Fact meets fiction

12th February 2010 at 00:00
It is often assumed that pupils are the only victims of a school culture of bullying, but a new book looks at what happens when staffroom victimisation leads to a shocking outbreak of violence

Under the oppressive heat of a sweltering summer day, assembly takes place at a north London comprehensive. The stale air turns humid as pupils are packed into the sports hall in front of the headteacher and his staff. But the lecture is cut short when the usually diffident history teacher, nicknamed Bumfluff by the pupils, unleashes a gun and fires it at the crowd, killing two pupils and a teacher before turning the weapon on himself.

Simon Lelic's first novel, Rupture, opens on the aftermath of this shocking event. We are introduced to Inspector Lucia May, who has been charged with wrapping up this apparently straightforward investigation. But as she delves further into the case, it becomes more whydunit than whodunit and the picture that emerges is one of a school rife with bullying among staff and pupils.

"I'm not trying to excuse anything that Samuel Szajkowski (the murderer) does in the book," says the author. "He pulls the trigger - he's guilty, there's no ambiguity there. But I am sympathetic. His actions aren't excusable, but they are more understandable in the context of what he has suffered."

The idea for the novel came from a short news story about a college professor in the United States who shot one of his colleagues before killing himself. Mr Lelic says he was intrigued by the circumstances which led to the incident and wanted to explore it in greater depth.

"When something like a school shooting happens in real life, it's very difficult to consider questions of culpability beyond the perpetrator," he says. "It's very painful to ask questions that might raise uncomfortable answers. But that's the great thing about fiction; you can raise these questions which normally might go unconsidered."

Being relatively new to the world of fiction, Simon Lelic, 33, has none of the fatigue or cynicism that sometimes haunts older writers. He has already sent a second book to his publishers despite working full-time at the family aluminium import business and raising two young sons, Barnaby and Joseph. It was working as a journalist for a few years that made Simon realise he loved working with words, but suspected his passion was for fiction. Spending the working day in the business world leaves him with the mental energy to concentrate on writing the rest of the time.

While his father was a businessman, Simon's mother was a primary teacher for 25 years, moving on to be deputy head. So it is hardly surprising that Mr Lelic is very familiar with the school environment.

"I had a lot of behind-the-scenes involvement" he says. "I used to go in on my holidays and did some work experience (there), so I was always privy to the staffroom politics that were going on."

At its core, Rupture is a tale of underdogs and bullies. It shows how much a school environment can exacerbate power struggles and exposes the type of low-level vindictive behaviour that can take place.

Mr Lelic remembers how some teachers at his own school were victimised, with one even fleeing the classroom in tears. "It's difficult for a kid to comment, but I know there were one or two teachers who had a hard time," he says. "It was an ongoing thing that didn't seem to resolve itself when I was present."

At the same time, casual bullying was the norm among the pupils. "I was bullied at school; every kid was bullied at my school to some extent," he says. "It wasn't endemic and was probably no worse there than it was in other schools, but it was there."

We Need to Talk About Kevin and Vernon God Little are among the novels that have school shootings at their heart, but in both cases it was a pupil who opened fire. Mr Lelic wanted to give a fresh perspective to this tragedy and, at the same time, to explore staffroom culture.

"In some respects, it doesn't paint a very flattering light of staffroom politics," he says, with a wry laugh. "There are inevitably going to be tensions in the staffroom when you have a group of people thrust together in a relatively high-pressure environment, particularly given that teaching, in my experience, tends to attract passionate people who are often self-questioning anyway and are exposed and sensitive to external criticism."

Any teachers he has worked with, or been taught by, will be relieved to know that the characters in the book are not modelled on anyone in particular. "It's more the emotions I witnessed as a pupil and then taking them to the furthest degree - imagining how far that conflict could develop," he says.

TJ, the PE teacher who spends his break-time playing football and basketball with the pupils, takes against the mild-mannered academic anti- hero from the start. Headteacher Travis is an authoritarian figure who does not see the point of humanities subjects and does nothing to support his staff against the children's behaviour.

We find out that when Szajkowski told him about the abuse he has suffered at the hands of his pupils, including an incident in which one of them defecates in his briefcase, Travis retorts: "What of it? What would you have me do?" before telling him: "You are a teacher, which means you teach and you lead and you maintain order . You do not allow yourself to become intimidated by a 15-year-old boy who in 12 months' time will either be queuing for his dole money or stealing other people's."

The novel may centre on the experience of Szajkowski, but Mr Lelic wanted his story to resonate beyond the walls of school. Chapters in the style of police interview transcripts with teachers, pupils and parents uncover exactly what the history teacher was having to deal with. But the reader comes to recognise the parallels between Inspector Lucia's increasingly uncomfortable fit with the macho world of the police and the alienation felt by 11-year-old Elliot, who has been hospitalised after classmates tried to cut off the birthmark on his face.

"(Bullying is) one of those topics that you immediately think of in your head as something that's only an issue among kids. It actually happens in a professional context, particularly in a male-dominated institution like the Metropolitan Police," says Mr Lelic.

In the US, the book has been published through Penguin under the title 1,000 Cuts, referring to the accumulative effect of lots of petty incidents and irritations. "It's all about how it's perceived by the person who's being bullied. How it affects them and their place in society. I mean, it can ruin everything. It can ruin your life and your perception about everything."

In a heated debate between Inspector Lucia and her detective chief inspector (DCI), the junior officer argues that somebody other than the perpetrator should be held accountable for the shooting. If there was a more supportive school culture, Szajkowski may not have been driven to take such drastic action, she says. Her exasperated DCI claims that the school "is the bastard government" and can't be blamed. But does Mr Lelic think schools should be held accountable for staffroom bullying?

"It's very difficult," he acknowledges. "Ultimately, yes. But the problem with schools these days and what's expected of teachers is the massive burden of responsibility and the focus on academic results. It saps all their attention. To ask teachers to be accountable for everything that goes on in a school with the resources they have is unrealistic. But I think there needs to be a cultural shift, probably from government level down, to give teachers that time and freedom."

When it comes to the staff, however, teachers should have the same rights as any other employees, he argues. "In my mind, the onus should be on the people running that organisation," he says. "The employees in their charge - in this case the teachers - are entitled to an environment where they feel happy, safe and comfortable with what they are doing."

But Mr Lelic has been unable to deduce much about teachers' reactions to the book from his teacher mother. "Anything I write, my mum assumes is a result of something she's done to me in my childhood," he laughs. "It's not a relaxing experience for her."

But he hopes that this first novel, part crime, part literary fiction, will be well received by teachers who might empathise with the characters as well as enjoying the gripping plot.

And he wants the book to challenge wider perceptions about bullying, particularly the ideas that it is something you simply have to deal with and that it leaves no lasting damage. "I think that if you are in a group where your peers are badgering you, or humiliating you to any kind of extent, it's going to affect your quality of life and your ability to do your job," he says.

"Really, all I hope it will do is make people think about their involvement in what happens around them. Even if it's standing around watching what goes on between two others in your organisation, you are involved in a sense."

Simon Lelic's favourite fictional teachers

To Sir, with Love by E.R. Braithwaite - "A semi-autobiographical portrayal of a teacher in conflict with his students, as well as broader society. Sanitised and sentimentalised in the 1967 film, the book deals more unflinchingly with issues of race and discrimination."

The Magus by John Fowles - "This presents a stark contrast in attitudes to learning. There is Nicholas Urfe, an emotionally stunted teacher of English who only does what he does because he has failed at what he would choose to do; and Maurice Conchis, an intellectual who hoards knowledge and uses it - abuses it, really - to play God."

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - "David Lurie, a university teacher of poetry who succumbs to an affair with a student, is masterfully drawn. You might not like him, but you will certainly remember him."

Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling - "Teachers, understandably, feature heavily in children's literature, and Severus Snape of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is up there with the most vivid. He is admirably loathsome. Although his vibrancy owes much, I feel, to (actor) Alan Rickman (in the film adaptations), who seems to have been born to play love-to-hate baddies."

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte - "There are several memorable teachers to choose from during Jane's time at Lowood, but Mr Brocklehurst is the one who endures in my mind. The original demon headmaster."

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