Sunday, July 10, 2005

Bad child

Doris has written about being sent to the headmaster's office when she was eight.

I was sent to the headmaster's office when I was eight, too, or perhaps seven, but apparently lacked Doris' inner resources because I remember it vividly. I was sent there by the headmaster himself, who was in the classroom talking to the teacher when the bell rang after lunch and I raced my friend back there. I burst in laughing and shouting "I WON!"

When I saw the headmaster I stopped short in surprise. He had never been in our classroom before, and I had never seen him so close up. To my surprise he glared at me as if he knew me, and became very angry. The next thing I knew he'd told me to go over to his office to await my punishment.

I was devastated. I didn't know what I'd done wrong, and the headmaster was a frightening character with enormous bushy black eyebrows. Also, I didn't know where his office was. Afraid to ask, I hovered until he bellowed at me to GO. I left the classroom and wandered around the school, looking for a door marked HEADMASTER. Eventually I gathered the courage to ask some adult who took pity on me and pointed me in the right direction. She also asked me why I was going there, and I told her I was going to be punished. She asked me what I'd done, and I had to reply that I didn't know. It was humiliating. I was fairly sure that not knowing what I'd done wrong meant that I was so wicked I didn't know the difference between right and wrong behaviour. (Oh, the joys of a religious upbringing.)

I found the office, which was locked, and stood outside in the corridor to wait.

I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

When the bell rang for the short mid-afternoon break the headmaster still hadn't come. I could hear the sound of kids playing and shouting out in the playground. After a while the bell rang again and everything went quiet.

I continued to wait.

I have never known an afternoon so long, before or since. Imaginings of the punishment awaiting me grew more terrifying as I stood there, until I was paralysed with fright. A punishment you had to wait for this long had to be something horrible, and I must have been very wicked to deserve it. Had I done something I couldn't remember? I wanted to run away, but I was sure that I would die if I did, or that someone would catch me because they would see right away that I was bad. There was no place to hide, and anyway I was an obedient child and defying authority was not something I did easily. Now and again a teacher or other staff member passed in the corridor and smiled sympathetically at me. I thought this meant they knew what was going to happen, and were sorry that I had been so bad. If they thought I didn't deserve it they would help me, surely. They didn't want me to be punished so badly, but they knew I'd deserved it so they couldn't do anything.

As the afternoon wore on I was worn down. There was nothing to do, nothing to read, nothing to distract me except my increasingly wild speculations of what was going to happen when that terrifying man finally turned up. (One of the approved books in our house was the illustrated Foxes' Book of Martyrs, and there was plenty there to feed my imagination. I was ghoulishly fascinated by that book, mostly because I was secretly convinced that it proved that I was wicked. If someone tied me to a bonfire and lit it I knew I would never sing a hymn with so loud and cheerful a voice that I'd be heard through all the cracklings of the combustibles, and the noise of the multitude. I knew I would become an instant atheist in exchange for a bucket of water.)

As an afternoon of eternity passed I became more and more convinced of my sinfulness, and more and more confused about it. What had I done? How could I undo it? How could I become good? What was going to happen to me?

The final bell rang, and again I heard the joyous yelling and clatter of children - the good children - erupting from classrooms. The noise died away gradually until I knew I was the only child left at school. The others had gone home, and now there was only me, the bad child. I was sorrier than I'd ever been in my life.

Then the headmaster arrived.

He walked straight past me and had started to unlock his office when he noticed me. He asked what I wanted. I told him, in a very small voice, tight with pent up tears, that he had told me to come to his office and here I was.

He paused, and there was a long silence as he opened his door and stood there, looking into his office. Then he turned.

"You can go home now," he said, and wagged his finger at me sternly. "I can see you are sorry for what you did. But let this be a lesson to you, and don't do it again!"

"What did I do, sir?" I asked. I was terrified, but had to know.

"NONE OF YOUR CHEEK! GO HOME BEFORE I CHANGE MY MIND!" he thundered, and disappeared into his office, shutting the door firmly.

It was devastating. How come adults were allowed to behave so unjustly? How come he didn't have to explain? Why couldn't he tell me what I did wrong? It was UNFAIR. If I had to be so wicked I wanted to know WHY. I had spent the entire afternoon standing outside his door, a petrified and unwilling martyr, and HE HAD FORGOTTEN I EXISTED. The whole thing was outrageously unjust.

I went home, confused, angry, and laden with a terrible burden of unpunished sin.

If I could remember how this story ended I would tell you, but I'm afraid the memory ends there.

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doris said...

I am appalled, saddened and upset for that situation. And I wonder why on earth your own class teacher didn't come check on you at least by afternoon play.
I can imagine all the horridness of it all and most of all the unjustness.

You learned a lot from that I bet and wouldn't do that to your students?

And that Head teacher knew what he done and that he couldn't remember you from Adam. You've described it brilliantly - all those nuances of bushy eyebrows and apartness of the almighty Headmaster.

Cheryl said...

Ooh you made my eyes well up for you. People are so thoughtless.

Badaunt said...

One other memory I have is of talking to my mother about this headmaster a few years later, when I was about 13 or 14 and no longer at that school. My mother got so angry even thinking of this guy she could hardly speak, so I guess I must have told her what happened. My mother said he had made her so angry she went to the school to have it out with him, on two or three different occasions.

I hadn't known that, and it was SO unlike my meek mother it took my breath away. I wish she'd told me at the time, though! (Or maybe she did, and I forgot.)

I don't know what my classroom teacher thought had happened, but she was very young, and I got the impression that most of the teachers were afraid of him, too.

doris said...

Sadly, it makes sense that the teachers were also scared of the head teacher.