Chat lines that cost too much

28th January 2000 at 00:00
Beware - you can get too friendly with a colleague of the opposite sex.

'I suppose I should be phoning Teacherline. You see, I have this problem. There's this woman I work with..."

Although I felt privileged that my pal was sharing this problem with me over a pint of Adnam's, it made me reflect on the near-skeleton in my own cupboard.

We are all conscious of the stories of alleged misconduct that lead to an ignominious early bath. We have all sat behind Sir's desk as a young teacher and looked up to find a partly open blouse and a pubescent cleavage. Another trumped-up question to see if Sir will blush as red as the school blazer.

My near-skeleton was an assistant in the days when I was a full-time youth worker. I was seconded to a centre where the previous incumbent had left following a nervous breakdown. I had to learn fast about the centre if it was to be saved.

My assistant and I talked, met, consulted, phoned... we worked as one. I would collect her from home and return her there after club night. Our corporate efforts on behalf of the department blinded us to "the grapevine" which decided that the youth club was low on our priorities. I was unaware. At home, life continued as ever.

One day my bubble of naivety burst. The vice-principal called me into his office and said: "I think it should stop." My Dutch uncle was telling me to stop being a naughty boy - only he had to explain why I was being naughty. Suddenly I felt that my professional judgment was in doubt. How could I have allowed myself to get into this position? It cast doubt on my decisions. I resigned. I felt that I had no option.

And so my pal started his story. A new boss. Her eed to learn. The sharing of problems. Joint decisions. Her view of him as her "right arm". His realisation that their thinking was congruent. Wherever two people are working hand in glove, there is a tendency to think and talk as one. In how many schools can one see two (usually) senior teachers who act like the archetypal old married couple? In the same way as husband and wife share the good and the bad times of home and family, so can heads (of schooldepartmentyear faculty) and their deputies.

In most cases, both people are aware of it - and they talk to others at school and home about their "partner" at school. But from time to time, one of the partnership forgets the rules.

My friend spoke about the conversations in her office - even with the door closed, not normally a problem. But Pandora, as he calls her, has a way with him. No physical contact. No suggestive behaviour. But her use of language he finds disquieting.

She uses ambiguous questions and responses to make him feel uncomfortable. She has now taken to phoning him at home, late at night, ostensibly to talk about work. But it seems that her conversation quickly diverts from shared professional goals to a more personal, disturbing agenda. "I hope your wife won't mind me phoning," she said one night - followed by an earthy giggle.

I would have suggested that it sounded like a good plot for his latest novel, but he only writes textbooks. I can understand why he calls her Pandora - ready to ruin another man. If I don't find some way of helping him, he's going to resign.

It seems that men are not the only perpetrators of sexual harassment.

The writer wishes to remain anonymous

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