knees with his back to the classroom.
She then lectured the class on the importance of remaining in our seats, and all the while she waved her wooden paddle in the air.
I could see it clearly now-it was dark brown, not quite as long as her forearm, and about four inches wide.
Finally turning her attention to Patrick,
Mother Frances administered eight solid whacks in rapid succession, pausing only to hitch up her sleeve after the third stroke.
By the fourth whack Patrick was whimpering, by the seventh, he was bawling.
As she paddled Patrick, Mother Frances scolded him, saying, “From now on (whack!) you will (whack!) stay (whack!) in your seat (whack!).”
After the last stroke, she said, “Get out of my sight.” She then told the class that she would check in every week to be sure that we were behaving ourselves.
That was the first paddling I witnessed, but it was far from the last.
During that school year, an average of about one student a month was paddled in our class.
The routine was always the same-a stern admonition to the offender, who then assumed the position on his hands and knees and waited while Mother Frances lectured the class, then eight to twelve hard whacks with the wooden paddle while Mother Frances continued the scolding.
About half of the offenders cried.
On rare occasions, Mother Frances would paddle a student at an assembly, in front of the entire student body, but most of the punishments were administered in the classroom.
The paddlings were performed only by Mother Frances, never by the classroom teacher.
Throughout the year, we second graders become aware of a pattern: only boys were being paddled.
When Rick and Diane threw modeling clay at each other, Diane was made to stand in the corner while Rick was paddled by Mother Frances
. Our teacher, Mother Mary Agnes, explained that Rick was paddled “because he started it,” but none of the girls really believed that. And, while Mother Frances continued to warn that we would be paddled “hot and heavy” if we couldn’t behave “like ladies and gentlemen,” we ladies didn’t worry too much about being punished.
While corner time was embarrassing, it was far better than what the boys were receiving.
And I was a good girl-I never even had to stand in the corner.
Third grade, 1962. We now moved up a row in the assemblies, and we also moved up a floor for our classes.
(The kindergarten, first, and second grades were on the first floor, while the third, fourth, and fifth grades were on the second floor.
The top three grades had the third floor.) Something else was new this year: segregation of boys and girls.
I’m not sure why the school decided to give each sex a separate classroom and teacher, but there were no boys in Mother Veronica’s classroom that year.
And something was different about the classroom: in the back there was a door leading to a fire escape.
Mother Frances warned us about that door when she visited our class during the first week
. We were not to open it, and we were not to go down the fire escape unless a fire alarm had sounded.
She made clear that the fire escape was dangerous, we could get hurt, and she would “thrash us to within an inch of our lives” if we were caught there.
Apart from that warning, she seemed more mellower than she had when she addressed our coed class the year before.
This confirmed our suspicion that her dire warnings really were intended for the boys.
Corporal punishment was not much in evidence during my year in the third grade.
About once a month we could hear a boy being paddled in the room next to ours, and once an eighth grader was paddled at an assembly for pulling a fire alarm, but the paddle wasn’t displayed when Mother Frances visited the third-grade girls.
However, it would reappear one day in late April. Spring fever was rampant.
The last traces of snow had disappeared, and the weather was warm enough to allow us to play outside with only a light sweater over our uniform jumper.
Before the final bell at 3:00, we were squirming in our seats.
When the bell would sound, we’d head straight to the schoolyard for a round of jump rope.
On a particularly warm Thursday, I had to stay after class for blackboard duty.
I wiped the board, went outside to pound the erasers, and returned them to the classroom.
From the room I could hear my friends playing in the schoolyard below, so I called from the window that I’d be right down.
One girl named Linda, my rival for best spelling honors, shouted up to me, “
Brenda, come down the fire escape-it’s faster.” She was right-it was faster than going around to the front door and then circling the building to the back schoolyard.
Were there any nuns around?
None that I could see.
Should I take the chance?
I had already lost fifteen minutes of valuable playtime, and my mom expected me home by 4:00.
I scampered down the fire escape and joined the line of girls waiting their turn.
My best friend, Maureen, slipped back one place in line to join me, and she said, “Brenda, that was really dumb.
Do you know how much trouble you could have gotten into?” She was right, of course.
I shouldn’t have let Linda talk me into disobeying Mother Frances. But at least I hadn’t been caught.
I vowed to myself never to do it again.
That evening wasn’t memorable.
I assume that we had spaghetti for supper, since it’s what we usually had on Thursdays, and I imagine that I did my homework and watched some television before going to bed.
Perhaps I heard the phone ring and my mother answer it right after supper; if so, I can’t remember it. Friday morning, after breakfast, I cleared the dishes and grabbed my bag. If I hurried to school, I could play for twenty minutes or so before the assembly at 8:15.
But my mother stopped me before I reached the door, and she asked to speak to me for a minute in the parlor.
I followed her in and sat on the sofa. “Brenda, did anything unusual happen at school yesterday?”
I thought about the question and then said, “No.”
At that point I really didn’t understand what was about to happen.
My mother said, “Well, let’s try a different question.
Did you behave yourself at school yesterday?”
At that point I might have realized that my mother knew about my trip down the fire escape.
But, before thinking about my situation, I answered, “Of course I did.”
Why did I lie?
Maybe I was still sure that no one had seen me.
Maybe I thought that I could come up with a believable explanation, a story about dropping an eraser and having it land halfway down the flight of stairs.
But, before I could offer another lie, my face gave me away.
Under my mother’s stare, I blushed a bright scarlet.
She didn’t release her gaze for several seconds, then she said, “Would you like to answer that question again, young lady?”
And this time I told her the truth. My mother looked at me for several more moments.
Then she said, “Mother Frances called after supper last night, and she told me about your escapade.
She wanted to know whether she should paddle you, and I told her that I’d talk with you first and then have you bring a note to school.
I was planning to tell her to give you a detention.”
My mother reached into a pocket in her apron and took out a small envelope.
She opened it, took out the note that was inside it, and stuffed the note back into her apron pocket.
She said, “You wait right there while I write another note.” She then left the parlor.
When she returned several minutes later, she handed me the sealed envelope and said, “You will bring that note to Mother Frances as soon as you get to school.
When school is over today, you will come straight home.
Then we’ll talk about what we’re going to do about your lying to me.”
I lived just a few blocks from school, but the distance seemed endless that day. I thought very briefly about writing a new note and forging my mother’s signature, but I knew that doing so would only make matters worse.
I thought about how much the paddle was going to hurt.
I had never been hit before-not even spanked.
In fact, my parents had never hit any of my siblings.
I thought about how angry my mother must be since she was allowing the principal to paddle me.
Then I thought about what I was wearing.
I reached back and touched the seat of my jumper, but there were no pockets there.
I thought about stuffing paper into my underpants, but I was afraid that I would get caught.
So much for any thoughts of adding padding to soften the blows.
I was running just a bit late because of the conversation with my mother, so I didn’t have time to play with my friends.
Instead I did what I was told to do: I went straight to the principal’s office.
To my relief and surprise, Mother Frances wasn’t in.
I waited for several minutes, then left the note with her secretary a few minutes before the first bell rang.
Then I headed to the gym, where I took my place in the assembly formation.
As Mother Frances entered the gym, a horrible thought occurred to me: suppose that she paddled me in front of the entire school?
My knees began shaking, and I started perspiring. I tried to look inconspicuous, and I probably succeeded since I was a small girl near the back of the formation.
The assembly passed slowly, the prayers, the anthem, the announcements.
I was not called out, but I hardly felt relieved.
After all, I knew that she would be coming for me some time during the day.
And the day was agony, every moment lengthened by the dread I was experiencing.
At lunch Maureen told me that I was pale as a ghost, and she asked me what was wrong.
I told her that Mother Frances was going to paddle me, and Maureen said, “Don’t be silly. She doesn’t paddle girls.
You’ll probably get two weeks of detention.”
I wanted to believe that Maureen was right.
After all, I hadn’t seen what the note said.
Maybe my mother had changed her mind and decided that a detention would be sufficient punishment.
Maybe my mother and Mother Frances just wanted to scare me.
If so, they were succeeding.
Every time the classroom door opened, I started shaking.
By 2:00 I began to believe that I might be getting a reprieve, but then I thought about how horrible it would be to spend the weekend wondering whether I would get paddled on Monday.
Better to get it over with, I thought.
At 2:30 Mother Frances stepped through the classroom door.
There was no doubt that she was on a mission: in her right hand she held the brown paddle that we hadn’t seen for such a long time.
She said, “Excuse me Mother Veronica, I need a few minutes. Brenda,
I want you up here right now.” My knees felt like jelly, and there were tears in my eyes before I reached the front of the room.
Mother Frances said, “Would you like to tell the class what you did yesterday afternoon, young lady?”
I couldn’t talk. I just shook my head and kept my eyes on the floor.
“Look at me,” Mother Frances said. I looked up.
Her face was florid, her eyes flashing.
Then my eyes strayed down again.
Her right hand looked awfully strong, the veins standing out as she gripped the paddle firmly.
Mother Frances said, “If you’re too ashamed to say what you did, I’ll tell the class.
Brenda ran down the fire escape last night.”
The entire class was very quiet, the air charged with anticipation.
Mother Frances said, “On your hands and knees, girl. I’ll deal with you in a minute.”
I assumed the position and tried to keep my skirt from hiking up.
The floorboards felt gritty underneath my knees, and the dust made me want to sneeze.
Then a new fear overtook me: I needed to pee.
Suppose that I couldn’t control myself?
Crying in front of the class was bad enough, but even the boys did that when they were punished.
But wetting myself? I would die before I let that happen.
I tightened my muscles and waited.
All the while, Mother Frances was lecturing the class.
“I warned you about that fire escape,” she said.
“Some children have been killed falling from fire escapes, but that’s not going to happen in this school
. Do you remember what I said I’d do if you went down those steps?
I said I’d thrash you to within an inch of your life.
Did you think that didn’t apply to girls?
Were there any boys here when I told you to stay off the fire escape?”
Mother Frances turned her attention to me.
She said, “I usually don’t have to paddle girls, because they usually don’t behave as badly as boys. But you, young lady, have this coming. So here’s your medicine.”
I could hear the “whoosh” as the paddle descended.
I braced myself, but I still wasn’t prepared for the impact. A loud “crack” resounded, and the force of the blow nearly pushed me onto my face.
My bottom felt like it was on fire. I gasped loudly.
A few seconds latter she hit me again, and this time I couldn’t resist reaching behind me to try to protect myself.
Mother Frances said, “Move that hand, young lady. I don’t want you to do that again.”
After that the blows rained down fast and furious.
I can barely remember the individual swats: all I remember is the intense burning pain and a blurry red haze as the tears fell from my eyes.
I’m sure that Mother Frances was scolding me while she administered the paddling, but I didn’t hear a word that she said after the warning to move my hand.
Later Maureen would tell me that Mother Frances hit me eight times and that by the third blow I was bawling like a baby.
I don’t remember being told to return to my seat, but I do remember Mother Veronica holding my shoulder to steady me when she saw that my knees were weak.
I also remember the searing pain as I tried to sit down.
I popped up, then lowered myself down again more slowly.
Then, under the cover of my desk, I felt between my legs. My underpants were dry, thank God. Most of the last half-hour of class was lost in a blur. Mother Veronica was kind enough not to call on me, and I managed to stop crying after about ten minutes or so.
My bottom felt very hot, but I tried not to squirm.
The worst part was that I could feel all of the eyes on me. It may have been my imagination, but I’d swear that Linda was smirking.
Finally, at 3:00 I walked home with Maureen. We didn’t say very much, and I knew that my ordeal was far from over.
I still had to face my mother. When I walked through the front door she was waiting for me in the kitchen.
She didn’t have to ask whether I had been paddled: one look at my face told the story.
But then she surprised me-she said, “Mother Frances just called, and she told me that you took it like a big girl.” (That was a lie, but I thank you for it, Mother Frances.)
Then my mother said, “I want you to come into my bedroom.” I followed her in, and she closed the door.
She then crossed to her dresser and picked up a hairbrush.
She returned to the bed, sat next to me, and handed me the brush.
Then she said, “Do you know where I got this brush?”
I knew. The brush had belonged to Nanna, her mother. Nanna had brought the brush across the ocean with her from Ireland, and it was one of her prize possessions.
The dark hard wood was laced with silver filigree, and the bristles were very soft. Shortly before Nanna died, she gave the brush to my mother. My mother said, “I never told you this, but Nanna spanked me with this brush once.
She heard me calling your Aunt Kate a name that I won’t repeat, and she hauled me into her bedroom and put me across her lap.
I’ll tell you that I ate standing up that night.”
Mom smiled at the memory, and then she looked me in the eyes. “Brenda, if you every get in trouble at school again, I’ll give you a spanking that will make what you had today feel like love taps.
My children are not going to be a nuisance to their teachers. And if you ever lie to me again, God help you.
Just because I haven’t spanked you or your sisters until now, it doesn’t mean that I won’t.
Now give me a hug and go to your room.
You’re grounded for the weekend, and we’ll start fresh on Monday.”
Starting fresh wasn’t quite that easy.
My friends didn’t mention my punishment, but one day I saw Linda playing with another girl, Cathy, in the schoolyard. Linda said,
“I’ll be Mother Frances, and you’ll be Brenda.” Cathy knelt down, and Linda proceeded to beat her with a ruler while Cathy made wailing sounds.
A small group of spectators was very amused, and I was very embarrassed. But the school year soon ended, summer came, and by the next school year my punishment was old news.
I never was punished in school again. In fourth grade we returned to coed classes, and our classes stayed coed for the rest of my school years. In fact,
I think that Mother Frances probably wouldn’t have paddled me if my third grade class had been coed.
It would have been unseemly for a girl to be on her hands and knees in front of boys.
And, during my sixth grade year, Mother Frances was replaced by a younger principal who didn’t believe in paddling. I witnessed no more corporal punishment at school.