Whether it’s for spring term or fall term, millions of children all over the world are getting ready to go to school. New clothes have been bought, schools supplies are ready, and the adventure’s about to begin. It’s especially an adventure if it’s a new school, where you don’t know anyone.
On the one hand, that adventure can be exciting; it’s a whole new chance to start over. On the other hand, it’s nerve-wracking, too. What if the other children don’t like you? What if you don’t make friends? What if you get one of THOSE teachers? The stress of starting in a new school is very, very real for a lot of children (and their families). And it can add an interesting plot thread to a crime novel, even if it’s not the main plot point.
Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons begins on the first day of Summer Term at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. It’s an interesting look at the way a school handles the influx of new pupils. Among those new students this term are Julia Upjohn and Jennifer Sutcliffe. The school is run by Honoria Bulstrode, who cares very much about the pupils. She makes sure the staff gets new students settled, and helps them find their way. And that’s how it works out for Julia and Jennifer, at least at first. Also new this term is Grace Springer, the games mistress. She’s got an abrasive, overly-inquisitive personality, and doesn’t fit in nearly as well as anyone hoped. Shortly after the term begins, Springer is shot late one night. The police are called in and the investigation starts. It hasn’t gotten very far, though, when there’s a kidnapping. And another murder. Now it’s clear that something is very, very wrong at Meadowbank. Julia goes to visit Hercule Poirot, who knows her mother’s best friend, Maureen Summerhayes (remember her, fans of Mrs.McGinty’s Dead?). Poirot returns to the school with Julia, and discovers the truth behind the events at the school.
In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction writer Zack Walker decides to move his family from the city where they live to a new suburban development, Valley Forest Estates. He believes that his family, especially his two children, Angie and Paul, will be safer in the suburbs. What’s more, he thinks the schools will be better. That, at least, turns out not to be true. Angie and Paul don’t fit in very well in their new schools; here’s how Angie explains it one day:
‘‘I go to school with a bunch of losers,’ she said finally.
I let that one hang out there for a while. ‘What do you mean, losers?’…
‘All I’m saying is just because we moved out of the city doesn’t mean there aren’t still weird people in my school.’’
Both young people dislike having to be what Angie calls, ‘borderline normal’ – conformist. And it’s not long before Walker learns firsthand how dangerous the suburbs can be. First, he witnesses an argument. Then, he finds the body of one of the people involved in that argument. Later, there’s another murder. And some strange discoveries about some of the ‘respectable’ people in Valley Forest.
The main focus of Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black is the murder of Catherine Ross, who is found strangled not long after New Year’s Eve. The first suspect is a misfit named Magnus Tait, who lives nearby, and who knows Catherine. There’s talk, too, that he was responsible for the disappearance of a young girl years earlier, although nothing’s ever been proven. Tait, though, claims he’s innocent. And Inspector Jimmy Perez doesn’t want to arrest the wrong person. So, he looks closely into the victim’s background to find out who would have wanted to kill her. He discovers that she and her father (her mother has died) recently moved to the town of Ravenswick, in Shetland. In ways, Catherine doesn’t fit in. She’s from ‘down south,’ and seems much more sophisticated than her classmates. But she also has enough confidence that she doesn’t much care how well she fits in. Catherine’s being new to Shetland isn’t the reason she’s killed. But it adds a dimension to her character, and it contributes to the atmosphere of the novel.
Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies is, for the most part, the story of three families, all of whom have children who attend Kindergarten at Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The story begins with a tragedy that happens on Trivia Night. That event is supposed to be a fundraiser for the school, so that Smart Boards can be purchased for the classrooms. As the police investigate, the story goes back in time to the beginning of the school year, and the first day of Kindergarten. And we learn that, right from that first day of school, there’s been tension. The children in Kindergarten are already nervous at starting school, and some of their parents are just as anxious. For example, Jane Chapman’s recently moved to the area, and she doesn’t fit in socially with the other parents. So, she’s quite nervous about how her son, Ziggy, will fare in school. As the novel goes on, we see the tension among the parents build, and we see how it impacts their children.
New teachers often feel the same sort of ‘will I fit in?’ anxiety. And even when they don’t, they’re certainly subjected to quite a lot of scrutiny. For instance, in Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, we are introduced to Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy. They’re in their last year of school, and at the top of the proverbial social tree. Beth is captain of the school’s cheerleading squad, and Addy is her trusty lieutenant. Together, they rule the school. Then, a new cheerleading coach, Collette French, is hired. Here’s how her arrival is described:
‘Her first day. We all look her over with great care, our heads tilted. Some of us, maybe even me, fold our arms across our chests.
The New Coach.
There are so many things to take in, to consider and set on scales, always tilted towards scorn.’
There’s a lot of tension as the new coach starts working with the team, but before long, she’s won a lot of the girls over. In fact, she turns the squad into a sort of very elite club. Addy is welcomed as a member, but Beth remains on the outside, looking in. Everything changes when there’s a suicide (or is it?). And we see the role that fitting as a new person plays in the story.
It plays out in other crime fiction, too, and that makes sense. Starting in a new school can be tense. And there’s always the chance that everything will go wrong – especially in a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Donnas’ New Kid in School.