One of the important jobs that teachers often have is to work with their students’ parents. Research shows that a solid home/school relationship contributes to student achievement; students benefit if their teachers are in regular communication with their families. More than that, a solid home/school relationship makes communication much easier and less awkward if there is a problem. So, it makes sense that teachers and other school staff would want to reach out to parents.
But that communication can be fraught with difficulties. For one thing, parents and teachers may not see things the same way. For another, there’s a lot at stake in the relationship. Parents want their children to do well; and for many, their children’s reputations are a reflection of their parenting. Because the home/school relationship is so important, and sometimes so tense, it’s not surprising that it come up in crime fiction. Here are just a few instances; there are a lot more out there.
In Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, we are introduced to Honoria Bulstrode. She is the headmistress at Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. The novel opens as Meadowbank begins the summer term, and parents arrive with their daughters. Miss Bulstrode, her business partner, Miss Chadwick, and her assistant, Eleanor Vansittart, welcome the students, deal with the parents, and try to get everyone settled. There’s a funny scene where one parent arrives, completely inebriated, with the goal of taking her daughters out of the school. Miss Bulstrode sees what’s happening and how it’s handled, and completely misses something important that’s said to her. That comment turns out to be key to the solution when the new games mistress, Grace Springer, is shot late one night. That murder is related to a kidnapping, some stolen jewels, and a revolution in a faraway country.
Peter Robinson’s Gallows View takes place in the Yorkshire town of Eastvale. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks has recently moved there with his family. Almost immediately, he is faced with some difficult investigations. There’s a voyeur who’s been making the women of Eastvale miserable. And there’s been a series of home invasions. Then, there’s a murder. And one person who may be mixed up in it all is a teenager named Trevor Sharp. He doesn’t fit in particularly well at school and is a bit at loose ends. His teachers have told his father that he doesn’t apply himself, and that he could do better, but Trevor’s father is, to say the least, not helpful. That’s what Banks finds, too, when he tries to talk to the man about his son. The relationship between home and school isn’t a major part of the plot in this novel, but it does add interesting character layers, and it shows what happens when there’s a gulf between parents and teachers.
Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark is, in part, the story of Ilse Klein, a secondary school teacher in the small town of Alexandria, on New Zealand’s South Island. In one plot thread, she becomes concerned about one of her most promising students, fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. Lately, Serena has been skipping school a great deal. And when she is there, she takes no interest in what’s going on, and she doesn’t participate. This is so unlike the girl that Ilse alerts the school’s counseling team, who send a representative to Serena’s home. Serena’s mother resents the visit, and in any case, doesn’t have much to say about her daughter’s recent changes. She proves to be more defensive and self-involved than helpful. Then, Serena goes missing. Now, Ilse Klein is very worried, and ends up getting more deeply involved in what’s going on than she ever thought possible.
One of the main characters in Herman Koch’s The Dinner is former teacher Paul Lohman. One night, he and his wife, Claire, meet up for dinner with his older brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife, Babette. The restaurant is ultra-exclusive, and on the surface, it looks like a lovely night out. But underneath, things are quite different. The story is told as the meal progresses, and during each ‘course,’ we find out more about these two couples. One thing we learn is that their sons, each aged fifteen, are responsible for a terrible crime. The reason for the dinner is that the parents want to discuss what to do about what they know. As the novel moves on, we learn the families’ backstories, including Paul’s time as a history teacher. It turns out that he angered some parents (and some of the students) with his comments about the Second World War. The parents complained to the school board and principal, and Paul was urged to ‘take some time off,’ and ‘get some rest.’ In the end, he retired for medical reasons. There are a few scenes in the novel that depict some conversations between Paul and the school principal, and they show how teachers can view things very differently to the way parents do. It’s not spoiling the story to say that Paul is not a very reliable narrator, so it’s also an invitation to the reader to think about what really happened in the classroom.
And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. That’s the story of a group of families, all of whose children attend Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The main focus of the novel is the Kindergarten class and the members of their families. The Kindgergarten teacher, Bec Barnes, is looking forward to a good school year. But that’s not how things turn out. First, one of the most influential mothers at the school, Renata Klein, claims that another boy, Ziggy Chapman, bullied and hurt her daughter, Amabella. Ziggy claims he’s innocent, and his mother, Jane, believes him. But Renata is extremely influential. So, Bec is soon caught in the proverbial crossfire between ‘team Renata’ and ‘team Jane.’ At first, as you would imagine, her impulse is to stop the bullying immediately, and to protect Amabella. But as time goes on, we learn that things aren’t as simple as they seem. As if this isn’t enough, the school’s big fundraiser, a Trivia Night, ends in tragedy. As the story goes on, we learn more about the characters, about what’s behind their closed doors, so to speak, and about what leads to the tragedy.
Students do best when their parents and teachers work together. But that doesn’t always happen, and, in fact, that relationship can be very tense indeed. Perhaps that’s why it can add such interesting ‘spice’ to a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Glenn Slater’s Here at Horace Green.