The Teacher is Teachin’ the Golden Rule*

The relationships young people have with their teachers can impact them for life. For good or bad, teachers can have a powerful influence. Even if they don’t, students do notice them and take note of their attitudes and what they say and do. It’s not surprising that that relationship (and that influence) would show up in crime fiction, since it’s so fundamental for a lot of people.

Agatha Christie explores that dynamic in Cat Among the Pigeons, which is set mostly at Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. The summer term is about to begin, and the head of the school, Honoria Bulstrode, is expecting a routine term. It turns out to be everything but that. First, Grace Springer, the new games mistress, is shot late one night. Then, there’s a kidnapping. And another murder. Worried parents pull their daughters out of the school, and there’s a real possibility of the school having to close. One of the pupils, Julia Upjohn, visits Hercule Poirot, whom she’s heard of through a friend of her mother’s. She tells him what’s going on and shows him a discovery she’s made. Poirot sees that there is real danger at the school, and he begins to investigate. He finds that the events at the school are linked to a revolution in a faraway country, and to some stolen gems. Throughout the novel, we see how the different teachers interact with the students and speak and write about them. Overall, the teachers really do care about the students, and the students are well aware of their teachers’ feelings. It makes an effective thread through the story.

In Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, we are introduced to Lucy Pym, a former teacher of French who’s been catapulted to fame by her best-selling book on psychology. Her former schoolmate, Henrietta Hodge, is now the principal of Leys College, a physical training college for girls. Miss Hodge invites Miss Pym to deliver a lecture to the seniors at her school, and Miss Pym accepts. She’s soon more or less adopted by the students and is persuaded to stay for two weeks, until graduation. At first, the students seem like normal adolescents, and the school a healthy, supportive place for them. It’s clear that Miss Hodge is devoted to her students, and she’s not the only one. And it’s easy to see that the students benefit from their relationships with the teachers. But as the novel goes on, Miss Pym begins to sense that something is going on, and she picks up on an undercurrent of tension at the school. Little by little the story builds up to a tragedy, and Miss Pym is caught up in it.

Of course, not all teacher/student relationships are positive. For example, Kinae Minatao’s Confessions begins as middle school teacher and single mother Yūko Moriguchi addresses her class. In part, she’s gathered the class together to announce her retirement. But she has another agenda. Her four-year-old daughter Manami has recently died in what everyone thinks was a tragic drowning accident. But Yūko knows better. She knows that Manami was murdered by two of her students, and she knows which students are responsible. Yūko is convinced that the Japanese judicial system won’t punish Manami’s killers appropriately, because they are juveniles. So, she’s put into place her own plan, and although she doesn’t state it in so many words, her intention is not lost on her students. She finishes her speech and duly leaves her position. Yoshiteru Terada takes over the class, and he works very hard to befriend the students and support them. But things don’t go as planned. Before long, things begin to spin out of control, and in the end, there’s more tragedy. It’s a dark look at middle school life and at education in the Japanese system.

Samantha Downing’s For Your Own Good takes place mostly at Bentley Academy, an ultra-exclusive school in the Northeast US. Students there are preparing for the most prestigious universities, and they’re under a great deal of pressure to be the best. Their teachers know them personally, work with them, and want them to succeed. Among those teachers is Teddy Crutcher, who teaches English, and has recently won the school’s Teacher of the Year Award. Crutcher wants his students to really learn, and he wants to get the best out of them. He has no patience for students who aren’t willing to do the work, and who hide behind their wealth and privilege. He doesn’t have much patience, either, for parents who enable their children and ‘rescue them.’ But, like the other teachers, he is under pressure to give high grades. Despite this, most of the teachers do care about the students. Then, Ingrid Ross, mother of one of the students, is murdered at an important school event. The evidence leads to her daughter Courtney, and the police make the arrest. There are plenty of people, though, including Courtney’s friend Zach Ward, who think she’s innocent. As the story goes on, we gradually learn more and more about the school, the teachers, their interactions with pupils, and how those interactions impact everyone. 

And then there’s Brannavan Gnanalingham’s Sprigs, which features St. Luke’s College, an exclusive school for boys in Wellington. One Saturday, the school’s rugby team is up against their arch-rival in a key match. St. Luke’s wins, and some of the team members decide to celebrate by having a party at the home of one of the players. Word quickly gets around, and a lot of local teens attend. One of them is Priya Gaianan, a Year 10 student at St. Simeons. While she’s at the party, Priya gets separated from the friends she came with, and ends up being gang-raped by four of the St. Luke’s students. As if that’s not enough, someone recorded the rape, and the video soon makes the rounds on social media. When the press gets hold of the story, St. Luke’s is faced with a publicity nightmare. Tragically, Piya’s trauma and distress don’t end up being nearly as important to the school as are the reputations of its students, many of whom are the children of privilege. Throughout the novel we see how that privilege impacts the student/teacher relationships at the school. We also see how several teachers are torn between their revulsion at what happened and their desire to support the boys in their classes.

There are a lot of other novels, too, in which we see the power of interactions between students and teachers (might I suggest, for instance, Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark). That makes sense, given how important those relationships are. Which novels have stayed with you?

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chuck Berry’s School Days.


18 thoughts on “The Teacher is Teachin’ the Golden Rule*

  1. Another great topic. You are so right about the influence teachers have. I had some great teachers and very few bad experiences, but those bad experiences can stay with you for a long time.

    Cat Among the Pigeons is a favorite of mine. I like the school setting and of course that it is a Poirot story. I have read all of Tey’s books but Miss Pym disposes is one I plan to reread. The others in your post sound interesting too.

    I looked through some books I read that had a school setting but they mostly centered on teachers and those relationships, not the children. One good example is A Murder of Quality by John le Carre.

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    1. You’re quite right, Tracy. Teachers can really leave a powerful impression, whether it’s a good one or a bad one. And yes, those experiences do stay with a person for a long time. I’m glad you like Cat Among the Pigeons; I think it’s a very good story, and it doesn’t get the attention that some of Christie’s other work does. Thanks, too, for mentioning A Murder of Quality. I have to admit I’ve not read that one yet, but I’d like to.

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  2. So funny… having told you on your latest YT video that theatre based stories are one of my least favourite, here you are with one of my favourite themes! I love two of the books you mention, Cat Among the Pigeon and Miss Pym Disposes. Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris is a ‘big’ favourite, and I remember liking The Chatham School Affair by Thomas H. Cook a lot. Another one that springs to mind is Laurels are Poison by Gladys Mitchell. I’ll be looking up the three books you’ve talked about that I haven’t read.

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    1. Isn’t it funny, Cath, how certain topics really appeal to people, and others don’t? I like academic/education themes, too, and I’ve always thought Cat Among the Pigeons is terrific, and so is Miss Pym Disposes. Thanks also for mentioning the Cook and the Mitchell. You remind me that it’s been a while since I read a Mitchell; I should get back to her work.

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  3. It’s a pity that more of Kanae Minato’s books haven’t been translated – assuming she’s written more, that is – since the two that have been, Confessions and Penance, were both interesting. Teachers are so influential, especially at a young age. Despite my generally terrible memory, I still remember several of my early teachers and their guidance both in books and in “life lessons” – mostly positive memories, though not always!

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    1. I agree about Minato’s work, FictionFan; she has talent. She has written other things, but as you say, they haven’t been translated. I hope they are soon. As for teachers, I know just what you mean. They really leave an impression, and they do give ‘life lessons’ as well as school content. This is why I think it’s so important that teachers take their ‘role model’ status seriously. It does matter.

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  4. Having taught for most of my working career I appreciated this post and it reminded me that in the back of one of my drawers is a first draft set in a school. Thanks, Margot for an inspiring post.

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    1. Thanks, Carol – I’m really glad you enjoyed the post. And with your experience, you know all the ins and outs of education. I’ll bet your story will be truly authentic, and I hope you dust it off!

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  5. I can recall a lot of my teachers Margot but I don’t think any of them were especially inspiring. I keep meaning to read Danny King’s School for Scumbags! One day!

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  6. There are certain teachers whom I remember with a lot of affection and gratitude till date, Margot. Some were not good but I don’t really think about them though I wish they had risen above their prejudices. I like academic settings in a mystery, however Confessions and Sprigs sound nightmarish. Don’t think I want to read them. Drowning a child, raping a girl : young students or monsters!! And someone recording rape and putting it on social media: what is the world coming to?!

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    1. Springs is a very difficult book to read on that score, Neeru. I believe it’s well-written, and the portrayal of the privileged boys at St. Luke’s feels authentic. But, yes, it is very hard to read. Confessions isn’t easy, either. Again, it’s well-written, but we certainly see the dark side of school in it. I’m very glad you had some good experiences with your teachers. Even if they weren’t all good teachers, you have some fond memories, and I think that counts for a lot.

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  7. Margot; Thanks for an interesting post. I just went back to St. Peter’s College for a 50+ reunion (we could not get together for the 50th because of the pandemic in 2020). Three years (1970, 1971 and 1972) were combined. There were not a lot in attendance but I was very glad I attended. A highlight was seeing one of my high school English teachers, Bede (Brother Bede during my high school days) at the reunion. I have long realized the influence those teachers at St. Peter’s had on my life but, until he spoke, I had not thought about the impact we had upon the teachers. I was a little embarrassed at my self-centeredness.

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    1. I’m very glad, Bill, that you had a chance to return to St. Peter’s. The pandemic put a stop to a lot of those events, and it’s nice that they’re happening again. I’m glad to hear, too, that you got the chance to talk to your former English teacher. I often think that it’s only in hindsight that we come to see that influence is mutual, and we can think about the impact of what we say and do on others. It sounds as though you had a good time at the reunion.

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