I was never very good at spelling – and that lack of ability led to my first and only school paddling, back in the 1980s.
I was in second grade at a school in Atlanta, Georgia, when one day our class teacher, Miss Harvey, announced the spelling test out of the blue. We would be all be tested on 20 words ‘you ought to know well by now’. I felt my heart sink.
As the test began, I was initially quite surprised and pleased to find that I knew the answers to the first few words, but then they got harder and finally impossible.
It was at that point that I glanced over to my desk mate, Jennifer Buckley (the desks were all in rows of twos and we were sat boy-girl-boy-girl, presumably to help maintain discipline). She was writing studiously and confidently and I could see her answers. So for the rest of the test, for any words I didn’t know, I moved my eyes without moving my head and copied Jennifer’s answers.
Miss Harvey collected in our answer sheets and set us to reading while she marked the test. When she had finally finished, she ordered us all to put down our books. Then: “Jimmy Williams, come out here to me, please.” I was shocked to hear my name called, and came out to the front very reluctantly.
“Jimmy,” Miss Harvey addressed me very sternly, “did you copy Jennifer’s answers during that test?” “No, Miss Harvey, honest!” I replied with a now-shaky voice.
“Honest,” Miss Harvey responded, “is one thing you are very clearly not, young man. If you didn’t copy Jennifer, how come these answers here, here and here (she pointed at my answer sheet with her pen) are exactly the same as hers – all spelled the same, and all incorrectly?”
Stupidly, I persisted with the lie and made things ten times worse. “Maybe Jennifer copied me?” I suggested. Miss Harvey, now shouting, said: “I know she didn’t, because I was watching you both. I know who copied from whom, Jimmy! I think you had better go and see Mrs Johnson.”
Well, we were pretty much all in awe of Mrs Johnson, the principal, and I didn’t like the way things were shaping up one bit. Miss Harvey sat back down at her desk with a face like thunder, took a scrap sheet of paper and quickly scribbled a note before sealing it in an envelope. “Take this to Mrs Epstein (the school secretary).”
I reluctantly crept off to the principal’s office. Mrs Epstein was sitting at her desk in the ante-office and I handed her the note from my teacher. She tutted and looked at me with a wry smile, saying. “Oh dear! Someone has been a very naughty boy, haven’t they? Take a seat, please, Jimmy.” She indicated a row of chairs and I obeyed.
Mrs Epstein picked up her phone and pushed a button. “Mrs Johnson, I have Jimmy Williams here. Miss Harvey is requesting a paddling.”
Hearing my fate out of the blue, I began to cry. Mrs Epstein put down the phone after a brief conversation with her boss, grabbed a couple of tissues from the box and brought them over to me.
“Here, Jimmy. It’s no use crying, you know – you’ll have something to really cry about in a short while, but Mrs Johnson has a visitor with her at the moment.” “I-I don’t want her to see my bottom!” I blurted out. “Oh now, don’t you worry about that,” the secretary said reassuringly, “we don’t bare children’s bottoms here. The paddle will sting quite enough through your pants, I assure you.”
I was still crying, and she put a motherly arm around me. “Come now, you must try a be brave and take your punishment like a big boy. It will hurt very much, but hopefully it will teach you a good lesson.”
I quietened down a little, and Mrs Epstein went back to her desk to get on with some work. About 10 minutes later, I heard Mrs Johnson’s door directly on to the corridor close, and then the door into the secretary’s office opened. “Jimmy? Come in here. Do you have that note?” she asked Mrs Epstein, and Miss Harvey’s note was handed over once more.
I followed the principal into her office. Mrs Johnson sat at her desk. There was a seat in front of it but I wasn’t invited to sit. She read the note carefully, then looked at me very gravely. She didn’t shout, as my teacher had, but she spoke firmly and seriously for about five minutes about how wrong it was to copy other children’s work.
Finally, she said: “Miss Harvey has requested that I paddle you for this and I must say, unfortunately I have to agree with her that a spanking is needed. I’m going to give you four swats, Jimmy.” With that, she opened a drawer of her desk and took out a wooden paddle which was probably quite modest, in retrospect, but which looked enormous to a seven-year-old about to have his bottom spanked with it.
Mrs Johnson put the paddle on her desk, then picked up her phone to her secretary. “Can you come in to witness, please?” Mrs Epstein came through, now looking a lot more solemn and serious than she had a moment ago. Mrs Johnson drew out the chair that was in front of her desk and turned it around.
“Now, Jimmy, I want you to bend over and put your hands on the seat of the chair – like this.” She demonstrated the position then picked up the paddle. Next, I felt her feeling my bottom as she checked I had nothing in my back pockets. Then I felt the wood being put to my behind, then suddenly it wasn’t there and the next thing I knew was an almighty sting spreading through my buttocks. I yelled loudly as the first swat was applied and tried to stand up.
“You’d better hold his hands down for me, please,” I heard Mrs Johnson say. Mrs Epstein came round the chair and took my hands firmly in hers, and held me back down in position. This was followed by another tremendous swat across both cheeks and my bottom began to burn unbearably. I, in turn, began to really cry properly now.”
Mrs Epstein’s face was close to mine and she just murmured: “Be brave, now.” The principal applied two more of the same, then I was allowed to stand up, and I was given more tissues, this time from a box on Mrs Johnson’s desk. As she gave me a little time to compose myself, the principal wrote down my crime in the punishment book, and had Mrs Epstein sign it as well. Then she took another piece of paper, wrote on it busily, and put it in an envelope.
Looking up, Mrs Johnson said: “Well, I trust that has taught you a sharp lesson, Jimmy. I hope never to see you in here for this again – do you understand?” I nodded through my tears. Mrs Johnson handed me the envelope. “This is a note for your parents – I’m not sure your troubles are all over yet, young man. Mrs Epstein, will you take Jimmy back to his class for me, please?”
With my newly-sore bottom, I was escorted back to the classroom. My humiliation wasn’t over, as Miss Harvey had me stand in front of the class while she told them: “Jimmy cheated in the test, and he has been given the paddle. The same thing will happen to any boy or girl I find cheating in this class, is that clear?” “Yes, Miss Harvey,” the children dutifully chorused back.
During lunch, I found myself something of an unexpected hero among my classmates, with both boys and girls wanting to know about my punishment. “How big is the paddle?” “Does it hurt?” “Did you cry?” Naturally, I didn’t give an honest reply to any of these questions, but I was the first one in our year to be paddled so I felt something of a ‘big man’.
That feeling didn’t last very long, however. The note from Mrs Johnson required a signature acknowledging my punishment and Mom was not impressed by it, to say the least. “Go upstairs to do your homework,” she ordered. “You’ll be spanked at bedtime for this.”
Once up in my bedroom I quickly dropped my pants and underwear to look at my bottom in the mirror. It was a blaze of red, with distinct marks where the edge of the paddle had struck me. It was so tender and sore I could barely sit, and the thought that Mom would come up at bedtime to add to it – and on my bare bottom – was almost inconceivable.
But add to it she did. No sooner was I in my pyjamas when she came in, sat on my school desk chair and ordered me to her side. Without a word, she dropped my pyjama bottoms and put me over her knee. I felt her hand touching my cheeks as she examined the marks of the paddling. Finally, she spoke. “Well, Mrs Johnson made a good job of you, I’m glad to say. However, this lesson needs reinforcing, Jimmy. I won’t have a cheat for my son!”
Without further ado, she slapped her palm down on my poor little butt and went to work, big style. Mom’s hand was hardened by housework and other manual labour and stung as much as any hairbrush. She had never spanked me so thoroughly and on top of the school punishment it was just unbearable. I sobbed my seven-year-old little heart out.
Then I was put to bed – on my tummy, naturally – and left to cry myself to sleep. Looking back, it was perhaps all a little harsh for a small boy’s sins but it did what it was meant to – I never cheated again.