The final morning of term; excited thoughts of the holidays ahead tempered only by the thought of the long-awaited, oft-dreaded final House assembly of the academic year.
The girls of Oswald House file in, fifty or so of them, taking their places in the rows of the banked lecture hall. On the table at the front: five distinct piles of crisp papers, holding their fates.
They sit, wait. For once, there’s no need for the Head of House to call for silence as the Housemaster arrives.
His usual mix of announcements, encouragement and admonishments. His round-up of the school year now finishing, its occasional highs and inevitable lows. His best wishes to those leaving, his encouragement for the year ahead to those due back. But his girls aren’t really listening: they’re watching the piles of papers.
“Now,” he says, at long last. “It’s time to hand out your reports.”
The first pile. For those whose performance has been rated ‘Outstanding’. The smallest stack, the most sought-after. One-by-one, in alphabetical order, he reads out their names. They walk to the front – applause is appropriate for these most diligent girls, as the Housemaster shakes them by the hand and passes across each report in turn.
‘Very Good’ follows. More in this camp: hard-working, achieving good results. Smiles, back-slapping as the girls make their way in turn to the table to receive their Housemaster’s congratulations.
Three piles left. Two bringing safety. He calls out the ‘Good’ girls. Sighs of relief; nervous smiles . Good enough to see them to safety. No Housemasterial handshakes for this group: ‘Good’ is, after all, what’s expected at St. Christina’s. Par for the course, not something to be celebrated unduly.
Nigh on twenty now-terrified girls left, dreading the difference between the two remaining stacks of reports. There are more girls in the “Adequate” camp, of course. Bright girls whose results shone less luminously than they might have, mixed with those whose efforts during the year had merely sufficed.
But eyes, comforting hands, re-assuring whispers focus not on this procession, but on those few girls who realise as the list is read that the alphabet has passed them by: that they’re left in the final pile.
“I’m sorry to see that we have five girls this year whose performance has been rated as ‘Disappointing’.” He reads out their names, as if their categorisation might have escaped their notice, and asks them to stand. Almost as an aside, he passes his best wishes to the House for the summer. “And now I’d like the five of you to accompany me to my study,” before turning and leaving the room.
They stumble out of their rows, making sure they’re not left behind. He leads them apace across the sunny courtyard, up the narrow stairs. Invites them to wait in the dark corridor until he calls their name. Heads into his study alone.
They hear him inside: drawers opening, furniture scraping. Then he calls out the first name.
He tells her to leave the door ajar: “After all, you all understand why you’re here.” The conversation is quiet, too murmured for those outside to pick out the words, although the tone is quite clear enough. As is the swish through the air, and the four resounding cracks that follow.
They hear a stapler: they’ll each find that this pins a yellow form to their report, informing their parents of the punishment that had taken place, and cajoling them to ensure that they return their girl for the autumn term suitably motivated and focused.
And then the second girl replaces the first, and the third the second, and only Molly and Nicola remain. They hold hands as their predecessor takes her strokes. How hard they sound! How painful, they remember – neither girl here for the first time in this disappointing year, although both had prayed that their previous visit would be their last. Four strokes, then – to their tearful dismay – a fifth, a sixth.
And then she is out, and he pauses as if weighing up which girl to put into, and out of, her misery first.
Nicola’s name is called. Molly, left to face her fears alone, to fight the temptation to run. The lecture, once more, barely audible from inside the study. Six strokes, once again, the fifth-former’s cries clear through the open door, as Molly’s hands rub her own bottom in protective anticipation.
The stapling of the punishment notice. The muffled “Sorry, Sir.” The passing of girls in the corridors, eyes averted.
And then the final girl takes her turn, raising her skirt, bending over that dreaded chair in front of her Housemaster’s desk, a year of chiding and warnings culminating in a very different farewell to this school year than last year’s “Outstanding” result.