David Russell

Deadly Lessons

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Coming soon from RendezVous Press in Toronto.


by David Russell

He was snoring. If he had just been asleep, I might have been inclined to leave him where he was but make no mistake about it: the kid was snoring. And everyone had taken notice. At least he hadn't passed out. The forms required to deal with that were endless.
This was not the life I had been anticipating. This was Communications class at John Oliver high school. For the 'lingo-impaired,' "Communications" is a euphemism the education system uses to identify an English class where we often put those students who are, shall we say, challenged when it comes to an understanding of literature and language. They're also often stoned.
At the moment, I was attempting to teach a lesson on how best to prepare a resume for the work force. Now I'd be the first to admit my lessons aren't always stimulating, cutting edge brilliant, but when a student falls into a deep enough sleep that he's actually snoring - and waking other students who are sleeping quietly - one has to take action. My action? Chalk. It always worked.
This particular piece of chalk bounced off Justin's head and had no immediate impact. The upside was that the class laughed loudly enough that Justin was, in fact, awakened from his mid day slumber.
"What the fuck...?" were the first words his limited vocabulary could muster.
"You were snoring," I informed him.
"Maybe that's because your class is boring." What Justin lacked in written ability he more than amply made up for with his sense of spunk. The fact I was his teacher in no way limited his willingness to hurl insults at me. It was part of the reason I liked him.
"I see you're practicing up on your sleeping skills. That should come in handy when you're living under the Granville Street bridge because you can't get a job." Justin, I had learned, also appreciated a well timed insult tossed in his direction.
"Yeah, well, at least society will know which teacher to blame."
That's really why I got into the teaching business: the respect I get from students.
Justin duly wakened, I returned to the task at hand, attempting to convince my students that while they may never come to enjoy and appreciate great literature, the least they could do was exit my class with the ability to fill out a job application, write simple business letters and not get screwed over by 'record of the month club' agreements. They weren't really all that interested, but fear of chalk missiles kept the rest of the students from completely dozing off for the remainder of the period. I was beginning to understand how Gabe Kotter must have felt.
Anyone who doesn't think teachers earn their money on a daily basis should stand in front of twenty-four 17 year olds - with 50% of them high at any given moment - and try to instill some kind of appreciation for language. In November. In Vancouver. In the rain. Better people than I have been driven to the brink of insanity in more favourable circumstances. I might soon be joining them.
Like an audible gift from God, the bell finally rang, dismissing my class from their stupor and me from my interminable dog and pony show to keep them in some kind of holding pattern until the end of the period. I liked them; but they tired the hell out of me. Students think it's weird, but I look forward to lunch time probably more than they do. I've been teaching for two months.
I had just finished sliding some papers into my bag - yes there's an evening work component to this job - when Carl Turbot stepped into my room. "Hey Winston," he said.
"Hey, how's it going?" I replied.
"Got a minute?" he asked, his tone more serious than I was accustomed to hearing from him. Carl Turbot is a science teacher, biology actually, who is the same age as me, which is 35. He is popular: rumour has it that female students in particular are drawn to biology in this school in greater numbers than any other high school in Vancouver. Carl is largely considered the primary reason, for his fine teaching as well as the numerous other characteristics students find appealing.
Despite my pressing need for lunch and a trip to the staff washroom, Carl had been a mentor of sorts since my arrival at John Oliver. Many of my private sector friends have tried to convince me of the relative ease of the profession I had newly entered. When we compared the perils of our jobs, it always came to one comparison I would ask my friends: as a financial advisor, for example, are you able to go to the bathroom whenever you want? The answer being "yes," I was always able to claim undo hardship in the teaching profession. When you have a room full of teenagers, especially some of the winners I worked with, you just couldn't leave them unattended long enough to go to the staff washroom two floors down and half a block away. Nonetheless, I figured I could hold my coffee byproduct for a couple of minutes more to talk to Carl.
"Sure," I told him. "What's up?" Carl stood in the doorway of my classroom. He looked the least sure of himself I'd seen him. "Carl. You can come in."
"Yeah. Okay." The student desks in my classroom were organized in a sort of loose horseshoe shape. It wasn't always the most productive for students, but it was easier to catch the sleepers like Justin. Carl slid his six foot frame into the end of the horseshoe and looked away from me like a student caught cheating. "These desks really aren't very comfortable, are they?"
"Nope." A long, palpable silence filled the dusty classroom. I could feel my bladder expanding while I waited for Carl to speak.
"Listen, can I talk to you off the record?" he finally asked.
"I wasn't aware we were supposed to keep notes of conversations between colleagues."
"I just mean...I just need this conversation to be confidential. Okay?"
"Sure." Another pause followed, during which I felt sure I was about to have what my mother would call a "wee accident" right in front of Carl.
"I've got a problem and I'd like your advice."
"I'll do what I can, Carl. Is this a teaching problem?"
"Well, yes and no."
"If it is, you know how new I am to this business. You might be better off to talking to another teacher, or maybe the principal if you're..."
"No!" he suddenly blurted. "We can't talk to the principal or anyone else. Please. You're the only one I can trust with this right now."
"Okay," I tried to reassure him. "It's all right. I'm here. You can talk to me." There was another, agonizing wait while Carl gathered the nerve to continue the conversation.
"I need to speak to you not as a teacher, but...I need your advice in your...your other capacity."
"Oh." It was the worst guarded secret at John Oliver Secondary that the reason I came to teaching at the relatively late age of 35 was that I had given up the practice of law to pursue what I had always assumed would be the less demanding, much less conflict-oriented profession of teaching. Of course, the first class I was assigned to was "Law 12," a Social Studies elective course for budding teenage lawyers. Fortunately, there weren't enough of them to make up my entire teaching load; unfortunately, what was left over for me to teach included my Communications class. "Carl, are you in some kind of trouble?"
"I think so."
"Okay. Look. Before we go any further you should know that while I'm a still a member of the Bar, I really don't practice law anymore. And 'educational law,' if there even is such a thing, was certainly not my area of expertise. I was defence counsel for legal aid."
"Criminal law might be what I'm looking for advice about."
"I see." I didn't, of course. Two months into my new career I didn't want to get involved in a teacher's legal problems. But Carl had become a friend.
"There's a student in my biology class. Her name is..."
"Better that you don't tell me her name right now," I interrupted.
"Okay. This girl. She threatened me this morning."
"She threatened you how? Like she was going to hurt you?"
"Not physically. I don't think she's gonna pull a Colombine on us or anything. It's me she's after. She threatened to...she threatened to go to the principal, to Dan, to tell him that..."
"Hold it, Carl. Stop." Under British Columbia law, as a teacher, I was obligated to report any sexual misconduct between a student and a teacher. As a lawyer, anything he told me was confidential but that wasn't the way I was paying my rent anymore. "You know I can't really hear this without putting you in jeopardy."
"Shit, Winston, hear me out. I don't know what else to do."
He truly looked pathetic. I had only known Carl for two months but I had a hard time believing he could actually be guilty of anything that would harm his students. He was the consummate professional. If anything, students would have held him up as someone unapproachable because of his high standards.
"Carl. Give me a dollar."
"A dollar. A loonie. Have you got one?"
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of coins. Reaching out, he placed one in my outstretched hand.
"Okay. You've just retained me. What is this student going to tell the principal about you?"
Carl took a deep breath. "She threatened to tell the principal we've been sleeping together."


I had had cases not unlike this before. When I first took the L-SATS and entered law school - as an honour student, I might add - I really didn't envision myself defending criminals - err, pardon me - "alleged" criminals. Still, by the time I had graduated, corporate, tax and real estate law gave me hives, divorce law (or "family law" as our legal system euphemistically calls it) reminded me too much of my own childhood, there didn't seem to be enough work in intellectual property law and I refused to wear sandals, which ruled out environmental litigation.
That pretty much left me with criminal law. On the face of it, criminal law seems to be the most exciting: murder, mayhem, chaos, shady characters cutting deals in under lit offices, all of which is how this particular legal genre is played out on television and film. I chuckled watching Sam Waterston give a ninety second closing to a murder case on "Law and Order." The truth is criminal law can be just as tedious with a mind numbingly precise attention to detail than any other profession. But at least I knew there would always be work to do: despite politicians' promises to the contrary, there is no real hope the criminal element will straighten themselves up and turn to the good life.
There was no way I was going to be Crown Counsel. Two of my friends I graduated with had chosen that noble calling. "You'll be serving society, Win," they tried to tell me when it came time to seek work. "Ridding the streets of unwanted low lifes, protecting the innocent from the ravages of criminal activity." Both of them still proudly toil away in the courtrooms on behalf of Her Majesty, working 70 hour weeks for a civil servant's salary. I chose the other side.
The real money for a lawyer is in criminal defence. It does take a considerable amount of time to build a reputation and really learn the ins and outs of the Criminal Code. But once a good defence counsel's name is known, he or she can almost print their own money. When you travel down to the yacht club and see all those two thousand dollar suits getting out of the Jaguars, they're not the prosecutors.
But it isn't all about the money. I like to think I was motivated by a real desire to see justice done. I never really wanted to help criminals get off with their crimes; but I never wanted to see an innocent person go to jail either. There's an old saying that says it's better to set ten guilty people free than to put one innocent person in jail. I believed that. And while Vancouver isn't exactly a Mecca for police brutality and wrongful convictions, the court system, criminal or civil, is intimidating and no one should have to go through there without someone helping them along the way. Plus, I've always really liked Jaguars.
Since the high-powered firms didn't want me right out of school, I began my career as defence counsel with Legal Aid: the dreaded Public Defender's office. This is the place where those with no real means of buying the high priced Jaguared lawyers come. It was also the place where some of the most difficult, if unsophisticated, legal grunt work gets done. As a newcomer, I was assigned most of the petty cases: theft, break and enter, minor assaults, even vagrancy. Almost all of my cases were related to drugs.
But it seemed like a good place to learn the trade and it was. I learned it so well that within a few years I was managing a team of lawyers in a small firm doing mostly Legal Aid work. And that Jaguar was nowhere in sight. Within four years of beginning my law career, I realized I was working as many hours as my co-graduates in the major Howe Street law firms, for about a tenth of the income.
Worse, no matter how hard I slaved, how many cases I could plea down to misdemeanours, how many injustices I felt I had undone, the workload never ceased or even slowed down. And despite a fairly steady increase in pay that came with a pretty concurrent increase in working hours, as I hit my seventh year itch during a mad bout of work induced stress and depression, I decided that "lawyering" might not be for me. Thus, after a short, illustrious career defending the down trodden, the petty thieves, the junky prostitutes and runaways, I fled the world of legal defence to work with kids before they hit the court system.
At least that was my stated, altruistic reason. Secretly, I mostly longed to have summers off to sit outside a lakeside cabin and read Oprah's book club novels. No one can accuse me of insensitivity.
Thus, at the ripe old age of 35 I began my second professional career as a high school Social Studies, Law and Communications teacher. Sitting with Carl Turbot now, my former career had just thrust itself into my current one.
Recognizing this conversation with Carl was going to take at least a significant portion of our lunch period, I had left Carl stewing in my room while I made the long, arduous track to the staff washroom, deeking out students along the way. I couldn't help but look in the faces of the students I passed along the way, wondering what kind of pain a student experienced when a teacher crossed "that line" between teacher-student relationship and romantic or sexual relationship.
When I returned to my classroom, lunch in hand, Carl hadn't moved from the student desk he had flopped himself into. He looked defeated and - despite all my legal training which told me I ought to believe in my client's innocence - I couldn't resist thinking he should look defeated. If the university's teacher training program taught us one thing - and believe me, it didn't teach us all that much - it was that a physical, romantic or sexual relationship between teacher and student is absolutely forbidden. No questions. No exceptions. There was no situation Carl could provide for me I felt would exonerate him. But since I had rushed into a solicitor-client relationship with him, I was obligated to hear his side of the story. I could only hope he would plead guilty and I could simply help him get the best possible punishment and rehab.
"Sorry to use up your lunch period," was all Carl could think to tell me as I re-entered the room.
"That's all right. You sound like you need an ear. But I'm gonna eat while you talk if that's all right."
"Sure," he replied. "Go ahead."
I reached down into my lunch bag and pulled out my rather pathetic meal. Quite recently returned to bachelor hood, making a decent packed lunch was not a skill I had acquired. And unlike in lawyering, even legal aid lawyering, there are rarely opportunities for going out for a decent lunch when one works as a teacher. Cheez-wiz sandwiches are a staple of my diet. When I'm feeling healthy, I also bring some carrots, but only if I remember to buy them pre-cut, pre-peeled and pre-packaged in lunch bag size pouches. I'm a busy man.
I waited for Carl to break the awkward silence. After a long pause, he looked at me with doleful eyes and said, "Win, what do I do?"
I sighed, took a bite of a carrot and paused before responding. I have found pregnant pauses often make it look like I'm seriously pondering when in fact I don't really have a clue what to do next. For the moment, Carl seemed to be buying it.
"Carl," I began, "this is extremely difficult. I have to admit I don't have much experience in this area of law, but I'm pretty well versed with the statutes. The bottom line is that this is one area of law that is pretty clear. There's really no gray area at all. I don't know what kind of wiggle room we'd have in a trial."
"Christ, this is unbelievable."
"Carl, why did she come forward now?"
"I don't know."
"Did you have a disagreement? A fight?"
"This is totally out of the blue. I just don't understand it. I always got along really well with her and suddenly she hits me with this. It's incredible." He got up and began to pace around the room. "It's like some kind of vendetta. The thing is, I don't know what I did to get her so mad at me."
"Well, Carl, in situations like this, it's not uncommon for a student to suddenly turn against the teacher. Something suddenly makes them feel like they've got to take action."
"But why? She'd never given any indication anything was wrong"
"Carl, she's young. She's taken in by a good looking teacher. She feels strong, important. Who knows what other things have gone in her life? This could just have been the final straw and she feels like she wants to get back at someone."
"Biology is the final straw in a kid's life? My class isn't that bad."
I sighed. This wasn't going to be easy but I had to know. "Carl," I asked, "how long have you been, uhm...with the student?"
"Forever. She's in my Biology 12 class, but I've had her since she was in my grade nine science class."
"And you've been, uhm, "together" all that time?"
"What do you mean?"
He wasn't going to make this easy. "You've been sleeping with her since she was in the ninth grade?"
"Jesus, Win!" Carl exploded, turning to face me head on for the first time. "What kind of an animal do you think I am?"
I was shocked. "Calm down, Carl. I'm just trying to figure out..."
"Shit! I know we haven't know each other for long, but I came to you because I thought you were my friend!"
"I am your friend. I'm trying to help you."
"You think I'd sleep with a kid - a 14 year old kid in grade nine! I can't believe this!"
"Carl, for God's sake, would you lower your voice! Just sit down and listen for a minute!" For a brief moment we stared each other down. "Carl, sit down. Now."
Carl dropped himself into a chair again, his hostility still bubbling at the surface. "I'm sorry, Win. Maybe I shouldn't have come to you with this. I didn't know where else to go. But if you think I would do that..."
"Would you just listen to me," I told him. "I'm just trying to get the facts. Stop getting all indignant. Whether the kid's in grade nine or twelve it doesn't really matter. Sleeping with a student is the problem. Not her age."
"What? What the hell are you talking about?" He looked genuinely confused.
"I'm saying that whether or not this relationship has been going on for three years or it just started, the charge is equally serious."
"Jesus, Win, you don't get it. I haven't been sleeping her since grade nine or since yesterday for that matter."
"What?" It was my turn to be confused by his story.
Carl just shook his head. "Don't you see? That's why I'm so angry and confused, Win. It's not true. She's making it up. That's why I came to see you. She's making the whole thing up."
"Oh," I replied somewhat sheepishly. "That sort of changes things."

Copyright 2003 by David Russell