But How do You Thank Someone Who Has Taken You From Crayons to Perfume*

As you’ll know if you’ve been kind enough to read my blog, I’m an academic in my ‘day job.’ In that capacity, I’ve worked for a long time with in-service and pre-service teachers. So, I found this post by Lesley Fletcher at Inspiration Import to be especially powerful and resonant. You’ll want to read the post; and, as you’ll be there, anyway, you’ll want to have a look at the rest of Lesley’s excellent site. Thoughtful posts and fine artwork await you there! In fact, Lesley is responsible for the covers of two of my Joel Williams novels (B-Very Flat and Past Tense), and In a Word: Murder. See? Isn’t she talented?

And that’s just the thing. Lesley’s post speaks of a terrible experience she had with a teacher who, instead of helping her develop her skills, did exactly the opposite. It got me to thinking about crime-fictional teachers. There are plenty of examples of cruel, rude teachers in the genre (I know you could think of plenty). But they aren’t all that way. There are plenty of teachers out there, both fictional and real, who are caring, and who exhibit the sort of dedication that I wish Lesley’s teacher had.

For example, Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons introduces us to several caring teachers who are passionate about what they do. They work at Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. When games mistress Grace Springer is killed one night, the police are called in and begin to investigate. But that murder is only one part of a web of international intrigue, jewel theft, and kidnapping. One of the pupils, Julia Upjohn, visits Hercule Poirot, whom she’s heard of through a friend of her mother’s. She asks him to investigate, and he agrees. As Poirot and the police work through the case, we see how dedicated Headmistress Honoria Bulstrode is. We also see how much a few other teachers, such as Eileen Rich, also love teaching.

In Val McDermid’s The Grave Tatttoo, we meet Matthew Gresham, head teacher at a school in Fellhead, in the Lake District. He’s preparing to present a unit on family trees, and he wants to get the students engaged in their learning, rather than just having them sit and take notes. So, he has each student create a personal family history that will be shared with the class, and, later, with the town. His students by and large like and respect him, and they get started with the assignment. Little does anyone know that this project will be connected with a mystery that Matthew’s sister, Jane, has discovered. She’s a fledgling academic and Wordsworth scholar who has found evidence that there might be an unpublished manuscript somewhere in the Lake District. If there is, it would be the making of her career. So, she travels from London, where she’s been living, back to Fellhead, to start her search. The trail leads to several murders, and, interestingly, to the project her brother has assigned his students.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a (now retired) academician and political scientist. In the earlier novels, in which she’s still active on campus, we see several interactions between her and her students. In A Killing Spring, for instance, she gets concerned when one of her students, Kellee Savage, goes missing. Kellee is already mentally and emotionally fragile, and Joanne is concerned about her well-being. It turns out that Kellee’s disappearance is related to the murder of one of Joanne’s colleagues, Reed Ghallager. There are a few scenes in this novel in which Joanne interacts with students. In them, we see that she cares about them, and knows them as more than just faces and names on her enrollment records. She’s not perfect, even with her students, but it’s obvious that they matter to her, and that she is committed to their success.

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we are introduced to Ilse Klein. She and her family emigrated in the 1980s from what was then East Germany. They ended up on New Zealand’s South Island, in the small town of Alexandria, where Ilse has grown up and become a secondary school teacher. She works hard and has earned the respect of her students. And she does care about them. So, when one of her most promising pupils, Serena Freeman, loses interest in school, Ilse gets concerned. Matters get to the point where Serena misses school much of the time, and when she is there, shows no interest in participating or learning. Now, Ilse’s worried enough to alert the school’s counseling staff. That choice touches off a whole series of incidents; and Ilse finds herself getting drawn into much more than she bargained for when Serena goes missing.

There’s also K.B. Owen’s Concordia Wells. She’s a teacher at Hartford Women’s College at the very end of the 19th Century. She’s also an amateur sleuth, who gets drawn into investigations that are considered ‘unseemly’ for a woman. At that time, at that school, many of the faculty members live on campus. So, they do get to know the students, and that’s just as true of Concordia as it is of any other faculty member. She’s devoted to her students, concerned for their well-being, and interested in their development. Yes, they exasperate her at times. But they matter to her very much. In fact, that becomes a challenge for her as her personal life goes on. The school’s policy is that married people cannot teach at the school. So, if Concordia falls in love and decides to marry, she’ll have to give up work she enjoys, and students whose welfare is very important to her.

The fact is, teaching is not an easy job, no matter which educational level. While there are, unfortunately, teachers out there like the one in Lesley’s post, there are also some fine teachers, too. And, in part, my ‘day job’ is to do my small bit to make sure there are more of the latter than of the former…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Don Black and Mark London’s To Sir With Love.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, K.B. Owen, Paddy Richardson, Val McDermid

31 responses to “But How do You Thank Someone Who Has Taken You From Crayons to Perfume*

  1. Pingback: But How do You Thank Someone Who Has Taken You From Crayons to Perfume* | picardykatt's Blog

  2. A great post, Margot. My math teacher when I was a junior and senior in high school was the reason I went to college, and that made a huge difference in my life. I will never forget her.

    I just finished (yesterday) reading The Distant Echo by Val McDermid and it was very good. Thanks for suggesting another book I can add to my list of hers to try. After reading the first Tony Hill book, I thought her writing would be much too graphic / violent.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Tracy. I’m very glad, too, that you had a fine math teacher. It’s people like that who inspire us. And you’re right; you never forget them. I’m glad you enjoyed The Distant Echo. I think you’d like The Grave Tattoo, too. Some of her work does get graphic, but I don’t think that one does. There’s violence, but it’s not really brutal.

  3. Interesting post……I read good reviews of Swimming in the Dark & bought a copy on line. At the time, it was a must-read book. Yet it’s still sitting in my “new” book pile. 🙄 It’s in a pile of books in my spare room, books that were purchased some time ago but that I still haven’t gotten around to reading. Thanks for the kick in the behind.
    BTW-now I can’t get To Sir With Love out of my head…..heh heh

    • Checked out the blog. Her covers are indeed beautiful……lucky you 😊

    • You’re welcome, Anne (for the earworm) 😉 I know just exactly what you mean about those books you really will read – now – but that somehow end up in another room, stuck in a bookshelf, and so on. There just aren’t anywhere near enough hours in the day to read, are there *sigh?* I don’t even want to think about how many books I have that I haven’t (yet) read…

      • I have loads of ‘must read now’ books still waiting to be read! The Distant Echo is one sitting right next to me at the moment. It’s a library book so I will read it soon – or it will have to go back unread, which would be sad!

        • I know exactly what you mean, Margaret! I have so many books like that on the heap. There are only so many hours in the day, and there are so many excellent books out there… I do hope you’ll get to The Distant Echo, and that you’ll enjoy it.

  4. I had a wonderful teacher in Primary 2, who introduced me to writing, opera, dancing and so much more. A role model for me. And then there was one we had the misfortune to have 2 years in a row, that still inspires all of her class with nightmares.

    • What a shame you had that nightmare teacher two years in a row, Marina Sofia! Still, it sounds as though you had an excellent teacher for Primary 2, and I’m very glad to hear it. Just one really fine teacher can help inspire a lifelong love of learning, or of things like dance, music, and so on. Little wonder you still remember that teacher so well.

  5. Col

    I can’t recall any teachers in my crime fiction reading, I’ll have to address that, probably with Val McDermid.

  6. Margot, my English teachers were the only reason I liked school; in fact, the only redeeming features of my school life. A school is no school if it can’t be a second home for its students.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Prashant, about the value of fine teachers. I’m glad you had some good ones. If students don’t feel safe and comfortable at school, they cannot be expected to learn, and fine teachers are part of that.

  7. I bet you’re an amazing teacher, Margot. The great teachers also instill lifelong memories in their students. I can remember the ones who took the time to go the extra mile, and can’t recall the names of the teachers who didn’t. The Grave Tattoo sounds right up my alley.

    • Thank you, Sue (‘though I’m not sure my students would agree…). And you’re right about those great teachers we have; we never forget them. As to The Grave Tattoo, I do think you’d like it. There’s an interesting historical mystery in it, along with everything else.

  8. kathyd

    Yes, good teachers — and school librarians — inspire learning. Teachers who make learning interesting and exciting inspire students. I had some good teachers and my grade-school librarian increased my interest in reading.

  9. I’m going to bring in one of my favourite crime books of all time – Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey. It is set in a training college for young women, where they learn to be physical education teachers. We see a whole range of women teaching them, and Miss Pym of the title is a ‘guest lecturer’. And we see a talented and strong-minded Principal making a mistake…

    • I’m so glad you mentioned that one, Moira. I definitely should have and didn’t. I do like the interactions at the school, Miss Pym’s character, the whole thing. So glad you filled in the gap there!

  10. My English Literature Master, Mr Kilner, was a former actor and was very dramatic in his approach to teaching and would often read books we were studying, out loud, with all the gestures. He fascinated us all. I loved reading and literature before he taught me, and that feeling has never died. He was the first person who’d ever read anything I’d written and awarded me a huge sum of £100 in book tokens, for my efforts in Eng Lit and Language one year. I almost gave mother a heart attack by picking The Girl with Green Eyes, Peyton Place and A Taste of Honey as part of my prize. Up The Junction was removed from my little pile. The other books were a couple of Agatha Christie and Daphne Due Maurier novels, and deemed respectable.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Jane. Lucky you to have had Mr. Kilner. It sounds as though he was not just a highly skilled teacher, but also a really inspirational person. Teachers like that make all the difference in the world. I know just what you mean, too, about the books you chose. That sort of thing happened to me, as well.

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