Tuesday, 18 May 2010
The Birching Tower
The birching tower at Katherine Parr was, in many ways, a time capsule harking back to the days when discipline at this famous girls school - although hard for it to have been more frequently exercised than at present - was even more severe than now. The birch, in those days, was used regularly in schools and by the courts. Even during the Victorian period, and despite the exaggerated concerns for modesty of the day, Katherine Parr's founder and its later headteachers held one central tenet as self-evident: the beating of the bare bottoms of young girls with a bundle of birch twigs until they screamed their contrition was an acceptable and effective form of chastisement. The school's practice afforded abundant evidence to the thesis that there was (and remains) a significant correlation between naked and deeply striped girls' posteriors and good behaviour.
In these days of movements against corporal punishment at school and in the home, schools such as Katherine Parr have had to make changes. Many have discontinued the use of corporal punishment altogether. Others proscribe the use of certain instruments, or prescribe the retention of panties during punishment. Katherine Parr, in so recently re-introducing the routine use of bare bottom spanking in the classroom, and this with the overwhelming support of parents, is therefore unusual. Not even Katherine Parr, however, continues to use the birch as an instrument of chastisement on a regular basis.
On an irregular basis, and this again with the support of parents, use of the birch is retained in the school. It is used only in the case of the most extreme offences, cases in which pupils in other schools would face instant expulsion. This is the situation which resulted in Deborah being led, stripped naked, by her headmistress to "the tower" on a cool summer evening.
Inside the tower, only two main rooms are still used. The birching room is an austere, stone-clad square room dominated by the central position of an antique version of the punishment horse. Instead of velcro straps, old leather restraints which dig into the flesh hang limply from the oak frame awaiting the next victim with almost eternal patience. The room has no other furniture, except for a copper bin, half filled with salt water, in which the tightly bound birch bundles are left to soak for maximum suppleness and whip.
Adjacent, and with no door in the dividing doorway to allow miscreants to shut out their immediate and painful future, is the preparation room: an old fashioned toilet over which the girls squat to avoid accidents during punishment.
"You know," the headmistres whispered quietly into Deborah's ear, her hand stroking the girl's deliciously bare bottom, "they tell me the screams of a girl being birched can be heard even in the old block. Is that true?"
The old block was the first of the teaching blocks built in addition to the main school house. It was a long way away from the tower, yet Deborah knew - as every pupil in the school knew - that what the headmistress claimed was true. No one had been birched for over a year, but Deborah well remembered the shrill cries of Tammy Rogers the previous March as they echoed eerily around the school buildings. Teachers were told to ensure that the day's first lesson (which began at 8.55) commenced with a period of silence on birching days, precisely to ensure that the victim's screams were heard. Miss Critchley would also, even on winter's days and despite the unclothed situation of the girl bound for punishment, throw open the single window in the birching room immediately before picking up the birch. It was all, she told herself, in a humane attempt to persuade the remainder of the school that they did not want, really did not want, to commit any offence that would land them in a similar situation.
"Miss?" Deborah said.
"Yes," Miss Critchley replied.
Deborah had intended to plead with her. To beg her to use the cane upon her instead, to promise to behave well for ever if only, if only she would spare her this terrible fate. Yet she knew that such pleas would fall on unhearing ears. And her pride, too, served to prevent such an outburst. Instead she said only:
"I know that what I did was wrong, Miss. And I know that the birch is the only punishment I could have expected. I'm sorry, Miss."
"I'm glad to hear your apology," the headmistress said in a gentle voice. "I dare say I will hear further evidence of your sorrow in due course."
The short story is adapted from from a longer and more explicit one in the series Emma at School by Rosewood. Thanks to an anonymous viewer for pointing this out.