The Ugly Ones

head downHe stopped by my desk. I held my breath, and kept my head down. He strode on, and his big black stick thudded onto the desk of in front of me.

The girl stood up and muttered. “I don’t know, sir.” She remained standing, stooped over her desk, her legs bent and trembling.

The stick thumped onto my desk.

I stood up. “Fifty five BC.”

He marched on.

I sat down again, my heart thudding, my legs quivering like the girl’s in front even though I’d got it right.

“And who was in charge of the invasion?”

It wasn’t over. The stick was back on my desk.

I stood up. “Julius Caesar.”

* * * * *

He marched around the classroom, slamming homework jotters onto our desks. One glance at his face was enough to know some of us had not done well. One glance at his face was more than I wanted. I kept my head down, and opened my jotter.

75%. An A. I was okay.

Except I wasn’t, not really. None of us were.

His pacing stopped and he stood by a wall chart, on which he recorded the results of our homework exercises.

Nobody spoke. We all knew what was coming. We just didn’t know who was getting it, or how many of us. Knowing I wouldn’t be among them made me feel no better.

The day he’d pinned to the chart to the wall, he had told us that to get below fifty per cent in three home exercises would mean we’d get the strap. The chart showed that several of the boys already had been below 50% twice.

He wrote up the new homework scores. He went over to his desk and took out his strap. He called a boy’s name. The boy got up from his desk and stood before him.


The boy held out his hand.

In all the years I had been at school, in all the years I had dreaded the strap, I had never seen it used before.

And I had never felt so angry. The boy who stood silently, while the leather whacked across his hand, did not deserve it. He lived next door to us: his mother had died about three years before, his father was alcoholic, his grandfather crippled, his grandmother ill. The boy was always near the bottom of the class and was simply not able to do better than he did. He was not going to become more capable because of a strap walloping over his hand.

All except one of the boys got the strap that day.

* * * * *

He leaned back in his chair, arms behind his head. “It’s about time we redid the seating arrangement. I’m going to take the ugly ones down to the front.”

He bellowed names.

It did not surprise me that my name was amongst them. I knew I would be an ugly one, knew he hated me.

* * * * *

Not long into the afternoon lesson, a pupil was sick.

He told one person to clean up the pupil’s desk, and he told me to clean up the pupil’s jotter. I took it to the girls’ toilets, and retched as I tried to clean it with toilet paper. As I grew more and more panicked because I couldn’t do it, but couldn’t go back unless I did it, the door opened. It was one of my friends, sent to find out what was taking so long. Relief and gratitude flooded through me as she cleaned the book in moments.

* * * * *

When I, one of the ugly ones, came to the front, my desk faced onto his. He had a toy cannon that fired matches. Day after day, he fired them at me. One day, for reasons I cannot remember, he took a firework from his desk drawer, lit it, and placed it underneath my seat. The firework was a Banger. The Firework Glossary says of these: “in effect an airbomb that stayed on the ground. Cheap and misused, it was a major cause of injuries until banned from sale to the public.”

As he placed that banger beneath my seat, I knew it was dangerous, and had no idea what sort of injury I might sustain. But I was more afraid of him than of the banger, so I stayed where I was. Miraculously, it didn’t harm me at all.

* * * * *

We had that teacher for three years, from age eleven to fourteen. Some days his classroom was fun and jokes. (Though the jokes could often be cruel taunts, name-calling. Did we laugh because they were funny, or because we were afraid not to? Now, I have no idea.) Other days, nobody dared to lift their heads from their desks. As we waited to go into his classroom before a lesson, we murmured to the kids coming out, “Is he in a good mood or a bad mood?” Some days we didn’t need to ask; their faces told us.

Once, he came out behind a class as we were whispering, and he said, “You’re all right. I’m in a good mood today.”

I was good at the subjects he taught, and, in the first year, he liked me. After summer, illness meant I returned to school a week later than everyone else did. As well as his regular subjects, he was covering art classes. Our project was a design, a repeating pattern. I worked hard to catch up with the class and was pleased with the design I’d created, in turquoise, pink and orange. I took it to show him.

He yelled that I was a silly besom, and should know better. “You should be setting an example to the young ones,” he bellowed.

I felt confused. It was true that several new class members had joined us from other schools, but they were the same age as we were. I also had no idea what was wrong with my design, and he never told me.

Earlier that year, I had noticed how unkindly he treated one girl after she’d been in hospital, so I assumed my illness was the reason for the change in his attitude towards me. Whether it was or not, from then on I was a besom and an ugly one.

 * * * * *

One of the posts for 1000 Voices Speak For Compassion’s Building From Bullying, was When The Bully is the Teacher, by Melissa Firman. Reading this reminded me of what I experienced as a child. It all happened a long time ago. That teacher is an old man now. A couple of times, on visits my mother, I’ve driven to a nearby village and have seen him out walking. He walked with a stoop and didn’t look up as we drove past. Thinking about it now, his stoop reminds me of our bent heads all those years ago, and I wonder, does he dare not look people in the eye just as we were afraid to look in his?

And have I forgiven him? Have I released myself from resentment? I thought I had, until I read Melissa’s post and the memory stirred anger. Writing this post released that anger, and it also helped me understand another aspect of myself at that time. Another of our teachers was milder, though eccentric in some ways. In his classroom, as in most, I was usually obedient – but not always. One day, as a punishment this teacher called me (and another girl) back to class at lunchtime. I went, but I argued with him – because on that occasion I hadn’t actually done what he thought I had. On my report card that year, this teacher wrote that I could sometimes be noisy or disruptive, or some similar word. I remember my parents’ surprise since no teacher had ever written such a thing before (and none did afterwards.) I explained it away by blaming the teacher for that particular misunderstanding.

I felt confused by my behaviour. It was true that I was sometimes noisy and disruptive. It wasn’t like me, or so I thought. All these years later, I realise that it was like me – just a part I’d squashed so thoroughly I no longer recognised it as me. I was afraid to stand up for myself in one classroom, so I did it in another. I guess in some way, deep within the recesses of my mind, I knew I was picking a fight with the wrong teacher.

Forgiveness perhaps comes in reclaiming all aspects of ourselves. That bolshiness was part of me, just as much as the silent fear was. It’s a joy to acknowledge that, and to finally let go of something I didn’t even realise I was holding onto.


  1. Cripes, I’m so glad I didn’t have any teachers as horrible as that. Good on you for looking at it with fresh eyes and letting it go.
    Nevertheless, if I met him in the street I’d kick him in the bollocks on your behalf.

    1. Author

      Katie, thanks for the support! But he’s harmless now – and some to think of it, you’re half a world away so I think he’s safe!

  2. Oh wow. What a horrible terrifying experience. I can’t imagine having to deal with that! I’m with Katie Paul. I’d kick him. Twice. In the shins. Thank you for sharing your story.

  3. Katie has a way, doesn’t she. Yep, a little bollock bending feels entirely justified though probably your way is better in the longer term. I had the bully teachers, with stupid random rules used to torment all pupils. It sometimes felt like they’d been taught to disconcert us and that would keep us mute. Probably worked. if it wasn’t physical violence then it was sarcasm.

    1. Author

      Geoff, Katie sure does have a way with words! You and I are from the same era, and I think teachers today wouldn’t be allowed to do what he did – with the odd exception, my girls’ teachers seem to be kinder. And thank goodness at least the strap is gone. I did teach for a few years and when I went through training we weren’t taught to scare the kids but I remember one or 2 people thought that was the way to get obedience – but even that was years ago.
      Thanks for your comment.

  4. What a horrible teacher. I can’t imagine such a teacher being able to keep a job–except I guess he had you all too scared to speak to anyone. It’s absolutely amazing what horrible, long-term effects these people can have on people’s lives.

    1. Author

      Faith, people did speak out about him but one the rare occasion when a parent complained he behaved much worse towards their child, so even parents were afraid of him and felt powerless to change it. I think also some parents (including mine) at first thought it couldn’t be as bad as we said. You’re right it can have long term effects, and I am very glad there is so much more awareness of that now.
      As always, thanks for your comment!

  5. This “Forgiveness perhaps comes in reclaiming all aspects of ourselves” This resonated with me, and I too am with Katie, although I did have to look up bollocks, as I am truly a Canadian, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t hurting anybodies feelings by not knowing what that meant. JK Great read and thanks you always for your candor

    1. Author

      Darla, it’s interesting that you picked up on that line. It just came to me as I wrote it, one of those thoughts that seem true, though you don’t know why! I’ve thought about it since, and it seems like what we dislike in others is generally what we surpress in ourselves (which is my experience) then if we reclaim the broken or suppressed parts of ourselves we have no need to attack when we see them in others.
      And I did wonder if bollocks was a universally understood word… I take it you now know what it means!
      Thanks for you comment.

  6. I read the post with anguish for the younger you and all your classmates. Can’t imagine what torture it was to just be in his class. I would feel so much bitterness seeing him walking down the street and I wonder if any of his former students have confronted him.
    I’m glad you felt relief after writing this post, dear Yvonne!

    1. Author

      Thanks Roshni. I don’t know if any former students confronted him, but while we were still at school word got out that one boy did kick him. I can’t remember what happened, but I don’t think it worked out well for the boy. Overall in UK schools at that time there wasn’t much students could do. Corporal punishment wasn’t banned till much, much later, so teachers like him got away with things they wouldn’t now.

  7. I had a teacher like that in Grade 5.

    In university, I had to report a professor’s sexual advances to the university’s human rights committee. He had tenure, so they didn’t do anything about his behavior. I wasn’t angry at him, though, but rather at his fellow professors and the dean of the department. They knew he was depressed and an alcoholic, and my situation would have given them the perfect excuse to make him seek treatment. Instead, he died of Korsakoff’s syndrome due to his alcoholism. Very sad.

    1. Author

      Connie, sorry to hear you also had a teacher like than and a bad experience in university. As you say, it might have been better for that professor if he had been made to seek treatment. I can see why you would have felt frustrated with the department staff, though I suppose we’ll never know if he would have accepted the support he needed.
      Thanks for sharing your story.

  8. That’s criminal behavior, Yvonne! You should never have had to withstand that! How amazing and wonderful it is that you have found some peace.

  9. Oh this is just a gut wrenching memory to read… I’m just sick that an adult would be able to treat young kids like this in the ‘teacher role’. It’s horrific and should have never happened. I’m SO sorry you had to endure such treatment, Yvonne!!

    You wrote it beautifully. It hit my heart hard. I’m SO glad you were able to get it ‘out’.

    1. Author

      Chris, this kind of behaviour occurred fairly frequently at the time. I was a teacher for a few years, shortly after “the strap” was banned in schools, and was surprised at how many teachers thought it shouldn’t have been.
      It’s a long time ago now, and while it definitely had an effect on me, that’s long since passed I’m glad to say!
      Thanks so much for your sweet comment.

  10. It blows my mind that such horrible treatment was part of “teaching”, Yvonne. My parents had similar experiences and have often shared the sad details.

    So glad you’ve reach the other side though…and can look back on it without anger.

    With blessings,

    1. Author

      Dani, I truly hope that his behaviour would not be tolerated nowadays. Thanks for your comment. (And sorry I missed it till now!)

  11. Oh my word, Yvonne. I cannot even imagine what this must have been like. My daughter’s experience this year pales in comparison to this terror. I am so, so sorry you had to endure this tyrant.

    Thank you for highlighting my post. I’m sorry if it caused you any pain and prompted those memories.

    1. Author

      Melissa there is no need to be sorry! Any pain that came to the surface when I read your post was ready to go, and thinking and writing about this helped me understand myself back then. So thank you for your post!

  12. Pingback: Make Friends With Your Inner Bully | Yvonne Spence

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