"Now, turn up."
It was an all too familiar command from the vibrant jowls of Abbey School house master Mr. Crump when you had transgressed the dicta of this Kent boarding school. The cough-spluttered words informed you that you were to be caned with "six of the best" (although at the tender age of 8, it was usually only four whacks), and more specifically ordered you to fold the flaps of your school blazer high on your back so that the cane could make its swishing, stinging way to your guilty posterior unobstructed. This week, in a move that could have boded as ill for the Empire as the loss of the Punjab, the British House of Commons voted -- by a margin of one -- to abolish the practice of caning in state schools. Private schools, however, retain the age-old discretion of caning their pupils.
In various uncivilized pockets of Great Britain, children, mothers and advocates reacted to the news with joy. The House of Commons vote, said 16-year-old Dean Rickwood yesterday, is "good. It's about time. It's disgraceful, caning. They shouldn't be able to do it."
Rickwood was 12 when he offended his mathematics teacher at Howbury's Grange school, Kent. "He walked me down to his office, then he pulled up me trousers, took me over the desk and he took out a cane."
The Rickwoods, with the assistance of the advocacy group STOP (Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment), took legal action against the school and are awaiting a verdict before the European Court of Human Rights.
Caning, particularly in the private school system, is as much a part of British education as the learning of mensa mensa mensam, or the xenophobic arrogance that the "wogs" begin at Calais and Aberystwyth. Caning separates the disciplined from the untutored, soft-buttocked masses now crowding the state schools of the fading kingdom. You with your Latin, your Greek, your pride in all things royal -- and your toughened rump -- you will carry the Empire's torch. Not only can you quote Cicero, but you have known the rod.
You will always remember the details of the punishment. You recall how the real tormenter was your imagination, because, bending over before the master, you never knew what his face looked like, whether it adopted the impassive glint of an avenging angel or the contorted glee of a closet sadist (in your terrified and rapidly dissolving innocence, you rather suspected the latter). Your ears could better anticipate when the bamboo or birchwood reached the end of its backswing before launching into the first stroke. And when you heard the thwump against the thin thread of flannel protecting your errant rump, you knew the bite would come in a matter of microseconds. The silences between each swing seemed longer and longer. The beating took years: You came out an older being after a caning.
"It was on the news," said Edward Erskine, 12, a pupil at North Westminster Community School. "I don't like caning . . . I think you should be kept after school instead. Or expelled, if it's very bad. I was glad to hear they had abolished it."
"I think it's a marvelous thing," said Jan Jarman of Glamorgan, South Wales, a mother of two former schoolboys. "Long overdue in this country."
When her son Steven's hand was badly injured in a caning at Y Pant, a state school, Jarman wrote a letter ordering the headmaster not to cane him or his brother Christopher again. Both boys were promptly expelled and, after much legal battling between Jarman and the local education authorities, Steven's case too is now before the European Court of Human Rights.
"We're absolutely delighted," said Martin Rosenbaum, education secretary of STOP. The organization was formed by teachers all over Britain in response to the 1967 Plowden Report, a government-sponsored independent commission that came out heavily against corporal punishment in schools. The House of Commons vote, Rosenbaum said, "has made 18 years of hard campaigning all worthwhile. The real victors are British state school children."
Here in the undisciplined Colonies, the rod is almost nonexistent in private schools, according to Adah Maurer, founder of the California-based End Violence Against the Next Generation, which monitors corporal punishment in schools throughout the country. But in public schools, she says, the paddle is brandished with vigor.
"Of the 50 states, only eight prohibit all forms of corporal punishment." The worst offenders, she says, are Christian fundamentalist and public schools "in the whole Old South . . . which use a great deal of corporal punishment and loudly defend themselves and call it biblical discipline."
*Ah, discipline. With a dim, Nietzsche-like understanding that the caning would better you if it didn't kill you, you remained perpendicular. You were, after all, not just any schoolboy. You were an officer in waiting. Or certainly a strong contender for a managerial position at Woolworth's.
And there was another masochistic glory to savor: The Showing of the Stripes, or the baring of welted buttocks for your colleagues' admiration.
"Cor! Look at that, then," they would say, as you suffered their stupified gaze. "It must have hurt."
"It didn't," you would reply. And you'd walk as nonchalantly as your bearing permitted to the washroom, to cool down in privacy