In just a matter of weeks, students everywhere will be back in school for the autumn or spring term. And that means that teachers and parents will be negotiating that delicate and very important home/school relationship.
The home/school dynamic is culturally contextual, as most things are. Parents and teachers play different roles, depending on the way the culture values formal education. The dynamic’s also affected by factors such as socioeconomic class, education level of the parents, and the like. But no matter what form the home/school relationship takes, it plays a role in a family’s (and teacher’s) life. And it can add character depth and more to a novel.
Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, for instance, takes place mostly at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. The story opens on the first day of summer term. It’s a day full of activity, with parents arriving throughout the afternoon to bring their daughters to school. Headmistress Honoria Bulstrode and her second-in-command Eleanor Vansittart have their hands full meeting all of the parents, getting the students settled in, and ensuring that everything runs smoothly. It’s busy, but it seems much like the first day of any term. Not long after the beginning of the term, Grace Springer, the new games mistress, is shot in the Sports Pavilion. Then there’s a kidnapping. And another murder. Soon the school is embroiled in a very complex case. There’s one important clue to the case that comes up on that first day, when the teachers are interacting with the parents. But it’s such a busy time that it’s missed…at first. Throughout this novel, there are all sorts of interesting (and sometimes funny) interactions with families. It’s a reminder that there are some things about the home/school dynamic that haven’t changed much in the decades since the novel was written…
In one plot thread of Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, DCI Alan Banks and his team investigate a worrisome series of home invasions, one of which ends in a murder. One important ‘person of interest’ in this case is local teenager Trevor Sharp. He’s an aimless sort of teen who manages to stay clear of the worst sort of trouble but, as is so often said, he doesn’t live up to his potential. Banks decides to visit his school to get more information about the boy. When he does so, he gets some insight into the relationship between Trevor’s home (he’s being raised by a single father) and his school. Mr. Price, Trevor’s form master, has been in contact with Trevor’s father Graham, and says that the father shares his concerns about the boy. Without spoiling the story, I can say that in some ways, Graham Sharp’s reaction is a lot like other parents’ reactions when they’re told their children are struggling or heading for trouble. No-one wants to believe that such a thing is happening, and teachers everywhere can tell stories of trying to work with parents who are not able or willing to accept the truth about their children.
Timothy Hallinan’s The Queen of Patpong gives the reader insights and background on one of the main characters in this series. The protagonist of these novels is ex-pat American travel writer Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty. He’s made a new life for himself in Bangkok, and shares it with his wife Rose, a former bar girl who now owns her own cleaning company. In the course of this novel, we learn more about Rose’s history. One thread of that history involves an interaction between her teacher, Teacher Suttikul, and her father. One day the teacher visits her home to have a discussion with her father. Teacher Suttikul is hoping to persuade Rose’s father to allow her to stay in school and get a scholarship, rather than leave school and get work:
‘‘You know, you have a very smart daughter.’
‘So what?’ her father says… ‘She’s a girl.’
‘There are lots of good jobs for girls these days. She’ll earn plenty of money if she stays in school.’
‘What good does that do anybody? If she makes any money, it’ll go to her husband’s parents, not us.’
… ‘She’ll always take care of you. And I know she can get a good job. Someday she – ’
‘Someday,’ her father says heavily, as though the words are in a foreign language. ‘Someday. My children need food now. The roof needs to be fixed before the next rain comes. We need money now.’’
This conversation shows at a gut level what happens when teachers and parents have very different priorities and values, and different urgent needs.
There’s also a difficult home/school dynamic in Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Ilse Klein is a secondary school teacher in the town of Alexandra, on New Zealand’s South Island. One of her most promising students is fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. She’s engaged and interested, and shows real academic potential – the kind of student teachers everywhere love. Then things begin to change. Ilse notices that Serena has stopped attending class regularly. When she is there, she no longer participates. Increasingly concerned, she tries to get Serena to tell her what’s wrong, but with no success. When her concerns deepen, Ilse lets the school’s counseling staff know – a normal thing to do under the circumstances. But when the counselor, Sally Davis, visits Serena’s family, things go wrong. Here’s what Serena’s mother Char says about it:
‘‘This teacher. This teacher, well, she thought she saw marks on Serena’s arm. You know, uh, bruises? So she told the counsellor at school. Sally Davis, her name is. She came around here –’’
Instead of sharing the school’s concerns and working with the staff, Serena’s mother does little to help, instead defending her live-in boyfriend Rob and trying to make as little of the matter as possible. But it’s not a small matter when Serena disappears. Among other things, this novel depicts the reality of trying to work with very dysfunctional families.
Of course, there are many home/school relationships that go much more smoothly. For example, in Priscilla Masters’ River Deep, we are introduced to Martha Gunn, coroner for Shrewsbury. The main plot of the novel concerns a murder that’s uncovered when the River Severn overflows its banks and flushes a dead man out of the basement of a home he doesn’t own. Gunn works with the police to uncover the truth and untangle what turns out to be a complicated investigation. In a sub-plot of this novel, she has another concern. Her twelve-year-old son Sam shows real promise as an athlete. In fact, the sports master Paul Grant believes that Sam could easily get a place at a football training school. He calls Gunn in to discuss the matter with her, and they actually have a very productive conversation. The dilemma for Gunn is this: on the one hand, Sam’s gift and passion should be nurtured. She agrees with that. On the other, even Grant agrees that the academic preparation at a football training school isn’t what it is in other schools. So Sam could be missing out on a university education. It’s an interesting look at how home and school can work together for big decisions such as this one.
It can be tricky for both teachers and parents to work with one another. But the research shows clearly (at least to me) that the home/school dynamic really does impact students’ lives. It’s an important part of family life, so it’s little wonder we see it in crime fiction, too.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Lavin’s Freewill.