Teachers have to pick up the pieces when the lives of children fall apart. This short story is based on events that occurred more than thirty years ago in my own teaching career.
Martin Allen, Deputy Head at one of Dorset’s largest senior schools, was puzzled. The worrying attitude of Bobbie Jessop had caused concern among the staff who taught her. Bobbie was an able fifteen-year-old, clearly bright enough to be heading for a university entrance in a few years’ time. And not just any university: her current grades suggested that she was on course for exam results that might help her get into one of the country’s top twenty. She was intelligent, articulate and digested complex information quickly and efficiently. So why did she demonstrate such an intensely homophobic attitude? Her form tutor, Lorna MacIntyre, was at her wit’s end with the girl. At any opportunity in class discussions about relationships, her forthright views would come pouring out and ruin any chance of a rational discussion.
‘String ’em all up,’ she’d say. ‘They pollute the human race. That’s what I think.’
‘AIDS? Serves ’em right for being pervs. It’s natural justice.’
‘Cut off their goolies. That’ll put a stop to it.’
A few of the less aware pupils would follow her lead and throw in senseless comments just to keep the pot boiling, although most of Bobbie’s classmates were perplexed by her views. One or two had even made quiet complaints to Lorna. So it was with this awkward situation in mind that Lorna sought Martin’s advice.
‘I remember Bobbie,’ he replied. ‘I taught her in year seven, when she first started here. A bright girl. There didn’t seem anything odd about her then, although maybe a maths lesson doesn’t give many opportunities for personal relationship stuff.’
‘To put things in perspective, Martin, she said yesterday that she didn’t think you were much of a man.’
Lorna giggled. ‘Not just you, so don’t worry. She said that most of the male members of staff were wimps. The only exceptions were Tony Riotta and Victor Omyango. All of the rest of you were probably secret gays.’
Martin frowned melodramatically. ‘The things a modern teacher has to put up with. I can guess why those two were left off the wimp list.’
Tony was a tall, extremely fit PE teacher who played rugby for the county and Victor taught technology and played drums in a local rock band. The ironic thing was that Victor was gay, although he kept his personal life under wraps.
‘See if you can have a quiet chat with her, on her own, and find out where she got these ideas from. It must be someone at home, or a close friend, surely? Then we’ll need to think about some counselling. One thing’s for sure. We can’t leave it to get worse. We have LGBT pupils and they’ll be getting nervous about her stirring things up like this.’
* * *
A week passed and Martin spotted Lorna in the staff room during a lunch break.
‘Any progress with young Bobbie Jessop?’ he asked.
‘Oh, yes,’ came the reply. ‘We had a long chat a few days after I spoke to you. She’s promised to tone down her comments. She hadn’t taken on board the fact that some of her classmates might be in that situation themselves or even that some of her comments were inflammatory enough to be illegal. She was quite apologetic when she realised.’
‘And did she tell you where she’d picked up those rather extreme views?’
‘From her father apparently. Whenever he sees anyone obviously gay on the TV he hurls abuse at them, with the kind of comments that she was making. He’s also the cause of her rather narrow view of what constitutes a real man, someone tall, muscular and fit. I pointed out to her that she’d be rather insulted if someone made those judgemental remarks about women within her hearing. Does this stuff need to be recorded, by the way?’
‘I think so. Keep it short and sweet. I’ll let Claudia know. Maybe we need to have a word with her parents. There’s a parents’ evening coming up in a couple of weeks, isn’t there? I don’t mind seeing them if you’d prefer me to.’
‘No,’ Lorna replied. ‘I’ll mention it. But it’s only the mother we ever see. Bobbie’s father works in London during the week. He’s only ever home at weekends.’
Martin looked at her carefully. ‘Is that right? Curious.’
Lorna could see the way his mind was working.
* * *
The day of the Year 10 parents’ evening arrived and Lorna kept her eye open for Bobbie and her mother, due for an appointment midway through the evening. When they sat down, Lorna thought that the mother looked pale and drawn, as if she were ill. Bobbie wouldn’t meet her eyes, choosing instead to stare at the table top, seemingly full of misery. They’d already spoken to most of Bobbie’s subject teachers, so Lorna was about to step in with an overview of the girl’s achievements but, before she could speak, Bobbie’s mother held her hand out.
‘You need to know that Bobbie’s father and I have separated. He’s going to be living in London from now on. He’ll still want a copy of her school report though, so I have the address of his flat here. Bobbie will be staying with me, here in Dorset.’
She slipped a scrap of paper across the table.
‘I’m so sorry, Mrs Jessop. It’s awful news. I understand that it’s a bit of a traumatic time for both of you. We’ll do our best to support Bobbie through it.’
‘He’s got a boyfriend. It’s been going on for some time apparently. He says he can’t live a lie any more. I’m completely bewildered by it. I had no idea.’
Lorna chose to say nothing. Like Martin Allen, she’d wondered about that very possibility. Surely the mother must have pondered about her husband’s reasons for showing such homophobic hostility?
‘I’ll just tell her subject teachers the absolute minimum. I’ll need to share the reason with the Deputy Head, though. We were both concerned by the rather homophobic attitudes Bobbie showed a month or two ago. Can I reassure you, Bobbie, that it doesn’t mean he’s stopped loving you? My neighbour is gay, and I know he loves his family deeply. You may be in shock just now, but you’ll get over it. We can arrange counselling for Bobbie if she needs it.’
Bobbie burst into tears.