For You Are the Wind Beneath My Wings*

Inspirational TeachersIf you’ve ever had a teacher who really made a positive difference in your life, you know how important that can be. In today’s world, some students spend more time with their teachers than they do with their parents, and a skilled teacher has a great deal of insight into the characters of her or his students. Sometimes those insights can be very useful, too. Let me just share a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

Much of Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons takes place at Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. The school is rocked one summer by several events. First, there’s the shooting death of games mistress Grace Springer. Then there’s the kidnapping of one of the students. Then there’s another murder. Throughout all of this, the school’s headmistress Honoria Bulstrode puts the welfare of her staff and pupils above everything else as she works with the police and later, with Hercule Poirot, to find out what’s behind all of these occurrences. Part of the story is told from her perspective, and in that, we see just how devoted she is to each student. She knows her pupils, she understands their strengths and needs and she has earned their respect.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook introduces readers to lexicographer and amateur detective Gideon Fell. In this novel, recent university graduate Tad Rampole has been advised by his mentor to visit Fell and he makes plans to do so. On his way to Fell’s home in Chatterham, Rampole meets Dorothy Starberth and becomes smitten with her. When he finally meets Fell, he learns an interesting fact about the Starberth family. For two generations, members of the family were Governors at nearby Chatterham Prison, which has now fallen into disuse. Although the family is no longer associated with the prison, they’ve retained one custom from those years. On the night of his twenty-fifth birthday, each Starberth heir spends the night in the Governor’s Room at the abandoned prison. While there, he opens the safe in the room and follows the instructions on a note that’s there. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy Starberth’s brother Martin. His twenty-fifth birthday ends in tragedy though, when he is killed by what seems like a fall from the balcony of the Governor’s Room. Rampole has been keeping vigil with Fell, and the two of them work with Chief Constable Sir Benjamin Arnold to find out who killed the victim and why. Throughout this novel we see how Rampole’s mentor and Gideon Fell both take a personal interest in the young man. Admittedly that’s not the main plot of the story, but it’s a thread that runs through it.

In Margaret Millar’s Mermaid, twenty-two-year-old Cleo Jasper visits the law offices of Smedler, Downs, Castleberg, MacFee & Powell. As she tells junior attorney Tom Aragon, she’s there to learn about her rights. Very quickly Aragon notices that Cleo is not like other young women; in fact, she has a form of mental retardation. She’s fairly high-functioning though, and seems to be doing well. She attends Holbrook Hall, an exclusive day school for students with certain special needs. When Cleo disappears, her older brother Hilton asks Aragon to find her and persuade her to return home. Aragon is no private investigator, but he agrees to ask some questions. One of the places he visits is Holbrook Hall, where he meets Rachel Holbrook, head of the school. She has a ‘dragon lady’ reputation, but it’s clear that she knows her students well and cares about them. Through her, he learns that the teacher who knows Cleo best is Roger Lennard. At first Aragon makes the obvious inference about Lennard’s interest in Cleo, but when he finds out that Lennard’s gay, he knows he’s wrong about that. What he does learn though is that it’s been Lennard who has supported Cleo’s drive towards understanding her rights and being independent. That new way of thinking plays a major role in the rest of the events of the story.

One of the plot threads in Tony Hillerman’s Sacred Clowns concerns the murder of a high school shop teacher Eric Dorsey. Dorsey does his best to inspire his students to create things that are useful as well as aesthetically appealing. He cares about his students and is quick to encourage them. When he is murdered, there isn’t much to go on at first, but Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee find that his death is related to a missing teenager, a murder at an important ceremonial event, and some underhanded business dealings.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring. Academic and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn may get exasperated with her students at times, but she is dedicated to them. We see that commitment in this novel, where Reed Gallagher, one of Kilbourn’s colleagues in the Department of Journalism is murdered. One key to the murder might be in the person of Kellee Savage, a journalism student who is also in Bowen’s class. When Kellee stops coming to class, Kilbourn gets concerned and asks around among her other students. Bit by bit she learns that Kellee had been out with some of them on the evening she disappeared. Kilbourn starts tracing the young woman’s movements and discovers that they’re closely related to Gallagher’s murder. As Kilbourn works with the students, we can see that she cares about them, wants to support them, and has high expectations for them. Here’s what one says:

 

‘Kibourn’s all right. She’s kinda like my coach – tough but generally pretty fair.’

 

It’s especially meaningful because it’s not said within Kilbourn’s earshot.

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we meet Ilse Klein, who is a secondary school teacher. One of her most promising students is fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. Even though she’s not supposed to ‘pay favourites’ among her students, she can’t help but be delighted in Serena’s promise and her passion for learning. For her part, Serena likes Ilse also and respects her. Although she doesn’t quite put it in these terms, she gets the vital message that she has worthwhile ideas, and that she can be somebody as the saying goes. For Serena, this is the first time an adult has really taken an interest in her. Then everything changes. Serena stops caring about school, stops coming to class and stops participating when she is there. Ilse is very concerned, and at one pivotal point, reports her concerns to the school’s counselor. That decision plays a critical role in the rest of the story, and Ilse’s concern for Serena is key when Serena disappears.

There are a lot of other novels in which a dedicated and caring teacher has a real influence on a student – in a positive way. And if you’ve ever had a teacher like that, you know it happens in real life too.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jeff Silbar and Larry Henry’s Wind Beneath My Wings, made perhaps most famous by Bette Midler, although it’s been recorded by many other artists too.

32 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, John Dickson Carr, Margaret Millar, Paddy Richardson, Tony Hillerman

32 responses to “For You Are the Wind Beneath My Wings*

  1. Just finished reading The Woman Upstairs earlier today (not really a crime fiction novel, although it had me captivated), which features a very different kind of teacher. Good with children, perhaps, maybe an above-average teacher, but oh, what lurks underneath that mild, forgettable exterior…

    • Marina Sofia – Oh, that sounds deliciously engaging. And there are of course teachers like that. After all, there are people like that in every profession. Now you’ve made me think too of novels where teachers aren’t what they seem. In fact that’s another post in and of itself I think.

  2. Some great examples there Margot – inevitably, a lot of crime novels based on campus tend to focus on the potential for internecine turf wars but it is great to celebrate the impact of a great teacher – i was certainly very lucky in my education and remain very grateful to my English lit professor, who sadly is no longer with us but who made a huge difference to many of us – a very happy thought indeed, Thanks Margot – really enjoyed your podcast by the way, though it sounded like you had a bit of a cold!!

    • Sergio – Sorry – yes, I did have a cold. Just terrible timing, but I soldiered through it. Thanks for the kind words. I’ve had some great teachers, too, and one of them was one of my uni English profs too. Sadly, he’s no longer with us either, but he had a real impact on my way of thinking and reading and learning from my reading. Can’t ask more than that. And I think it’s always worth remembering those teachers who’ve changed our lives that way.

  3. Interesting post, Margot. I think Keishon just mentioned Margaret Millar too: she’s on my radar now. And on the topic of the title of your post, I was in HS in the era of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” for lots of end-of-year banquets for school/athletic seasons, etc.

    • Rebecca – Oh, that song was so popular for those events wasn’t it? And I think it is a terrific song. I do recommend Millar’s work. It’s not exactly uplifting; she tends to go for the noirish psychological approach. But fascinating and she had a great feel (I think) for characters and suspense building. I hope you’ll like her work.

  4. I love crime books set in educational establishments of all kinds – I think that’s a taste we share? – and over the past couple of years I’ve really enjoyed discovering the books of Christine Poulson, who writes about Cassandra James, a Cambridge acacemic who comes across various crimes. Cassandra takes her teaching role just as seriously as her sleuthing, and is shown having a great relation with her pupils.

    • Moira – I’m so very glad you mentioned Poulson’s work. I intend to do a spotlight on one of her Cassandra James novels, so watch this spot. And I love it that James cares that much about her students. So does K.B. Owen’s Concordia Wells. I think that trait is important for excellent teaching, and it adds to a novel. And yes, we do share a taste for academic novels. :-)

  5. Hi Margot,
    To answer your question about a favourite teacher. I did have one. She was my 9th grade English teacher who encouraged me like no other in the class. It was my first inkling that there may be something to writing. I impressed her by reciting a poem by ee cummings. She asked me why I had chosen it, expecting something so telling. I may have disappointed as I remember saying it was because I loved cats. :) Such is life. Great post as usual.

  6. Yes, Margot, I remember several of my teachers – from elementary school through college – who actually managed to open the world for me. My love for reading, I suspect, was engendered by those teachers. As far as fictional schools…well, that’s something of a mixed bag. I can think of mysteries with unpopular and unpleasant teachers (Nicholas Blake’s “A Question of Proof”) or where an outsider comes into a school and makes a positive impression (Gladys Mitchell’s “Tom Brown’s Body”), but it’s often more a matter of setting, or perhaps picking a victim, rather than a teacher with a positive impact. Another thought-provoking post!

    • Les – Thanks for the kind words. And I’m glad you had good teachers who helped to open your mind. That’s what teachers are supposed to do. As you say, we don’t always see that in crime fiction. There are definitely some novels where the teacher isn’t, shall we say, a positive influence. And then there are those novels where the setting is more important than are the teacher characters. Your examples show this clearly, so thanks for them.

  7. OH I hate that song. Really hate it. I used to date a guy who was heavily into karaoke and I spent a lot of time hanging out at karaoeke nights where invariably someone who couldn’t sing to save themselves would pick that song and break my ears with it. I can’t listen to it at all now – even when sung by someone who doesn’t sound like a dying cat :(

    On the subject of teachers I had a couple of great ones in high school and I still think of them fondly. One taught me to love maps (geography teacher) and one taught me at least half of what I know about being a grown up – she also got me into debating which was one of the best things that could happen to a natural introvert.

    As far as crime fiction goes I can’t think of any examples of inspiring teachers but one of the reasons I loved Amanda Curtin’s ELEMENTAL ( historical fiction novel I read this year) was that its central character had a much-needed positive influence from her small village’s one-classroom teacher.

    • Bernadette – Sorry for the choice of song. I’ve got songs that grate on my nerves like that too. Hopefully I may be forgiven.
       
      I’m very glad you had some excellent teachers in high school. It sounds as though they helped to show you what you are capable of, and that’s part of what great teachers do. I was in our high school’s debate group too; it was a good experience.
       
      And thanks for reminding me of Elemental. I’ve been wanting to read that, and your excellent review made me even keener to do so. It really sounds like a wonderful book.

  8. oh it’s not your fault I hate that song Margot so nothing to be forgiven for

  9. Unlike Bernadette, I have a soft spot for the song, ever since hearing a Thai cover band’s version in an airport hotel in Bangkok, which built to the glorious crescendo, ‘Fry, fry, fry so high I touch the sky :-)

    I look forward to your bad teachers post, Margot. Will you go with ‘Don’t stand so close to me’ or ‘Everybody screamed when I kissed the teacher’ for that one?!

    • Angela – Oh, I can just imagine what that cover band song must have sounded like! And thanks for the lyrics idea for a post on bad teachers. Both are excellent choices.

  10. I’m currently reading Elizabeth Spann Craig’s “A Body in the Backyard” where octogenarian Myrtle Clover is a retired English teacher who solves mysteries. She seems to have taught everyone in the town where she lives. It is a charming story and I’m enjoying it. I intend to review the book in coming days.

    • Prashant – Oh, I’m so glad you’re enjoying it. I enjoy the Myrtle Clover sereis very much, and yes, she’s taught just about everyone in town. And in more than one of the novels, you see that she really cares about her former students.

  11. Col

    I’m with Bernadette here re that song, sung properly it makes my ears bleed, let alone some karaoke guy or gal with about 10 pints of lager inside them trying to nail it.

    Second recent hat-tip to Margaret Millar, I’ve seen (cheers Keishon) – if I spot her name a 3rd time, I’ll buy something!

    Can’t recall any of my teachers having a Robin Williams – Dead Poet’s Society effect on me. I remember best the ones that crossed me in some minor and trivial fashion, no doubt.

    • Col – Let’s face it; no one song appeals to everyone any more than any one book does. And I do hope you get the chance to try some of Margaret Millar’s work. She had talent in my opinion.
       
      Funny you’d mention Dead Poets Society. That’s such a great example of the kind of inspiration that a lot of teachers dream of being. And some students do have wonderful memories of teachers like that. I think there are a lot of other students though, who like you, remember teachers they really disliked. Interesting perspective!

  12. Interesting the emotions that song elicits. I think I like it because Willie Nelson covered it.

    I would not have gone to college had my high school math teacher not pushed me and my parents in that direction. And my life would have been much different if I had not gone to college. I remember her and her support and belief in me very fondly.

    • Tracy – I’m very glad you had such strong support from your teacher. As your experience shows, that kind of support makes all the difference in the world, doesn’t it? Teachers really can have a powerful impact.
       
      And about the song? Yes it certainly does elicit a lot of strong feeling.

  13. I have a copy of Hillerman’s Sacred Clowns in my bookcase but haven’t read it yet. I’m so far behind in my reading (whimper).

    One of the most fun series I’ve read starring a teacher is the Bonnie Pinkwater math teacher mysteries by Robert Spiller. Bob has taken time off from writing, but I sure hope he comes back to Bonnie Pinkwater one of these days.

    • Pat – Oh, I’ve heard good things about the Bonnie Pinkwater series. Now you’ve reminded me that I still haven’t tackled it yet. Way too many books and too little time *sigh.*
       
      And I do hope you get the chance to read Sacred Clowns. Of course, I’m a Hillerman fan, so I’m biased. Still…

  14. Fascinating post, Margot. I echo Lesley’s comment with a memory of an eleventh-grade English teacher who gave me great insights into novels, also art and beauty in general. As I recall his favorite was Steinbeck – a good choice!
    As for the academic setting, somehow I remember a book called In the Shadow of Kings, by Nora Kelly, which as I recall was more about internecine academic warfare than inspirational teachers, alas.

    • Bryan – Thanks. I’m so glad that you had a fine English teacher. That sort of inspiration can make all the difference in the world in helping young people discover reading, writing, and expression. And I agree – Steinbeck is an excellent choice!
       
      Thanks also for the mention of In the Shadow of Kings. Good memory, as it’s all about the not-so-pleasant world of academia. And that topic is post-worthy in itself!

  15. I had two wonderful English teachers to whom I owe a lot.
    I don’t think anyone’s mentioned one of my all-time favourite crime novels: Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, set in a teacher training college (used to work in one myself!)

    • Chrissie – I’m very glad you mentioned that novel, as it’s qutie relevant and a good story. Thanks for filling in that gap. And I’m happy for you that you had supportive English teachers. I had a few of them too and it makes all the difference.

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