Painful As It Is

February 3, 1897
Edith Bowen

My evenings are filled with tending to the girls unfortunate enough to have crossed a teacher during their day at school. Most tell stories of being punished for minor and inconsequential mistakes and the administration of further discipline from me merely adds insult to injury. Even the best behaved of girls seem unable to avoid the wrath of the Primrose teachers in recent days. Where hope and excitement had accompanied our return, all is quickly becoming bleak despair.

For myself, I could smell it coming like rain in the air on a cloudy day. From the moment I sat up in bed I knew it was going to be a difficult one. I dropped my hairbrush whilst brushing my hair and then as I dressed, two of the buttons came off my dress. If that were not enough, I left the buckles on my shoes undone and nearly fell down the stairs as I stepped out of them on my way to breakfast.

The school day started out surprisingly well in contrast to my morning. It was not until the afternoon when my feeling of dread returned. At first, I attributed it to my mixed emotions in regards to Mr. Stark. Our time together gave me new insight into his character which has left me confused as to my own feelings toward him. When his condescending tone falls upon me and his egotistical words berate me I find myself as likely to smile as frown in response.

“In all my years teaching I have never encountered a more pathetic student.” Mr. Stark said.

There was no doubt in anyone’s minds of whom he was referring. He slapped his open palm on my desk making everyone jump. He barely glanced at me, but instead paced the floor in front of me like a caged lion. It was plain enough to see, he was working himself up to something.

Unfair as it is, I have become accustomed to being the target of his verbal assaults in class. I am after all the only female in his senior English course. While I will not be the first Primrose Girl to graduate, there are not many who have come before me and I am the only one who will do so this year. I comfort myself with those facts and the pride that comes with them.

“Your penmanship is on par with a two year old and your vocabulary is only slightly better. If you have an original thought in your head, you have failed miserably to express it on any level.” Mr. Stark continued.

I might have shed tears for such comments prior to the Christmas holiday, but now I understand. He attacks my work because it is unacceptable for my work to ever be better than the young men’s whom I share the classroom with. Every insult is a compliment in disguise.

I smiled despite the sour words.

“Why are you smiling? Are you an idiot? Do you find your failures amusing or do you think a pretty smile will make it all better? I have news for you little girl; in my classroom, brains matter more than beauty.” Mr. Stark said.

My smile faded, but only slightly. Mr. Stark took notice.

“Am I getting through?” He asked.

Everyone waited to hear what I would say. I considered my options carefully, but I did not think I had much to worry about.

“Yes, sir. I will try harder.” I replied.

“No matter how hard you try, you will always fail because a woman simply does not have the brains.” The young man sitting next to me said.

“Precisely.” Mr. Stark said. “Why do you waste our time, Miss Bowen?”

Anger welled up inside me.

“Why do you? You know damn well my work is superior to that of these apes you call students.” I said.

As soon as the words had left my lips I was sorry to have said them. Some thoughts are not meant to have a voice. The slap across my face only served as confirmation.

“Insolent girl! How dare you talk like that in my classroom.” Mr. Stark said.

I chose silence as the lesser of evils.

“Stand up girl.” Mr. Stark ordered.

I did not even think to disobey. A moment later, I was bent over my own desk, facing the classroom and Mr. Stark raised my skirts and lowered my bloomers, giving him alone a view of my nakedness. I blushed for the boys, but did not look at their grinning faces nor meet their intense stares.

I could not see, but from the first stroke, I knew the implement to be his trusty ruler. The modest thwack of the wood against my exposed flesh stung like cold water on a warm day. There were six delivered before tears stung at the corners of my eyes and eight before the first spilled onto my cheeks. At a dozen, my feet were stomping as if the act could help ease the pain and by the eighteenth and final stroke I was a pitiful girl with a blazing bottom. I sobbed remorse whilst staring at the pool of my tears, collected on the chair to my desk.

Mr. Stark sent me to stand the rest of the class in the corner. My red, throbbing, buttocks remained naked and visible for all in the class to see. I was ashamed for the spectacle. Every noise, every breath in the room felt like a commentary on my state and none of it was positive in my thoughts.

When it was all over and the classroom was empty except for the two of us, I decided it was time for truth. I turned to Mr. Stark. His eyes shown with remorse but his expression remained strict.

“I was out of line.” I said.

“Yes, you were.” He replied.

“Why did you bait me?” I asked.

His eyebrow raised.

“Bait you? I did no such thing.” He said.

“I do not mean to be contrarian, but you did indeed and we both know it.” I said.

“Do not presume to know what I know. Arrogance does not suit you Edith.”

“Were it just today and only between you and I, I would not presume anything at all. However, what happened here is only a new version of the same tale I have been hearing from every girl at Primrose. I am not a simpleton.”

“Your behavior today would say otherwise.”

“You are avoiding the subject.”

“Which subject is that?”

“There is something going on with the teachers here at Primrose and I will know what it is whether from you or elsewhere.”

“If you only look to see what you know, you will not see that which is plain to be seen.” Mr. Stark said.

I blinked as I tried to follow his logic or lack of it.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means, your assumptions blind you to the truth at your feet.”

“What truth is that?”

“It is the girls and not the teachers who bring trouble to Primrose.”

“Your phrases are more eloquent but your words are as transparent as Mr. Carrington’s. Ever since we returned from holiday, there has been a surge of discipline, brought about with weak excuses.”

“Your outburst in class was not a weak excuse. Your behavior was uncalled for and inappropriate.”

“Inappropriate, I will concede, but uncalled for I will not. You baited me with absurd accusations of failings and shortcomings you know I do not possess. You insulted me repeatedly until you succeeded in angering me. Had I not said what I did, you would have continued until I said or did something else. Admit it, you were bent on punishing me today.”

“Will it make your words any less wrong?”

“No, but it will make yours easier to bare, if I knew why you spoke them.”

“The reasons are varied and not readily explained. Suffice to say, just as you are not certain you are ready for the world, the world is not certain it is ready for you.”

“Then you have been told to discipline us?”

“Not in so many words, but the fate of Primrose hangs on the actions of a few. If we are harsh and strict, perhaps those few will make the right choices when the time comes.”

“If you would just tell me the whole truth, I could help.”

“You would try, but the ability to make good decisions is something one must learn for themselves.”

I could have pressed on, but I could tell he had said as much as he was going to say. There was truth in his words and wisdom as well. For all the complaints of all the girls, there is one undeniable truth, we are not innocent bystanders, but active participants making choices both wise and unwise. It might well be true, painful as it is, the actions of our teachers may well be for our own good.

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