Marvale Primary School. A cloudy autumn sky. The day started with 362 students and seventeen teachers. It ended with three people missing.
Lisa and Jacob Johnstone had suffered a well-documented childhood of neglect and abuse. Everyone agreed that it needed to end.
Jessica Bell was a kind and well-respected teacher, a strong and motivated woman. She only wanted the best for her students. Her own history of damage and pain had her believing that running away was the solution they had all been searching for.
Miss Bell was not a bad woman. She was a good teacher.
Teacher and author PJ Kelly penned the recently released The Good Teacher, to explore the notion of right and wrong, good and evil, and common sense and the law.
PJ says the novel, which took him six years to write, was a labour of love and a story he wrote from a writing space at his home in Perth, Western Australia.
“I’ve got a little writing cabin at home. I just started going out there and started writing it. Six years ago, I had the idea, so I sat and wrote a rough synopsis and idea about what I was going to put down. I am lucky I’ve got a very understanding wife, so I did the first three and a half years and then just was getting a bit worried I wasn’t going to finish it, and it wouldn’t see the light of day. I spoke to my wife and she said I could go down to part time. So the last two and a half years I worked three days a week so the other two days I could write,” he says.
“That was the secret to success. That really got me over the line, because I could wake up every day and just do nine till five as a writer, which is a lot of time to write, so that was great. I would actually get up most days at four o’clock in the morning, because when you’ve got a job and a family, anything else will get in the way of writing. Even the dishes will get in the way.
“So at four in the morning, there’s not a lot you can do; you can’t do dishes, you can’t wake up anybody in your house so I would just go outside to the cabin and it would still be dark and I’d just write. So by the time it was time to come into the house by seven, I’d already done three and a half hours, so that was great. The world doesn’t actually really exist at that time as well, so you’re not losing anything.”
Inspired by the Socrates quote: “It is not living that matters, but living rightly”, PJ put pen to paper for The Good Teacher, but he also took stimulus from conversations with fellow teachers.
“It started just in the staff room just talking with other teachers about those children that you wished you could have saved,” he says. “A lot of teachers have had long careers and there’s always been that one child that they’ve heard about who has either gone off the rails or isn’t living a good life and they think, ‘Gosh, you know, if only I could have saved them.’ So it struck me that we are kept in by the law and we have to think about what we have to do as a teacher within that, but I thought, Well what would happen if a teacher did choose to break the law to save some children?
“And then our principal reminded us of our responsibilities as teachers: that if we see abuse, if a child comes in and they’ve got bruises on their arms or any signs like that, we have to note it down, we have to tell someone. Otherwise, if it sees the light of day further on in that child’s life, they can come back to use and we can actually have a short time in jail or a fine for not actually stepping in and changing things there and then. So those two things inspired me to create this story.”
And while there has been collegial discussion of saving a child, PJ says he has never had to make a moral choice like the one Jessica Bell makes in The Good Teacher.
“I think we’re so well trained and so well drilled about what we can do and what we can’t do. So I don’t think so, but I just was intrigued with the idea of playing with a fictional character who I felt could, because the teacher in question isn’t married, she doesn’t have a family, her parents have died, so she’s got nothing to lose and so I thought it was interesting to play with this idea based upon her rather than anybody that has to live by the law in the real world,” he says.
Writing from the perspective of a teacher making a decision PJ has never had to make was difficult, but writing from the perspective of a woman was a greater challenge.
“I really had to work hard,” he says. “I did find it difficult because you just question yourself. As a male your natural instinct is to write as a male. Early on in the piece, I thought about creating a male teacher, but people brought it to my attention it would be a lot more palatable if it was a female teacher taking two children. So straight away it was easy to make that change. But yeah, I did have to work really hard trying to keep the female voice running along.”
The Good Teacher is on the shelves at all great book stores, but you can also grab a copy from PJ Kelly’s website.
By Libby Parker