And All the Playing’s Stopped in the Playground Now*

You may or may not know this about me, but in my ‘day job’ life, I’m a teacher educator. I work with pre-service teachers, and with in-service teachers who are seeking an advanced degree. I’ve been in schools at various levels for a long time (and that’s not even to mention the schools in which I was taught). The one thing that seems to be true of just about all of the schools I know of is that schools are communities. Some are more functional than others, but they’re all communities.

So, when something tragic happens at a school, it strikes deeply. Trust me. At the first school where I taught, a student committed suicide. No-one at the school was left untouched. At another place where I taught, one student killed another. Again, we were all shattered. Nothing was quite the same afterwards in either case. And the fact is, even if schools bring in grief counselors and other experts, there is still a sense that something has been irretrievably broken. And if you think about it, it has.

We see this in a lot of crime fiction that’s based in an academic setting. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons is set at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls school. At the beginning of the summer term, the new games mistress is murdered. Then, there’s a kidnapping. And another murder. Soon, parents are pulling their daughters out of the school, and there’s a real chance it will have to close. Honoria Bulstrode, the school’s founder and headmistress, believes the school can survive, but it’s clear as the novel goes on that it’s not going to be the same. The entire community is impacted by what’s happened.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a now-retired academic. In the early novels of this series, we get to know the campus where Joanne works. There is a sense of community there, so in A Killing Spring, the campus is appalled at some anti-gay vandalism to one of the buildings. As if that’s not enough, a student is murdered. Everyone is upset by the events, and there’s a sense that the campus isn’t going to be the same.

That’s also the case in Brannavan Gnanalingam’s Sprigs, which is set in the community of St. Luke’s, an exclusive New Zealand boys school. One Saturday night, several of the members of St. Luke’s rugby team get together for an end-of-term party. Among the people at the party is Priya Gaianon, who attends another school. While the party is going on, Priya is gang-raped by four of the St. Luke’s boys, and the incident is recorded. The news is going to be terrible for St. Luke’s reputation, so there are some who want to keep the whole thing quiet. But the fact is, that sort of tragedy can’t help but affect the school community. It also has an impact on the school Priya attends. It’s an awful situation, and Gnanalingham shows how one horrific event can leave permanent scars.

There’s also Samantha Downing’s For Your Own Good, which takes place at Belmont Academy. On the surface, the school is a real community. But, after the mother of one of the students is murdered, everything starts to change. Then there’s another murder. Before long, the whole atmosphere at Belmont changes, and it’s soon clear that there’s more going on at the school than it seems. It’s just as clear that the Belmont community is never going to be the same.

The worst thing is that these tragedies don’t just happen in books. They happen in real schools, with real students and real teachers. A few days ago, 19 students and two teachers were murdered in a Dallas elementary school. It’s not the first set of murders in a school, but this one has hit especially hard. Nineteen children will now not have the chance to learn to drive, to have their first official snog/makeout session, to go to university, to find life paths, or anything else. There will be no proud photos of graduation caps and gowns or university trophies or new grandchildren. Two teachers will no longer be able to awaken minds to learning, or to proudly watch as students move on to successful lives. They’ll never have the satisfaction of retiring, knowing that they have truly given to the future. This has been devastating for the school community, and even more so for the families of those lost. I know from my own experience that awful events change a school community forever. I can only hope that the members of that community can find ways to help each other get through this.

This isn’t intended to be a political commentary (so please, please, don’t get political). It’s some thoughts on the impact on school communities when something like this happens, from someone who’s been a member of such communities for a long time. Perhaps it’s also partly my way of facing my grief about what happened. Something important has been changed and lost, and even as I hurt terribly for those who lost friends and loved ones, I also hope that there’s a way to forge some sort of hope and strength from all of this. In the meantime, I don’t have words for the enormity of the loss. I wish peace and comfort to those left behind.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Boomtown Rats’ I Don’t Like Mondays.