Teenage Years and the Cane


Year after year for decades when the young people of the world were asked to vote on, “Who is your super hero?” the winner was always Superman. Until very recently that is, when the name Homer Simpson was suddenly catapulted to the number one spot! However, if somebody was to ask me that question I would have to say “Denzil Penberthy”. The name might seem a little strange, so here is the story that explains my choice.

I was lucky enough to grow up in the seaside town of St Ives, Cornwall. At the age of 11 years I had to take the bus to an all boys secondary school in Penzance where, in those times, it was considered “proper” for all the teachers to be men.
On my first day I was overwhelmed. It was a typically huge, grey, granite, Cornish building with a large hall and a first floor balcony. All the classrooms opened onto either one or the other. The single exception was the office of Mr Strick the headteacher, which dominated one end of the balcony. The older boys, who showed us around on that first morning, spoke of the office in a fearful and mysterious way but we didn’t really understand why.
When we were finally settled and sent off to our first lesson I just happened to be the last in the line. We were told to enter the classroom and, as I had been taught, I started to shut the door behind me. Before I could finish however the teacher bellowed, “Boy! Do not close the door. The door always stays open!” As the day went on we quickly learnt this was a firm rule throughout the school. We all wondered about this but had to wait about six weeks before discovering the reason.

At that time we were sitting in a French lesson when suddenly an electric sounding crack! resonated around the school. Our teacher stopped in mid-sentence, stared into the distance, seemingly lost in his own thoughts and slowly but quietly said, “One.” He said no more but continued to stare into space as if waiting. To this day I believe we could have misbehaved in any way we wanted at that moment but of course we too were gripped by the awful and sudden realisation of what was going on. We were in fact, in the process of learning a noise that would stay with us for the rest of our lives. After a few seconds a second crack! echoed round those granite walls and the teacher, who wasn’t looking at us at all, quietly said, “Two.” After about 20 more seconds he stopped waiting and returned to the lesson continuing from the exact mid-sentence spot he had stopped.
The next time this happened we were also in a French lesson, although in a different room which led out onto the balcony with Mr Strick’s office at the far end. After about 10 minutes of the lesson we suddenly heard crack! crack! crack!  This was a very different sound as they almost merged into oneOnce again the teacher stopped, stared into space and with less hesitation this time said, “Three”. On each occasion we couldn’t wait to get into the playground to find out who had been caned and why.
By now of course, we had realised the classroom doors were left open so the whole school could hear the sound of a boy being caned. After all, what better way could there be to put fear into the hearts and minds of young boys?
As time went by however we also discovered there was a world of science involved in the art of caning.
It turned out there were eight rules. They were:

1. The maximum number of strokes was six.
2. If Mr Strick was in a “good” mood the caning would be administered in quick strokes, crack! crack! crack! with no delay. In this way the searing pain only welled up once. This was considered by us to be merciful or perhaps just lucky for the poor individual.
3. If Mr Strick was in a bad mood there would be a delay of up to 10 seconds between the strokes of the cane. This would allow the bruised and cut flesh to reach its highest level of pain before the cane descended again. This was not a good experience.
The very worst caning experience however not only involved a long delay in between strokes but also included a piece of chalk being rubbed along the cane before the torture started. This would then leave a mark on the black trousers of the poor boy’s bottom after the first stroke under which the cut flesh could develop with a searing level of pain before the cane would be aimed at exactly the same spot. I will leave the outcome of this to your imagination.
5. If you were caned your Mum and Dad must not find out, as things could only get worse. We quickly learnt it was essential to let the wound scab over before you washed your underpants in cold water to remove the blood stains. Then you had to dry them on a radiator (not an uncommon sight) before you got home. The most important point was NEVER to wash your underpants in hot water which fixed the blood stain into the material and gave the game away.
Make sure you know the school song (I could sing it now). At any point in the day the HT could stop you and ask you to recite the words. Failure meant one stroke of the cane and another test the next day.
7. If you saw another boy being asked to recite the school song, look at the ground and walk the other way as quickly as possible.
8. If asked to recite the school song, nerves are your worst enemy.

There was in fact an unofficial ninth rule that we all instinctively followed. This involved each boy, as he left a classroom for another lesson, looking long and hard at the outside of Mr Strick’s office to see if some poor individual was waiting to be caned. If this happened to be the case, very little attention was paid to what the teacher was saying. We were all waiting apprehensively to find out how many strokes and how long were the gaps. Each time I looked up and saw a boy standing there I promised myself it would never be me. I was wrong.

The first time I stood outside that office, with the whole school looking at me as they went to lessons, came suddenly and was totally unexpected. A new invention had come along called “The Superball”. They are very common today and usually called “Powerballs” but were brand new to us. They were small and made of very hard rubber, would bounce very fast as well as high and would fly around the playground. The down side was that, if they hit a window, they would go straight through with little noise leaving a perfectly round hole. Hence, within a few days the Superball had been banned from school.
A few days later I was playing football on the playground at morning break when every so often a Superball would whiz past. I was thoroughly engrossed in my game and took no notice, as it had nothing to do with me. A few minutes later however when the playground gradually came to a halt, we all gradually realised Mr Strick was standing in the corner as he occasionally did with a commanding and fearful presence. Stillness and silence radiated outwards from him. It was as if somebody had dropped a stone in a pond at that corner of the playground and ripples of alarm gradually spread outwards across us all, stopping us in our tracks. Each new layer of boys would suddenly realise that something was up and stop to see HIM standing there. That was enough.
When everybody had stopped and was looking, Mr Strick raised his arm and pointed to a window with a perfect round hole in it. We now all knew where The Superball had gone. Lined up behind our HT were other members of staff (all male) and they came out to tell us to line up round the playground with our bags and coats. We were then told that one boy had actually dared to retrieve the ball from inside the school, so now we were each to be searched. Like so many of my friends at the age of 12 years I had a leather satchel, which I went and picked up. I put it between my feet and lined up feeling unconcerned because I was not involved. In fact I was rather annoyed, as this was playtime and we were missing our game of football.
Two teachers started searching, each going the opposite way round the massive rectangle of boys. Other teachers stood around us to make sure that everybody stood still so there was no chance to ditch the evidence. When the teacher came to me I knew him. He smiled, opened my satchel and then quickly stood up. To my total shock, there on top to one side was the Superball. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I realised within a second that some kind fellow had planted it in the bag before I had walked across from my game to collect it. The question now was, “Should I try to protest my innocence?” The answer was clear, I didn’t have a chance. With my head bowed I walked across that playground with every boy in the school watching in total silence and placed the ball in Mr Strick’s hands. He looked at me and said very quietly, yet with overwhelming authority, “My room.” This man had total power and somehow his quiet voice was the worst of him.
I went inside and step by step I climbed the stairs to stand outside his office. There was nobody else there and two minutes later he returned and went and sat down. After another two minutes I felt the eyes of every boy in the school on me as they returned to lessons.
At this point it is important to realise that, as a boy (any boy) stood there, the office door was always left open so that Mr Strick could be seen. I watched with a fixed gaze as he went through page after page of paperwork, signing where necessary. Then, as he came to the end of the pile, I hoped he would get on with it but he was a master of psychology that man. He put down the papers with a great flourish, almost seemed to say to himself, “Now, is there anything else I need to do?” and, clearly satisfying himself there was not, he picked up a copy of The Times and started reading. The agony of waiting was excruciating and looking back I believe these days he would qualify for some sort of an Oscar. He knew I was watching and waiting and he played it out to the full. At 12.10 it was 5 minutes before the lunchtime bell. He stood up and I watched him open a tall thin cupboard. Inside was a collection of canes. He picked one out, swished it backwards and forwards, nodded to himself and then slowly walked out to see me. He looked and said, “Have you been caned before boy?”
“No sir,” I said.
“Well, put out your hand, straight in front.”
My mind was screaming, “Put out your hand? Put out your hand?” I knew the drill. Every boy in the school knew the drill. You had to touch your toes. Nevertheless I put out my hand.
“Palm upwards,” was the instruction, which I did. I managed to keep my eyes open deciding not to show fear, which was probably very silly because my whole body was shaking.
He held the cane high above his head and brought it down stopping at the last moment and tapping my hand. He looked at me and said, “That is the only chance you will ever receive. Now go back to class.”
I slowly walked down those stairs shaking from head to toe and decided on two things. Firstly, I would find out who put that ball in my bag. Secondly, I would never end up back outside that office again.
Once again I was wrong. This time on both counts.

I was 14 years old and it was lunchtime. The whole school ate together in the canteen, which meant there were long waits to be served. Each table had 4 boys on either side with an older boy, who acted as Head of Table, at the far end. In the middle there was a pot of salt and a jug of water. It was an unwritten rule that whoever arrived first on a table would unscrew the lid of the salt and leave it balanced on top. Everybody knew about this but still on odd occasions individuals would get caught out by this simple ruse, as their hunger pangs overcame their common sense and they would empty the contents of the whole pot onto their meal.
We were all sitting round the table talking when I made fun of something my friend David said. He sat directly opposite me and without hesitation he picked up the full jug of water and dumped it in my lap. I was soaked through. Now, as I had often played football at playtime in the rain, this did not bother me too much. What did bother me was the fact that everybody at the table burst out laughing at my expense. David loved it and I felt humiliated. I sat there fuming.
After about 10 minutes and still annoyed, I saw my opportunity. David had turned round to talk to somebody on the next table and I threw caution to the wind. I picked up the salt pot and, taking care with the loose top, tipped the contents down the back of David’s neck.  I turned to the others on the table with a grin from ear to ear and was surprised to see each face full of abject horror. Even David had said nothing. It took about two seconds for it to dawn on me that I was now starring in my own pantomime, with the looks on my friends’ faces clearly shrieking, “He’s behind you.” I slowly turned and there he was standing over me. My knees turned to rubber as he said in that ominously quiet voice, “My room boy.”
I stood and walked out of the canteen with hundreds of pairs of eyes following my every step. Even today, it is stunning to think how such an incident without any loud fuss, can suddenly communicate itself to so many other boys in a flash. Once again I found myself climbing those stairs for the wrong reason. I had not had any lunch and was destined to have none at all but I didn’t feel in the least bit hungry, which was very odd for me. All I felt was sick, as my stomach churned. The school was completely empty and eerily silent except, when I finally reached the top of the stairs, there outside the HT’s office stood Denzil Penberthy. The look and pallor of his skin combined with his wild, staring and terrified eyes indicated in one glance that we were not going to talk. So we stood there, each of us totally immersed in our own personal misery for about 45 minutes until, one by one, pupils and teachers started returning from the canteen.
Mr Strick then came up the stairs, ignored us both and went into his office. I had an idea about what would come next and sure enough, after about 10 minutes, he was reading The Times. At one point he opened his cupboard and took out a cane, swished up and down and shook his head. He then repeated this process with two more canes before finally nodding to himself in satisfaction that he had somehow got it just right. We were both glued to his every action. At the time I wondered if different canes were used for different bottoms. Then, with both of us visibly shaking, he went back to reading his paper. This was mental torture in the extreme. As the bell went for the end of the first afternoon lesson, boys poured out of classrooms and every single one looked at both of us, still standing there at the end of the balcony waiting. I had lost count of the times it had been me looking up at some poor individual.
Gradually each boy found his destination and the school returned to silence, although standing there, we both knew that every classroom door was open and that both teachers and pupils were waiting to hear the results of our encounter.
About 10 minutes after that our leader stood and picked up his cane. Giving it one final flourish of a swing, he once again nodded to himself and then picked up a piece of chalk and rubbed it up and down the length of the cane. He only did this once. I heard Denzil gasp. He then walked out of his door and stood in front of us.
“You boy,” he said to me, “Stand over there out of the way.” It seemed I was going to have to watch which, to me, was far worse. I stepped backwards against the wall.
“Denzil Penberthy, touch your toes,” he said more loudly than usual. It was a rare thing to hear Mr Strick raise his voice. After all we were so scared of him it wasn’t needed.
Denzil touched his toes and I could see the look of absolute dread on his face as he put his head down to look at the floor. I then watched in horror as the cane was raised as far as it could possibly go behind the headteacher’s back and brought down with such speed and force that with the noise “crack!” even I jumped and blinked and it wasn’t even me that had been hit!
Denzil shot bolt upright and squeezed his bottom with his right hand. He then leant forward with his left hand gripping the balcony rail with white knuckles, looking away from me. He was gasping and grunting in pain and, although I could not see his face, I could see the silent tears that were dripping onto the balcony floor as well as over to the hall floor below. I could also see a clear white line running down his backside. Indeed it was in the middle of this that he was clutching his bottom so tightly with his right hand. At that point I am ashamed to say I could only think to myself, “I’m next!”
“Get back here boy and touch your toes,” said Mr Strick with a louder than normal voice. Denzil started to turn around and to touch his toes but I could see he was already in terrible pain. The full effects of that one almighty stroke had clearly reached their peak and I wondered to myself what he could possibly have done to deserve this. He bent over, leaving a pool of dripping tears in front of him and then stood up and quickly bent over again before standing upright once more. His face was a mask of torture and, as his head swivelled about in terror, I could see his eyes were wild, darting in every direction.
“Touch those toes Penberthy, NOW!” was the barked order and once again he seemed to automatically try to comply when, all at once, something seemed to snap in his mind. He stood, jumped up straight and, with that wild stare still in his eyes, vaulted straight over the balcony railing. I could not see the end result but I heard it. The sound of bones snapping had become a recognisable sound to me from the rugby fields. Mr Strick looked over the railing to the floor below, turned, went into his office and started making a phone call. Whilst he wasn’t looking I crept forward and looked over. The angles of both the top and bottom bones of Denzil’s right leg looked desperately unnatural. I went back to my spot and stood there for an hour, listening to both the arrival and departure of the ambulance, as well as all the efforts to get Denzil onto a stretcher without him screaming, which proved to be impossible, as every classroom must have heard.
90 minutes later Mr Strick climbed the stairs to see my mentally crushed figure standing outside his door. I watched in absolute dread as he looked at me and said, “What are you doing here boy? Go back to class.”
I couldn’t believe it and with combined shock and elation I walked back down those stairs.
When I arrived home that night I rang Truro hospital to find out which ward Denzil was in. I then begged money from my Mum telling her about an awful “accident”. I then went to the shops to buy a card. I wrote a big “Get Well Soon” to Denzil that was truly from the heart and posted it straight away. It seemed the very least I could do. It was almost three months before we saw him again and nobody ever found out what he had done.
Before I finish this tale of my super hero Denzil, I am concerned that I am leaving you with an impression of doom and gloom from my school days. In fact I have to add that I was one of the few boys at the time who insisted that his school days were good days. I loved that school. There was no bullying, a huge relief from my London experience, and I was amazed at the age of 16 years to enter the sixth form and suddenly meet a very different Mr Strick who spoke to me almost as an equal. We were all still terrified of course but suddenly he was a human being.
I just happen to have discussed here the topic of corporal punishment from a pupil’s perspective and it’s very difficult to put a positive light on that. 

You may be interested to know that in 1998, as a long established and successful headteacher, I was on holiday in St Ives and had to go shopping at the main Tesco store that is above the town. I was feeling pretty good because my own school had just had a great OFSTED. Whilst waiting in the queue I happened to turn around and there he was standing behind me; that very same Mr Strick, albeit a much older and retired version. Of course he didn’t recognise me. I hadn’t even known he was still alive. I couldn’t help it, my natural bodily reflexes took over and I went weak at the knees and actually stumbled slightly. He asked if I was OK and I replied that I was. As I turned back my heart was racing. I was shocked and asked myself, “HOW? HOW could I still feel that way all these years later and as a HT of my own school?” That automatic response took me completely by surprise. Overall I had enjoyed my school days so much.
I simply leave you to consider how the impressions of youth remain implanted in our minds for the rest of our lives.