Twenty years ago I accepted my first teaching position in a tiny town in the southeast of Western Australia. The town population was less than 400 people although it rose considerably once the entire shire (mainly farmers) was counted. Although the town is over 500 km from my hometown of Perth, I wasn’t worried about the isolation as I lived in a remote mining community as a young child.
It may be difficult to imagine in this more connected age, but I had none of the on-line resources teachers take for granted now. No one in the town, much less the school, had Internet or mobile (cell) phone connection. I received two television stations because my house was near the transmitter but families living further out needed a satellite dish.
I liked the freedom of country living and settled into teaching my high school classes without too many hassles. Towards the end of the first term I decided the students needed a more challenging English program. I visited a retired teacher friend and we excitedly planned a “proper Literature” program for the next term.
As a few of my students were no nonsense farm boys, I was slightly concerned by my colleague’s initial suggestion that we develop a program around the theme of Mystery and Romance, using Daphne Du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca as the primary text. I knew the girls would enjoy the book and Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar winning film adaptation. The boys I was not so sure about.
My concerns were unfounded. The class enjoyed the mystery element of Rebecca and didn’t complain too much about watching a black and white movie. I gave out the final homework assignment that asked the students to write their own short story using the Mystery and Romance theme. Things were going well and I smugly congratulated myself.
The first sign of trouble came on the weekend when I was shopping in the only store. More than one parent commented to me how much little Johnny* was enjoying his homework assignment. In fact, he had stayed up all night to complete it. I may have been imagining it, but I could have sworn one of the fathers gave me an amused look as he paid for his Coco Pops. A more experienced teacher may have sensed the coming storm.
The following Monday the students handed in their assignments, with Johnny solemnly declaring, “This is the best thing I ever wrote,” as he handed over a bundle of closely written pages. Feeling like the world’s best teacher, I took the short stories to the staff room and made myself a warming cup of coffee before settling down to mark them. I decided to read Johnny’s first, guessing he would be eager to know his grade after working so hard on the weekend.
Oh my Godfather. Little Johnny’s romance story was not exactly pornography, but it was a near thing. Page after page described numerous amorous trysts loosely wrapped up in a Du Maurier plot. Suddenly his Dad’s smirky look in the Megamart made sense. Dad had obviously gleaned enough information from his son about the assignment to guess how his son had interpreted the Mystery and Romance theme.
In a panic I examined the other boys’ short stories and found them all the same. Feverishly scrawled across the pages were long (very long!) tales of entwined limbs and lust in the moors. Spelling, punctuation and penmanship was all forgotten in their haste to get every sordid detail on the page. Good grief. Grey hairs started sprouting from my 24 year old head.
With some trepidation I examined the girls’ assignments and was relieved to find they followed the standard Mystery and Romance plot without the carnal embellishments. I considered my options. To be fair, it wasn’t the boys’ fault. As far as they were concerned, they had written excellent Mystery and Romance stories and would be surprised to discover their work was more Penthouse than Poe.
I wasn’t worried about the parents’ reaction to the students’ assignments. Reflecting on my weekend experiences, it was apparent most had a fair idea why their sons were taking an intense interest in creative writing. I imagined them having a good laugh at my expense. Bastards. As a newly qualified teacher on my first posting, however, I didn’t want the Principal to discover I had inadvertently corrupted my male pupils, the oldest of whom was only 14.
My first thought was to blame my dogs. The boys would believe me as the destructive appetites of my four dogs (including two rescue Labradors) was well known around town after they ate a council picnic table. “My dogs ate your homework, “ seemed an easy way out. On reflection, this seemed a bit dishonest and it would be hard to explain why the dogs had singled out the boys’ work.
Anyway, I arranged to have a private conference with the boys and did my best to explain the difference between soft porn (what they had written) and the Mystery and Romance sub-genre (what we had read).
They listened politely but insisted they had written brilliant romances with a dash of mystery thrown in. Eventually they agreed to revise their stories so everyone kept their clothes on. For the boys, the romance part of the theme equaled sex and nothing I said would dissuade them. For a woman who had grown up with three sisters and attended a girls’ school, the discussion was quite enlightening and explained a lot of my dating history.
The next year, I substituted Mystery and Romance for the Westerns sub-genre and received boys’ assignments full of horrendous bloodshed, wanton cruelty, scalping Indians and murderous gunslingers. It was a huge relief.
* Names have been changed to protect the not so innocent.