If 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.