Saint Bart's is a private Catholic boys school in the large town of Braga, Northern Portugal, about twenty kilometres from the Atlantic coast. The winters can be severe in the north of the country and very cold. It is not unusual to have snow. The school, Escola SecundÃ¡ria de SÃ£o Bartolomeu, to give its proper name, is run by the Dominicans. In the time when these events took place, it was austere and bleak. School uniform was the order of the day, respect and discipline, along with hard work, were the rule.
Mateo was eleven when he arrived there and this was the first time in his life he had been away from home, apart from holidays with his uncle in the south. He would spend the next five years there, and he would find ways to adapt. Mateo even managed to sometimes turn things to his advantage, but he suffered at first.
The school was a group of buildings approached through large imposing wrought iron gates together with a gate house, along a long drive which ended at an equally impressive old stone mansion. This housed the library, the office, and the priests accommodation. There were other buildings, the two main being the classroom block, a rather dilapidated single storey brick building, and the dormitories. Saint Bart's was a boarding school.
Discipline was strict and not long into the school year Mateo soon discovered exactly what that meant. It was the year head, for the first years, this was Father Thomas, who was responsible for discipline. Boys who had misbehaved would have to report to him over at the big house, as it was called. Being sent to Father Thomas, or for that matter any of the priests for discipline, was something every schoolboy dreaded, but very few avoided.
Whilst studying was hard work, there were sports, and clubs for music, or literature, there was also a chess club. So there was some free time to pursue an interest deemed to be worthy for the boys education. Even the dormitories were not so bad, with large bedrooms shared by no more than six or occasionally seven boys. Later in years three and four, as you progressed through the school, the bedrooms were shared with smaller numbers.
The worst thing for Mateo was having to wear short trousers and a cap, this was the regulation uniform for the first two years. There were two huge drawbacks to wearing short trousers; they left your legs freezing in the bitter wind of the winter, and it was a habit of the teachers to slap the backs of boys legs if they found them not paying attention, or committing other misdemeanours. This happened to Mateo when he got called out to the front of the class by no less than Father Thomas himself, for chatting to the boy next to him when he should have been reading.
The teacher's desk was on a raised platform at the front of the class, and Mateo was ordered to bend over the wooden desk. Right there in front of the whole class, whilst Father Thomas lectured him and the rest of the boys. He didn't dare move or look to see, but he was sure all eyes were focused on him. And he was right. Only Pascoal, his new friend, didn't want to watch, but he too felt obliged as Father Thomas surveyed the class.
When finally the class lecture was finished, Father Thomas moved around the desk, positioning himself to the front and placing a hand on Mateo's back. He learnt forward bringing the palm of his right hand smartly down to smack first one leg, then the other. The smacks reverberated throughout the classroom, the only sound. Father Thomas swiftly smacked the tops of Mateo's legs repeatedly, until no doubt, he was satisfied the boy had learnt his lesson.
He pulled him up straight, grabbing the collar of his blazer. To make Mateo's shame and embarrassment complete, he made him face the blackboard, his back to the classroom. In that position on the platform, everyone could see how red the back of the boy's legs were. Father Thomas then turned him around to face all of the other boys who were staring at him. Mateo had his head lowered looking at his feet, he didn't want everyone to see the tears welling up in his eyes. But Father Thomas wasn't having that, he pulled the boy upright with a jolt, and told him, "Look up, boy." So as to emphasise the command, or perhaps to make sure those tears fell, he once more slapped the back of Mateo's legs, once, twice, on each.
Pascoal felt sorry for his friend, because he and all the rest of the class, now saw Mateo crying. Tears dropped down over his cheeks and he sniffled. Satisfied that he had achieved his purpose Father Thomas instructed him, "Get back to your desk, and not another word out of you." Mateo didn't look at anyone as he made his way back, he wiped at his face and tried hard not to let the tears become a flood. Finally he squeezed into the desk next to Pascoal, but avoided looking at his friend. Pascoal had his head down reading, like everyone else, but he nudged Mateo with his knee.
Mateo managed somehow to stop himself bursting into tears. It became easier being back at his desk with no one looking. He shifted forward on the little bench seat so his legs, which felt hot and sore, didn't hurt so much. Then the bell sounded for the end of the period and everyone gathered their books and exited the classroom. Once outside, Mateo became conscious of the soreness of his legs. Pascoal whispered to him, "I'm sorry, that must really have hurt." Mateo managed a little smile as they headed off to their next class.