- and last, but not least . . .
In the absence of any religious beliefs, Mayhew’s search for a higher power had led him to Fate. His lousy experiences in life, and the blessings, which were Jenni, Damon and Erin, his home and friends, must be attributable to Fate. It was a matter of being in the right place, or the wrong place, at the right or wrong time. (Jeremy came to realise much later in his life, that Lady Luck had probably played only a very small part in his life. Much of what had happened, good or bad, had happened because of the type of person he had been, and the life’s decisions which he had made.)
However, at this point in time, some months after the court action had been concluded, Jeremy was convinced that Fate had intervened. Although significantly less quixotic than he had been, Mayhew still harboured a grudge.
Carl Hanwood, always keen to safeguard the well-being of his staff, had become aware of the beginnings of a change of attitude within the system, and had seen the need to establish a staff welfare committee at Mac Vale Primary School. He floated the idea at a staff meeting where it was unanimously endorsed. When he called for nominations to the committee, Mayhew’s name was proposed along with Anne-Marie Williams and several other senior teachers.
Thus Mayhew found himself elected committee chairperson. A part of his role was to become aware of changes in the system’s management of teachers, so that he could pass on this information. This is why he was reading the pamphlet which he had found on the staffroom table.
The information related to the making of “protected disclosures”, the means by which “whistle-blowers” could raise issues of corruption and mismanagement in public sector workplaces, supposedly without fear of victimisation. Legislation compelled senior bureaucrats to conduct legitimate investigations into such allegations.
Mayhew did think twice. He didn’t immediately rush to the keyboard and begin composing his list of complaints, citing Fauntleroy, Palin and company. He stopped to consider the consequences of such an action for Jenni and the family. He couldn’t see how this could really blow up in his face, and he expected that he could manage the task without it impacting upon his loved ones, so he broached the subject with his wife.
Jenni was not impressed. Having just begun to recover from the latest episode in the drama which was “Life with Jeremy”, she didn’t feel at all inclined to rush into the next instalment, but she knew her husband well. Jenni could see his vision tunnelling and knew that he would go ahead. The best she could hope to do, was to dictate some clear boundaries and try to make sure that Mayhew stayed within them. At least that way, they might again survive.
With a green light from Jenni, along with a strict set of road rules and speed limits, Mayhew first contacted his District Supervisor ( another new name for the District Inspector / Cluster Director) to ascertain that, under the legislation, he was entitled to lodge his complaints. Anticipating the Supervisor’s advice, Mayhew set to with a will, creating documents which cited Fauntleroy, Palin and Flashman for professional mismanagement.
Even as he wrote, beneath the excitement and anticipation, Jeremy secretly knew that he was probably urinating into the teeth of a howling gale, and that he would most likely end up drenched to the skin.
He submitted the documents and waited for a response. Under the legislation, action had to be initiated within a strict, and brief, timeframe. It didn’t really matter to Mayhew that the deadline for response was well past when he finally received notification that his complaints had been registered, and that action would be taken to investigate. Knowing that a clever bureaucracy would never begin an investigation unless it knew in advance, what the outcome would be, Jeremy’s excitement and relief were tempered a little by the lurking image of strong winds and damp clothing, and a pale odour of urine, but he was delighted. At last, someone was going to have to look at what had happened, and perhaps even give him some explanation of why it had happened.
More than half of the time allocated under the legislation to the investigation had passed when Jeremy was finally contacted by Jim, a retired senior bureaucrat who had started his career as a teacher, and got lost along the way. Jim confessed to having enjoyed his time working with students, but he had risen through the ranks to the point at which he now served, in a part-time capacity, as an advisor to both the Senior Director of Education and the Minister.
Jim was extremely careful to keep his dealings with Jeremy cordial but official. At the outset, he had set the ground rules for the inquiry very clearly. Jeremy’s health and welfare were to be given the highest priority. The truth, where it could be established, would be revealed, even if it were to Mayhew’s detriment. Mayhew would need to answer some very hard questions before the inquiry was completed.
Mayhew was reasonably impressed with this man and with his apparent no-nonsense attitude, and although he could still feel a strong breeze cooling the phantom moisture in his trousers, he felt inclined to trust Jim. If there were any chance that someone could and would reach the truth, Jim seemed most likely to do it. Even if he were not able to give definitive answers, it was probable that he would do his best to respond to the questions that Jeremy had raised.
At about their third meeting, Jeremy was able to detect a change in the investigator’s attitude. For the first time Jim expressed a view about the process in which he was involved. He raised with Jeremy, the matter of the inquiry’s time frame. The legislation mandated a period of some months for the investigation to be conducted and the outcomes published. Jim expressed his strong concern, anger almost, at the fact that he had not been given the brief for the task until half of the allowed period had elapsed. It was plain to Jim that he would not be able to conduct a thorough investigation during the time remaining. Jim appeared pleased when Mayhew offered to provide a written request that the time period be extended indefinitely.
With the technical problems overcome, the two men continued to meet, and Jeremy felt, more often than not, that they were supporting each other as they sought the truth. Jim was always strict in maintaining his policy of avoiding making any comment which might lead Mayhew to think one thing or another about the possible outcomes of the investigation. He was clinical, keeping a professional distance from Jeremy the person, and dealing only with Jeremy the complainant.
Mayhew was pleased with this situation. He didn’t want personalities to get in the way of the facts. He didn’t want the outcome of the inquiry to be affected by sympathy. He wanted what he believed he was getting – as impartial an assessment as it was humanly possible to produce, given that the investigator was himself a product of the schooling system, and paid by it. All the same, the two men seemed to develop some empathy, each for the other.
Jim had kept a close eye on Mayhew’s health, and he had been sure to remind Jeremy that, at some stage during the investigation, Jeremy would need to answer some hard questions. During their last couple of meetings, those questions were aired. Jeremy had been unconcerned about answering any questions which Jim might have for him.
Mayhew knew that throughout the entire miserable experience, from Fauntleroy to Flashman, he had made some very poor choices with respect to his own behaviour. He knew that he should have complained long and loud to a higher authority, about the incompetence and stupidity, about the system’s total failure to address its own failings. He knew, also, that to have made such complaints would most certainly have been a complete waste of time and energy, since the system’s greatest failing had lain in the fact that it could not deal with it’s failings.
Mayhew knew also, that in terms of his professional behaviour, he had nothing of which to be ashamed. His devotion to his work had been unquestionable and everything which he had done with respect to securing the inquiry, had been “by the book”. So, when the anticipated hard questions arrived, even Jim knew that they weren’t hard at all, and that the answers could do nothing more than reflect credit upon Jeremy Mayhew.
And so the investigation drew to a close. Jim knew that Jeremy knew that there would be no earth-shattering revelations, that the ground would not open up and swallow Chauncey, Dolores and company, that the system might feel just a twinge of pain when Jim made the truth known to his superiors, but that nothing would really cause the bureaucrats to significantly change the ways in which things were done. Mayhew knew that the published findings would not be critical of the players, or of the game. The best he could hope for, would be that the unwritten truths, passed informally between the investigator and his employers, might have some impact upon the people who were in a position to make changes.
How was it, that after everything which Mayhew had experienced, he could still be so naïve?
It had been an interesting six months. Jeremy felt that, despite Jim’s best efforts to remain uninvolved, detached, the investigator had developed a respect and, perhaps, even a liking for Mayhew. Jeremy knew roughly what the outcome of the investigation would be before receiving the formal notice, and he could not blame Jim for being unable to recommend that Fauntleroy and Palin, and probably Flashman, should be executed by firing squad immediately. The findings were, basically, that there could be no findings. Due to the passage of time and a lack of documentary evidence, Mayhew’s allegations could be neither proven nor disproven.
Despite this, Mayhew felt that he had done all that he could do, to bring to the attention of those who ought to have been concerned, the glaring faults of a system which had then, as it has now, self-preservation as its principal imperative. He knew that he had achieved little if anything in bringing about change, and that anything he might have achieved had come at an enormous cost.
Years later Mayhew would wonder if it had been worth the struggle. From Jenni’s point of view, it could not have been. Damon and Erin would surely have preferred that none of it had happened, or at least, that their father had been prepared to walk away from his self-destructive quest.
With the investigation over and the non-result announced, Mayhew believed that he could walk away from that sorry part of his life, and begin to rebuild himself.
During the next couple of years, he focussed upon enjoying his work and, more importantly, his family. He received the news of Fauntleroy’s retirement, some months after the conclusion of the investigation, with relief. He felt the same when Palin retired, shortly after. At the very least, no-one, child or teacher, would be subjected to their damaging influence any more.
Aside from occasional periods of minor depression, which were usually triggered by nagging memories, Jeremy managed reasonably well. His work at Mac Vale was valuable and successful, and the support which he received from Carl was unwavering. Perhaps that was why the news of Carl Hanwood’s impending retirement brought no cheers from Mayhew. Nor did any other members of his team feel happy about losing their leader. They were glad for Carl, but they knew that his replacement had enormous shoes to fill.
Richard King took one look at those shoes and quickly discarded them. He was far too small to wear them.
Jeremy had been managing a sports programme at Mac Vale for several years. It gave kids the opportunity to play a number of different sports outside the school, as well as games designed to be fun and enhance fitness, at school. This required the careful observance of technical matters such as the receipt of parental permission, something which Mayhew was extremely precise about. He had developed and refined an effective system, which made sure that everything was organised properly, and legally, whilst still being manageable within the time which Jeremy had to give to the programme.
Richard King, without bothering to find out what Mayhew’s system involved, instituted his own system, which immediately doubled the book-keeping required if the programme were to continue. Faced with the probability of having to withdraw from the programme, Mayhew approached Dick to ask if there were any way in which Dick’s requirements could be met without such a huge increase in paperwork. Dick’s reply was simple – his procedures would operate, no matter what.
The Mac Vale staff were not impressed by Dick. They were concerned that he was unapproachable and that the lead which connected his mouse to its computer, seemed to have become Dick’s umbilical cord. Memos replaced conversations. Discussions at staff meetings became redundant. Regardless of the views of many highly experienced, professional teachers, Dick’s views prevailed.
For Jeremy the final straw was loaded at one such staff meeting. All had gathered to hear the latest instructions from Dick. Dick was very anxious about the number of students he had observed who did not wear hats in the playground. He wasn’t about to leave himself open to a lawsuit from parents twenty years down the track, because he had failed to ensure that kids were fully protected from the sun.
Mayhew had pretty clearly defined views on the issue of what kids wore to school. His sensitivity to the matter had been sharpened by his own experiences as a child, but, in this instance, it wasn’t an issue of discrimination which concerned him. Rather, it was the manner in which the system, as promoted by Dick King, was usurping the responsibilities of parents.
Foolishly, Mayhew made this point at the meeting. Dick was not amused. He became a little angry, and restated his decision that students who refused to wear hats whilst playing in the sun, would be placed on detention. Mayhew suggested that such a move was perhaps a little extreme. Dick declared that, as principal, he could and would make such decisions. Mayhew was amused, but he knew that the writing was on the wall.
As he thumbed through the department’s job advertisements, Jeremy came across one for teachers who had had experience working with students whose behaviour caused them problems at school, and who were willing to teach in a special education environment which catered for the specific needs of such students.
The job description might have been written especially for Mayhew. For most of his twenty-eight years in schools, Jeremy had worked with kids who’d had behaviour problems. His current class contained five such students, three of whom had been with Jeremy throughout the previous year as well. It was only the welfare of his current group, which caused Jeremy to think twice before applying for the job.
Mayhew was worried that Aaron, Nathan and Bowen, in particular, would be affected by his departure, but he was sure that to stay, under the leadership of Dick King, would result in further health problems. The boys had made remarkable progress during the preceding year, gaining confidence and assurance, which was enabling them to stay in class and learn. Jeremy had been asked to take them on into year five in order to consolidate their learning. Now, with the decision to transfer having been made, he had to hope that they’d done enough to manage independently. He was going to miss his class, and most of his colleagues.
His farewell from Mac Vale was difficult to bear. The Parents’ and Citizens’ Association made a presentation to Mayhew in front of all the kids and teachers at his last morning assembly. He managed to avoid crying then, but things were more difficult later.
You don’t just walk away from nine years in a good school, especially when you have come to it as a member of the “walking wounded”, and when you have been, to a large extent, healed by the positive experiences which you’ve had there.
- Frying pans and fires.
Mayhew had been interviewed for his new job by a committee including the school’s principal, a representative of the Aboriginal community, and a union member. There were a number of applicants for the two classroom teaching jobs, with Mayhew getting one and Susan Downia-Legge getting the other.
Banksia House Special School was initially staffed by a principal, an assistant principal, another executive teacher, two classroom teachers, two teachers’ aides and a school assistant. Jeremy and Sue were added to this complement, as more students were enrolled. The principal, Phil Blewit, had a background in the field, as did his assistant principal and executive teacher, but the rest were there under the same circumstances as Jeremy. Each had some experience or expertise in working with troubled students.
The need to employ teachers who had no specific training or experience in a special school environment, was brought about by the government’s sudden decision to establish several of these schools in response to criticism that not enough was being done to remove troublesome students from mainstream classrooms, where they had been wreaking havoc upon the learning opportunities for normal students.
Essentially a “knee-jerk reaction” to a political situation, there had been little or no planning done from an educational perspective, to ensure that suitable buildings and staff were available. Thus, Banksia House found itself in temporary accommodation in decrepit buildings on a property owned by the charity arm of a church organisation. The upside of this situation lay in the school’s fabulous physical location, surrounded by acres of open fields and natural bush. This was a much better location than the boot of the District Superintendent’s car, as, rumour has it, had been suggested by the Minister when there had been difficulty in finding a suitable site.
Mayhew was soon in charge of a group of six students. He was ably assisted by Lynne Petrovski, his teachers’ aide, and, initially at least, his guide as to how things were done in this different type of school. Without Lynne’s expertise and support Jeremy would have been lucky to survive the several months it took him to find his way in this new situation.
The students were an interesting mix. Some attended school every day, whilst others were less keen to appear. With about twenty or thirty children and teenagers at school at any one time, there were numerous opportunities for interaction at many levels. None of these kids came from the sort of home which Jeremy Mayhew would have chosen for himself, or for his own children.
Violence and abuse were “normal” daily occurrences for these kids, either as victims, or perpetrators, or both. Substance abuse and alcoholism played a major part in the lives of most, if not all of them, as did emotional or sexual abuse. The student body at Banksia contained the most severely damaged and deprived young people you could ever imagine living in our enlightened Australian society.
Jeremy’s personal and professional background gave him a distinct advantage when it came to teaching these kids. It was almost as if his own experiences had been gained, just so that he could use them in order to make him a more effective teacher. He must have been performing well, since Phil Blewit once confided to Jenni, at a staff “get-together”, that Jeremy was the most skilful teacher he had ever seen, anywhere.
Before long, most of Mayhew’s students were managing to stay at school and remain in their classroom for most of the day. It slowly became unusual for Jeremy and Lynne to have to ignore torrents of verbal abuse, or to have to duck for cover as chairs were thrown across the room.
After almost thirty years in the trade, and some character-building experiences springing directly from those years, it seemed that Mayhew had found his niche. He was able to establish working relationships with the most demanding students, through showing them respect and caring, whilst maintaining a consistent level of expectation as far as their behaviour was concerned. Jeremy was almost surprised at the way in which the older students, fourteen and fifteen years old, responded to someone who had spent so many years working with younger kids.
He wasn’t surprised, however, when Phil Blewit placed Ed in his class. At that time Mayhew knew nothing about Ed, since Lyn McDermott had never mentioned the student by name, and he was given no information by Blewit, save the news that Ed would be accompanied by a specialist teacher, who had been seconded from a juvenile justice school, in order to assist with Ed’s integration into Banksia House.
In addition, another specialist teacher of literacy, would provide support for some time. It was plain that Ed was getting special treatment.
Steve Hazel had only met Ed shortly before. He knew little about the boy, except that he had a history of problems with his behaviour, and that he was clearly being given special treatment for some reason. Steve and Jeremy quickly formed a strong working relationship. The two men seemed to think alike, and Mayhew could see that Steve was a very capable and experienced teacher. Ed settled quite quickly into his new situation and had no particular difficulty in adjusting to Mayhew’s routine and expectations.
In the meantime, Banksia House, under Phil Blewit’s guidance, had started down a path, which would ultimately lead to its destruction. Phil was a nervous person who concealed his uncertainties beneath an exterior of bluff and bravado. He knew a lot about behaviour disorders in students, but he wasn’t especially comfortable when working with them. He seemed to feel unable to effectively communicate with them, and a number of the street-wise seemed to sense this. Mayhew wasn’t surprised at Blewit’s nervousness. The task of managing Banksia House, or any of its sister schools, was daunting. The political interference filtered from the top down, and in the early days Blewit had his District Superintendent constantly looking over his shoulder.
It often happened that a student, or perhaps two or three, would become violent, and would need to be locked out a classroom, in order to ensure the safety of the other students, as well as staff. In such cases, Phil or his assistant principal, or even a senior teacher, would need to supervise the angry student until it was possible to restore calm and eventually have the student returned to class, or sent home. During such events, Phil used mobile telephones in order to maintain contact between personnel outside supervising and those inside, under protection. This was essential, in case the violence escalated and staff members came under attack.
Mayhew had been in this position several times, and he found that to telephone Aern Fracks, the school assistant, and then wait for her to contact Phil, or somebody else inside, was awkward and inefficient. If Aern was already on the phone, there could be serious delays, and relaying messages was never as efficient as person-to-person contact. Mayhew suggested to Phil that they could purchase enough hand-held UHF radios to equip every staff member with their own set, at a very moderate cost. After the initial outlay, it would certainly be less expensive than conducting mobile telephone calls, and it had the real advantage of speed and direct contact.
Blewit was not very interested, but Aern was strongly opposed to the idea, and she made her views known. At the time, Mayhew could not understand the vehemence of her objections and he didn’t really care enough to make it an issue. He was, after all, only a classroom teacher, having decided that he would never again get caught up in the madness of promotion. He had only mentioned his idea because he believed that it would make the workplace safer and more efficient. In the light of Aern’s response, Phil decided that there was no need for further discussion. Aern Fracks’ strong reaction then, was only understood in the light of later, far more serious events.
Mayhew’s resolve to avoid promotion was gradually eroded, largely by his enjoyment of the success which he was experiencing as a senior teacher, but also by his colleagues easy acceptance of his informal leadership. It was their encouragement which finally turned the tide, when the assistant principal announced that she was leaving. Soon after this announcement came the news that Ryan Smith, the school’s executive teacher, had gained promotion and would also be departing. Ryan had been an outstanding young teacher, knowledgeable and skilled in working with troubled students. His loss to Banksia House would be acutely felt.
Mayhew was persuaded that, even if he were judged solely on the depth and breadth of his experience, he would make a suitable assistant principal, and that his promotion would go some of the way towards compensating for the loss of Ryan.
Sue Downia-Legge was very interested in seeking promotion. She believed that promotion and status went hand in hand. Sue was very interested in status. She had married Charles Legge, a successful businessman, and, with their children, they lived in a fashionable Sydney suburb. Sue arrived for work each day in her prestige motor car, wearing her designer outfit, and with a face full of perfect make up. However, probably as a result of her grass roots background, (her dad had been a maintenance man at the steelworks in Port Kembla), she was a capable teacher and able to relate to many of Banksia’s students. She made an ally of Jeremy Mayhew.
She had also formed a close relationship with Aern Fracks, and with Phil Blewit. In fact, as Mayhew later discovered, the three would often share coffee and cakes in Aern’s office, or go out to dinner together. Neither husband seemed to mind the amount of time devoted by the women to socialising with Blewit, who himself had no problems in that regard, his marriage having ended many years before.
Due to some technicality, or because Blewit wanted to manipulate the system in some obscure way and for some unknown reason, the vacant assistant principal’s position would not be permanently filled for some time. Ryan Smith’s vacancy would be filled through the interview process and the successful applicant would then become an executive teacher, acting as assistant principal. Someone else would then be given the job of acting executive teacher.
Mayhew, with his naivety once again bursting through, considered withdrawing his application for the executive teacher position, in favour of the younger Sue Legge. His reasoning was that Sue had a career ahead of her, whereas Mayhew did not, and that he might impede her progress if he were successful in getting the executive teacher position. If Sue were successful at the interview, she would become acting assistant principal and Mayhew would then become acting executive teacher. In time, Mayhew would learn that he had not only been naïve, but foolish as well.
Jeremy put this suggestion to Phil Blewit, who immediately countered with the thought that a third party could be successful at the interview, leaving Sue without any executive position. It was Blewit’s preference that Jeremy and Sue should both apply for the executive job, and that, if one were successful, the other would at least have an acting position to look forward to.
Jeremy’s appointment to the executive position pleased most of his colleagues and many of the students. Sue congratulated him and promised her support, as she took up the acting executive position following Jeremy’s instatement as acting assistant principal. There were no apparent sour grapes as a result of Mayhew’s success at interview. Phil Blewit seemed genuinely pleased and spoke with Jeremy about possible future directions for the school. Aern seemed a little more reserved than she had been towards Mayhew whilst he had been a lowly classroom teacher, but there was no early indication of the turmoil which was to ensue.
Banksia House spent two years in its unsatisfactory leased buildings, until the education department bought and renovated a former hospital building. Phil Blewit was involved in the planning of the renovation of the site, but he chose not to include any staff member, apart from Aern, in his part of the planning process. As a result the final construction of the school was less than suitable for its intended purpose. Large areas of glass made excellent targets for stones, or well-placed kicks, and classroom doors could not be secured, since they slid open and shut, and were impossible to bolt closed.
The renovation was not finished in time for the commencement of the new school year, so Mayhew and most of the staff continued to teach on the old site for several weeks. Blewit, Fracks and Legge, busied themselves at the new site, getting things set up for the arrival of the students.
- Turn up the heat . . .
Jeremy could detect a change in the wind as soon as the students were moved to the new school site. He hoped that he was imagining things, or that his new position as a chief, rather than an Indian, was colouring his view. His doubts were short-lived, however, as other members of staff began to comment upon the obvious change in Aern’s status and attitude. There were questions raised, too, about the relationship which had clearly developed between Blewit, Fracks and Sue Legge. With comments now being made publicly, Mayhew became more acutely aware of a situation which had existed for some time.
During the preceding eighteen months, Banksia’s staff had faced many difficulties. Chief among these was a worrying increase in student violence towards staff. There had been many more restraints occurring, with violent students held upon the ground by staff members, in order to prevent these students from physically attacking staff, or each other. It was only after repeated requests from Jeremy Mayhew, that Phil Blewit had finally agreed to arrange proper training for staff, so that they would be able to carry out restraints when necessary, with the least possible risk of harm to the students or to staff themselves.
Ed had settled into Mayhew’s class and was managing to make academic progress, but his behaviour out of the classroom was another matter. High levels of abuse, threats of physical harm and attempted assaults on staff were the norm. Even in a school for students with severe behaviour disorders, these behaviours were unacceptable and intolerable. Of the many, three specific instances highlighted the real danger which Ed’s behaviours posed.
Whilst on playground duty in the school’s hall, Mayhew had been required to issue consequences to Ed for his inappropriate behaviour, in bullying younger students. Ed refused to accept these consequences, which involved sitting out of a game for ten minutes, and stormed out of the hall, slamming the glass doors with considerable force. Blewit was notified immediately and approached Ed in the playground. Ed threatened Blewit with a tree branch and said that he would bash Mayhew when he could. Blewit phoned Aern, who phoned Jeremy, instructing Mayhew to remain out of sight until the situation had cooled.
Another incident arose in the playground whilst the students were playing sport. Singer Berger had needed to apply consequences to Ed, who was refusing to allow the rest of the students to play a game of softball. Ed would stand in the way of a student running between bases, or, if the ball came sufficiently close, he would grab it and refuse to give it up. Ed objected to Singer’s intervention, grabbed a softball bat and surged towards the young teacher with the bat raised, poised to strike her with it. Quick on her feet, Singer was able to keep her distance from the now rampaging student. Quick-witted as well, she, and the other staff present, made sure that the other students were moved quickly away to safety.
Blewit himself was on the receiving end of Ed’s attacks on more than one occasion, but one was witnessed by most of the school’s population. Most of Banksia’s students were to attend an excursion to an outdoor education centre. Due to the fact that Ed’s behaviours had shown him to be a real threat to the safety of others, he was not permitted to attend the excursion. Ed decided that, if he weren’t to go, then no-one else would go either, and when staff and students boarded the bus to leave school, Ed stood in front of the bus, hanging onto a windscreen wiper, preventing the driver from moving forward or backward without risk of injury to the student, or damage to the bus.
Blewit talked to Ed, attempting to persuade him to allow the bus to leave. The stand-off lasted for about ten minutes, with the students inside the bus becoming increasingly agitated, and threatening Ed. Staff worked overtime in order to keep those within the bus calm, talking and persuading, and reminding the angry students that today was to be a very enjoyable day, and that they would soon be able to leave. When Blewit’s words achieved nothing, he decided to take action. He approached Ed who lashed out with his foot, attempting to kick the principal.
Blewit dodged and got closer to Ed who again kicked out, unsuccessfully. Realising that he could be reached, Ed released his grip on the windscreen wiper, and struck out with hands and feet. Blewit was struck and kicked several times in quick succession, but he managed to get a grip of Ed’s flailing arms and pulled him from in front of the bus. As soon as the way was clear, Mayhew instructed Mick, the driver, to go ahead, and as the bus left, Blewit released his grip on Ed and moved away.
It was apparent to all members of staff that Ed had no place at Banksia. The very real physical threat which he posed to others, complemented the emotional threat. Staff, especially the female members who constituted the majority, were justifiably afraid. For some reason, Blewit was loathe to even suspend Ed, let alone expel him from the school. Ed’s father was rumoured to have a history of violence towards teachers, and his mother was known to have threatened legal action against the education department, when her son’s violent and abusive behaviour had caused problems in other schools.
Although Blewit had his staff’s support on most matters, there were serious concerns about his inaction where Ed was concerned. Before his promotion, whilst still Ed’s class teacher, Mayhew was called upon by Blewit to play a major role in making an important decision with respect to Ed.
Blewit had finally suspended Ed following more violence towards staff, and he spoke to Jeremy about a conversation, which he had had with the District Superintendent, as the end of the suspension period approached. Blewit had given the Superintendent a full run down of Ed’s history since joining Banksia, and had raised with the senior man, the subject of expulsion. A true politician, the Superintendent had spoken of the negative publicity which Ed’s mother would attract through her legal actions, reminding Blewit that, if Ed were expelled, his mother would certainly take the matter to court in order to secure the youth’s reinstatement.
If she were successful, the Superintendent reminded Blewit, then, not only would Ed be back at Banksia, but they would lose what little control they still had over him. Had Ed’s assaults put somebody in hospital, the case for expulsion would have been much stronger. The Superintendent assured Blewit of his support, whichever decision the principal made, but he advised Blewit to think carefully before making that decision.
Blewit asked Mayhew if, as a classroom teacher, he would be prepared to accept Ed back into his class. He told Mayhew that if he were not prepared to take the student back into class, then Blewit would take action to expel Ed. Following his Superintendent’s lead, Blewit had dumped the responsibility for the critical decision squarely onto Mayhew’s shoulders.
Down the track, Mayhew could never decide what had prompted his decision to accept Ed back into his class, but he came to suspect that a number of factors combined to influence his choice. It will be pretty clear already that Mayhew was naive. Perhaps stupid would be a better word. Since Ed had been reasonably manageable in class, and the two still had a functioning working relationship, Mayhew thought, at the time, that Ed still had some hope of learning to deal with his problems, and this could never be achieved if the student were expelled. Although it was misplaced, Mayhew still had some respect for Blewit at that time and he felt some sympathy for the principal’s anguish.
Perhaps he just didn’t want to be the one who made the decision which would ultimately lead to court appearances and testimony, and mounds of paperwork. Whatever the reason, Jeremy agreed to continue working with Ed. It’s funny how the decisions you make, can come back to bite you.
In the staffroom, a number of staff members were vocal about Blewit’s decision to accept Ed’s return. Their comments were valid, even if they were borne of anxiety. The discord which would eventually lead to Blewit’ destruction, had surfaced. However, the comments focussed on more than just Phil’s management decisions. They also targeted his relationship with Sue Legge, and, more particularly, Aern Fracks.
Shared adversity can bring unity, and for the staff at Banksia, it had done so. In the early months of the school’s development, most members of staff had formed strong attachments with each other, providing support in very challenging circumstances. This included the trio of Blewit, Fracks and Legge, which, at that time, did not represent an obvious clique. After school social activities were frequent, and most enjoyable. A Friday afternoon visit to the pub was a great opportunity to let the hair down, and regular outings, mainly restaurant dinners, involved staff and their families. Jenni came to know and like many of Mayhew’s colleagues.
Phil Blewit liked a drink. Aern did too. (She would often tell stories of sitting on the deck of the yacht, which she and her husband had moored in Sydney Harbour, drinking champagne as the sun, went down.) She offered to drive Phil to and from the staff get-togethers. Her husband, like Charles Downia, was usually too busy to attend, so Aern was a free agent for the evenings. Despite the fact that Phil lived more than an hour’s drive from Aern, the two would appear together at almost all staff functions. It was usual, too, that those with families waiting for them at home, would head there at the end of the night, whilst those free spirits would kick on at a pub somewhere, until the small hours. Aern would then drive Phil home.
Suggestions were made of a close personal relationship between the two. As time passed and Blewit’s standing with his staff was eroded, the suggestions became more direct, and sometimes more crudely put. Preferring to avoid involvement in the situation, Mayhew tried not to hear, even when the whispers became increasingly audible.
Fracks, herself, did nothing to stem the flow of rumours, or to endear herself to her colleagues. Upon taking up residence in her new school office, she took up a more “hands-on” approach to management, and not just in respect of her own job. Although not employed to do so, Fracks began making decisions and giving instructions to students and teaching staff, as well as to the aides. It wasn’t long before people started to object.
Legge continued to spend much of the time when she was not on class, in conversation with either Fracks or Blewit. Coffee was usually involved, with Legge or Fracks frequently pushing the plunger for themselves and Phil. It appeared that many critical management decisions were made over coffee, and without input from Mayhew who was not only acting assistant principal, but by far the most experienced teacher on staff.
Morale was plummeting at a rate corresponding to that at which crises were increasing. Although he felt no personal anxiety about the situation (Fracks and Legge were careful at that time not to alienate him), Mayhew was fielding complaints from people who were afraid to take their concerns to Blewit, for fear of repercussions. Mayhew knew that it was his responsibility to speak with Blewit, if only to ascertain that his boss actually knew what was happening. Phil sat beside his desk and Jeremy took a place on a low seat, beside the window. The two men had open space between them, at least in a literal sense. Mayhew didn’t enjoy telling the man he had once respected that there were serious problems which required his attention.
Phil simply sat, almost as if he were unable to take in what Mayhew was telling him. Phil was a computer freak. The latest, most advanced instruments of technology covering his desk spoke of that, but he had lost the capacity to deal with people. In many respects, he had a lot in common with Dick King. When Mayhew had finished speaking, Phil said nothing. After several moments of extremely uncomfortable silence, Jeremy took his leave.
Phil Blewit epitomised the failed system executive. He had been promoted past the point at which he was competent, and then been denied appropriate support to enable him to gain the skills and knowledge which might have increased his competency. In order to operate effectively in a modern NSW public school, a principal now needs to be, at least, an educational leader, an expert teacher, a personnel manager, a community liaison officer, a child-welfare officer, an occupational health and safety expert, a statistician, a financial manager and an accountant. Phil had been a reasonable teacher, had knowledge of the theories and practices of education, and managed to maintain satisfactory working relationships with his colleagues.
His promotion to the principalship at Banksia House had come in response to political intervention. The government, without the benefit of research and planning, had suddenly created “behaviour schools”, and needed principals to manage them. Since there were very few such schools already in existence, the pool of experienced executive and classroom teachers was very small, and executive members in mainstream schools were extremely reluctant to take on such enormous responsibilities.
Had Phil been given support, he might have had some hope of successfully managing Banksia, but, as it was, once the schools had been established and the problem children removed from their mainstream schools, the high level political interest was at an end, and the bureaucrats took over. Their task was to account for the spending and to see that no embarrassing negative publicity was generated from within the new schools. To support principals who were finding the task of managing “behaviour schools” beyond their capabilities, might have been seen as supporting the view that the establishment of such schools was, in the first place, a serious mistake by government.
Phil was seriously under-equipped for the job. His most glaring deficiency lay in his limited knowledge of school financial management, particularly the day-to-day job of accounting. When he discovered Aern Fracks, he thought his prayers had been answered. Here was an apparently knowledgeable and efficient person, who was willing to accept responsibility for the managing the school’s money. Not only that, she seemed to be a skilled office manager, who would be well able to supervise the work of the teachers’ aides.
Within a period of months, Fracks had become indispensable to Phil. The fact that she doted on the principal, making and serving him cups of coffee, and lending a sympathetic ear, was a welcome bonus. Aern was always there when something needed to be done, and she would willingly do things which were a long way outside her job description. She had a talent for dealing with the bureaucrats, too. Her telephone manner was smooth and she could often calm the irate parents who rang to complain to Phil, before Phil had to deal with them. Aern Fracks was almost too good to be true.
Nobody, including Jeremy Mayhew, suspected that Fracks was what is known in professional parlance as a “mudguard”. The plainest definition of such a person is also somewhat crude. A “mudguard” is a person who is “all shiny on top, and all shit underneath”. Beau Flashman was an excellent example of a mudguard.
Fracks initially had worked her magic on all of her colleagues, including Mayhew, carefully assessing and manipulating each one. Intelligent, and possessed of natural cunning, she was able to be all things to all people, while it suited her. She drew Sue Legge in very easily, mainly because Sue could see that the way into Phil’s good graces first involved ingratiating herself with Fracks. Yes, Susan Downia-Legge was also a mudguard. Her future promotion prospects would be heavily influenced by her relationship with her current principal. (Principals in NSW schools are mandated as the first referee for anyone seeking advancement.)
Mayhew could also be useful to Fracks. He had the ear of the staff, and could be used as a conduit for channelling information. He was also very much aware of the system’s inadequacies and opposed to the way in which the system used and abused its people. But, although rather naïve, he was also very good at understanding human behaviour. He would require particular care, if he were to be useful to Fracks.
Jeremy had never concealed his history of mental illness and, when asked, would openly tell the story of his mistreatment by the system. Aern revealed to Mayhew that she, too, had suffered at the hands of the system. She had been forced to transfer from her previous school because of the principal’s treatment of her.
She had been the senior school assistant, and involved in the keeping of the school’s financial records. She knew what was, and what was not, appropriate in the management of a school’s finances. Aern had become concerned that her boss was using school money in the wrong way, and when she had pointed this out to him, her opinion had not been well-received. The relationship between Aern and her boss had deteriorated to the point where she felt that she had to report him, for financial mismanagement, to the Director of Audit.
An exhaustive inquiry had vindicated the principal (“These people always stick together”). Aern’s position had become untenable and her transfer to Banksia House was a god-send. Phil Blewit was such a wonderful man.
Mayhew felt some sympathy for Fracks, although her description of the behaviour of her previous boss didn’t fit at all with Mayhew’s knowledge of the man.
Paul Coustas had worked with Jeremy on a regional committee some years before, and Jeremy had sensed a high level of integrity about the man. Paul had a reputation as an excellent principal, who ran a good school in a challenging community setting. Still, Jeremy had made mistakes in judging people before. Maybe Paul hadn’t been what he seemed.
Phil Blewit took advantage of Aern’s willingness to do anything which he asked. He made her the key person in the school’s communication system. She would pass on his instructions to staff, messages to parents and directions to students. She would even supervise students when Blewit was inundated with kids, who had been removed from their classes due to inappropriate behaviour. She was a sounding board for his ideas, and he welcomed the times amid the madness when he and Aern and Sue could sit with a coffee and a cake and relax.
Aern and Sue had been very supportive. He couldn’t do without them. A part of Phil knew that Mayhew’s revelations of staff disquiet were valid, and that he should be grateful to his assistant principal, but he found it easier to assume that staff jealousy had motivated the complaints, and that Mayhew had been happy to carry them to him.
Phil was trapped in a dilemma of his own making. If he were to do what he knew needed to be done, he ran the risk of losing Fracks’ support. This would make his job as principal, impossible to do. If he ignored the staff complaints relayed by Mayhew, things might get better. Stupefied, Phil chose to do nothing.
The situation soon worsened dramatically. It was almost as if Fracks could sense that Phil was struggling to maintain control of himself. She seemed to know that she was indispensable and that gave her great power. With Phil almost disabled by fear and anxiety, and with Sue Legge as her ally and confidante, Aern knew that she was untouchable.
Legge was happy to be elevated to a position in which she was the only other member of staff who supported Blewit. She was able to pander to his suffering ego, all the while securing for herself a position of power. Between them, she and Fracks had effectively locked Mayhew out of the executive loop.
Blewit gradually withdrew more and more from his team. He even started to distance himself from Fracks and Legge, but there would come a time each and every day, when he would need to rely on his senior school assistant for something. He wouldn’t or couldn’t face Mayhew, and even stopped passing on the administrative tasks to which Jeremy should have been attending. Vital jobs didn’t get done. Each year, the performance of teachers is formally reviewed and a report submitted. The process involves discussion and planning with teachers, as well as observation and consultation.
The report was overdue, and Phil called out to Jeremy as he was passing Blewit’s office early one morning. He told Mayhew that he was completing the performance review report, and asked if Jeremy had spoken with teachers about their teaching. Jeremy confirmed that he had, and that was all that Blewit wanted to know. In the midst of a staff crisis, Phil had signed the paper which stated that all was well.
Staff cohesion was now a virtually non-existent. Fracks and Legge subtlely targeted staff members whom they felt might be enlisted as allies. They were able to recruit the school counsellor, who only appeared once a week, but who might have significant influence due to her role within the school, and then began a campaign designed to divide those who opposed them.
Mayhew was counselling his worried, angry and frustrated colleagues to speak directly with Phil, but they were still loathe to do so. Blewit had become so withdrawn that people were reluctant even to say good-day to him. “He’s always stuck on his computer” was a common complaint. Mayhew knew that it would again fall to him to talk to the principal.
He tried twice more during the next couple of months and each attempt ended in failure. The same blank stare and uncomfortable silence greeted Mayhew on each occasion and he concluded that he was wasting his breath.
It was Ed who brought matters to a head when he tried to assault a pregnant teacher and made threats against the life of her unborn child.
The staff were outraged, and some suggested that Phil’s decision to suspend the student wasn’t enough. Expulsion had to follow. At a meeting chaired by Mayhew (Phil was absent at another meeting), the majority of staff, including Legge, who herself had been threatened by Ed, agreed to frame a letter to Phil expressing their concerns. Michael Hunter, as a representative of the teachers’ aides, would work together with a classroom teacher, Laura Norder, and the draft would be amended or confirmed after all members had seen it.
Although very vocal in her condemnation of Ed’s behaviour, Fracks had fallen silent when the decision to write to Blewit was made. She said nothing at the time of the meeting, but quickly had words with Legge as soon as they were alone.
Fracks reminded Legge that they would need to protect Phil from what she characterised as an “attack” by the disaffected staff members. If Phil’s position were to be compromised, then Legge’s anticipated glowing reference would carry less weight. Fracks knew that her own position of power was in even greater danger. If Phil’s management were called into question, it was likely that she would lose the control and the influence which she had worked so hard to attain. The planned letter to Phil had to be scuttled at all costs.
Sue phoned Laura at home. She told Laura that she had reconsidered her position on the writing of the letter, that she was sure that such an action would be an over-reaction, and that Phil was likely to take it as an affront to his authority. Laura, even though she had been quite vocal during the meeting, was not given to taking risks and, under pressure from Susan, she buckled and agreed that the letter should not be written. When this news hit the rest of the staff, particularly those who were able to see the games being played by Fracks and Legge, there was a silent uproar.
Mayhew, not happy himself about Legge’s intervention, spent many hours over the next couple of days listening to the complainants, before deciding that he had to commit his own concerns to paper. Phil had been able to ignore Mayhew’s worries when delivered in the informal mode, but a written notice would have to result in some action.
The strain upon Mayhew himself was becoming a problem. There were an increasing number of periods of mild or minor depression, as Mayhew struggled to manage an unmanageable situation. He lived in a state of constant conflict. He still felt some loyalty to Blewit, who had been so supportive of Mayhew when he first joined Banksia House, but he could see what Blewit’ inaction in relation to the issue of Fracks and Legge was doing to his colleagues, and the flow-on to the students was apparent. There had been more and more serious incidents of abuse and violence towards teachers. This was a product of both the negatively charged atmosphere within the school, and the students’ observations that Ed could get away with the most extreme behaviour.
Jeremy’s physical health had been deteriorating for some time. When Ed targeted him for abuse and threats, he’d had enough. Phil had been away at yet another conference, leaving Jeremy in charge for three days – an awkward position in itself, given Fracks’ view that she and Legge should have been running the ship. Blewit was called back from his conference and Jeremy took sick leave on the Friday.
He used the time to sit quietly at home and compose the list of concerns, which he was to hand to Phil on the following Monday. When the time came, Mayhew tried to explain to Phil that it wasn’t his intention, or wish, to stab Blewit in the back, and that personal feelings were not a motivating factor for his action in producing a formal advice. Blewit looked as if the weight of the world had just descended upon his shoulders, mumbled something about reading the paper later, and turned back to his computer screen.