It’s getting to be that spooky time of year that can be the stuff of legends, and that can haunt people for quite some time. Yes, I’m talking about parent/teacher conference time. If your school had parent/teacher conferences, I’m sure you remember what it was like to wait and wonder what the teacher would say about you. And if you have children, you might have had one or two ‘moments’ with a teacher. Parent/teacher conferences serve important purposes (as does the home/school relationship in general), and most of the time, they go smoothly. But they can cause anxiety. And in crime fiction, they can add interesting layers of plot, and even character development.
It used to be the case that parents and teachers really didn’t have conferences unless there was a question or a real problem. But that doesn’t mean parents and teachers had no contact. Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, for instance, begins as pupils are arriving for the beginning of summer term at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. Honoria Bulstrode, who heads the school, meets with a select few parents, but her schedule is busy, so her second-in-command, Eleanor Vansittart, meets with several of the parents, too. And in more than one case, they have to calm nerves, answer detailed questions, and more. There’s even an instance where one parent shows up after having had more than one glass of wine, and tries to pull her daughters out of the school so she can spend more time with them. Managing the parents is, in some ways, more difficult than managing their daughters. And things get even more challenging when the new games mistress is murdered. Then, there’s a kidnapping. And another murder. Soon the school is embroiled in trouble, and one of the pupils visits Hercule Poirot to ask him to investigate. It turns out that the events at the school are linked to a revolution in another country, valuable jewels, and international intrigue.
Peter Robinson’s Gallows View is the first in his series featuring Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks. In one plot thread of the novel, Banks and his team are investigating a series of home invasions and thefts, as well as trying to stop a voyeur who’s been making the lives of local women miserable. Then, there’s a murder. And all of these events may be linked. Banks suspects that a local teenager named Trevor Sharp may be mixed up in at least some of what’s going on, so he visits Trevor’s school. There, he meets with the headmaster, who acknowledges that Trevor’s classwork has been suffering of late, and that he seems to have lost interest in school. He tells Banks,
‘In fact, last parents’ day, I had a long chat with his father, who seemed very concerned. Doesn’t seem to have done much good, though.’
We learn as the story goes on that Trevor’s been spending a lot of time with a delinquent named Mick Webster, and that his father’s been trying to put an end to that relationship, but to no avail. It’s an interesting look at a case where teachers know there’s a problem, parents know there’s a problem, and neither seems to be able to do much about it.
In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we are introduced to fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. She’s a very promising secondary school pupil, and her teacher, Ilse Klein, has high hopes for her. Then, Serena begins to skip school. And when she is there, she doesn’t participate and doesn’t engage herself in lessons. Ilse is concerned about her, especially when she notices bruises on the girl’s arms. School policy dictates that the school counselor gets involved in any case of suspected abuse, and that’s what happens in this case. Things do not go well, though. Serena’s mother resents the school’s interference, especially any intimation that her current boyfriend, Rob, might be responsible. And instead of working with Ilse to help Serena, they resent what they see as meddling. Then, Serena goes missing. Weeks of searching turn up no clues, not even a body. At this point, Serena’s older sister, Lynnette, travels from Wellington, where she’s been living, to her hometown on New Zealand’s South Island. As she searches for her sister, Lynnette slowly learns the truth about what happened, and Ilse Klein finds herself drawn into the case in ways she hadn’t imagined.
The focus of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies is Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The story concerns a group of parents whose children attend Kindergarten at the school. Their teacher, Bec Barnes, is hoping that the school year will be a successful one, but right from the beginning, there’s trouble. One of the most influential parents at the school, Renata Klein, claims that her daughter Amabella was bullied by another child, Ziggy Chapman. On the one hand, if there was bullying, Bec’s obligation is to stop it immediately and take action against the bully. There’s also the fact that Renata has a lot of clout at the school, and it doesn’t do to cross her. On the other hand, Ziggy’s mother, Jane, believes her son when he says he’s innocent. And she’s determined that her son will not get ‘railroaded.’ It makes for some very tense parent/teacher communication, and some difficult decisions. That’s only the beginning, though of a very tense few months, and it all ends up in tragedy during an important Trivia Night fundraising event.
And then there’s Brannavan Gnanalingam’s Sprigs. Two rival Wellington all-boys schools have an important rugby match one afternoon. Several students at the local all-girls school are in the stands watching. One of them is fifteen-year-old Priya. When her friends find out that one of the boys is planning a party that night, they make plans to go. Priya’s reluctant; at the same time, though, she’s eager to be accepted by her friends. So, she agrees. During the party, Priya is gang raped. At first, she doesn’t want to say anything to anyone, but the incident was recorded, and the video is being passed around. It’s horrible for her, and she finally tells her mother and gets the medical help that she needs. The police visit the all-boys school to enlist the help of the teachers and administrators. That proves harder to get than you might think, though, because the administration is concerned about the school’s reputation. One teacher, though, does try to take action. He finds out about what happened, and the boys’ parents are contacted. By and large, their concern isn’t what their sons might have done, though. One of the boys is the son of an important MP who’s far too busy to get involved, and who is angrier at the teacher for confiscating his son’s telephone than he is at what his son is alleged to have done.
Parent/teacher conferences and interactions are supposed to be beneficial, and to a large extent, a solid home/school bond is a positive thing. But it doesn’t always work that way. At least, not in crime fiction…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Nikki and the Human Element’s Don’t Mess Around With My Boy.