September 29, 2012 by Rhi
It’s been a while since I’ve blogged here, for one reason or another. I’ve been busy etc etc. I did say I’d still keep dropping by when things occurred to me to write about, and so here I am, dropping by, giving you the benefit of my brain activity.
I’ve been following the story of the teenage girl who ran away from home with her 30 year old teacher Jeremy Forrest. It’s been a topic of conversation in the staff room all week, and I have several friends who are teachers who have also been considering the implications of the situation.
The reactions I’ve read and heard to this story are many and varied. Some people think it’s sad that Forrest is now to become a criminal for his actions. After all, people fall into relationships with people much younger/older than them – it just happens. At the same time, there are people calling for him to be locked up and the key thrown away. The girl is, to them, an innocent child incapable of knowing her own emotions and has obviously been groomed by a predatory male with questionable sexual desires (even though there has been no discussion over the exact nature of their relationship, thank goodness). Personally, I don’t see it as being nearly so clear cut.
I’ve worked with girls the same age the girl involved for quite a long time. I’ve seen 15 year old girls coming to terms with their first steps towards womanhood and no two girls are the same. Even amongst my own friends, when we were that age, you would find a distinct difference between each of us and the nature of our relationships at that time. I don’t find it strange that a 15 year old girl could find a 30 year old man attractive, and I don’t find it odd that the 30 year old could return those feelings.
It is, in my opinion, almost impossible to keep a 15 year old girl innocent in terms of relationships, even with boys her own age. It’s little to do with society and everything to do with hormones and nature. Trying to hide, or avoid discussion of sex from girls this age can be counter-productive – when you avoid discussing the physical, how to you contextualise discussions about the emotional side of sex and love? When I’ve listened to young women discussing the relationships of their contemporaries, they are feeling their way through a complex of emotions for which they don’t always have the words to express. The physical side of things, governed by hormones and puberty, comes easily to them. The emotional side and the ability to put those physical urges into context with their mixed emotional needs, not so much. As an adult, I have to tread a careful line of not leading them down roads which they might not find themselves, and more importantly which their parents might not wish them to travel down just yet (or at all, in some cases) – regardless of my own opinions on whether that’s the right decision, or the one I would make myself. My experience tells me that the idea of this girl being an innocent, unable to properly experience love or attraction to a man, is possibly erroneous. I don’t know the girl, I don’t know the situation, I’m not in a position to call it either way. But I have known girls – quiet girls, from nice families, who have shown little interest in the opposite sex before – who have been quite certain in their feelings and emotions for men (or women in some cases), and who have gone into potentially unsuitable relationships with their eyes open and full comprehension. Granted, that comprehension may appear flawed to someone with more life experience. But I do find it quite disrespectful to teenagers when adults refuse to acknowledge the teen’s authority over their own life. The knowledge that experience brings is most useful when it’s learned first hand, rather than vicariously via a lecture from someone who thinks they know better. There’s a fine line between protecting someone (for example, warnings about drugs and alcohol, or stepping in when behaviour becomes threatening to their health or well-being), and removing their ability to learn life’s lessons first hand. This girl may well have known exactly what she was doing. She may really, truly be in love with Forrest. Properly in love, rather than the idealistic romantic longings which adults so often characterise teenage emotions. Neither is this situation a sign of our times, a product of our “over-sexualised” young people. If you think the idea of a young girl running away with an older man is a shocking indictment on our 21st century sexual culture, I suggest you go and read Pride and Prejudice (again, hopefully).
No sane person would agree that a 15 year old studying for her GCSEs would be better off in a foreign country, without her family’s knowledge.
There is a reason, however, why I was absolutely horrified by the behaviour of Forrest. He was her teacher. Not her mate. Not someone she met in a nightclub. Not a friend’s big brother. He should not have entertained the thought of a relationship with her, regardless of their feelings for each other. That may sound harsh, but when you work with children and young people it is the golden rule which you must never EVER forget. Your own emotions, opinions and feelings must always be kept in check, and their well-being must always be put first. Forrest may have loved this girl, but no sane person would agree that a 15 year old studying for her GCSEs would be better off in a foreign country, without her family’s knowledge. It’s not just the relationship which was wrong, it was the way Forrest sought to protect it, to ensure they could stay together. They couldn’t stay together, and he was an utter fool not to realise that.
…life is unfair… You become a teacher, you accept the rules which govern the profession.
All this, of course, comes from the position of someone who has never had any kind of inappropriate thoughts about any child in her care. Beyond a fleeting musing about tucking a particularly cute tiny person into my handbag to take home with me, it’s not something I’ve ever had to face. I can easily imagine, however, how hard it must be – I clearly remember us girls having massive crushes on students and newly qualified teachers at my school. I can well imagine that, to a 23 year old teacher and a 17 year old A-Level student, accepting that in any other walk of life they could happily be together, must seem very unfair. But life is unfair. You pays your money you takes your choice. You become a teacher, you accept the rules which govern the profession. And if you can’t, well I can point you in the direction of several teachers who would, without malice, gently request you leave the job forthwith. One bad apple, and all that.
Jeremy Forrest will never teach again. The girl, once home, will have to try and rebuild her relationship with her family – there’s a possibility she will resent them for bringing her back and separating her from Forrest. It will be some years before she will accept the flaws in Forrest’s behaviour, but hopefully there will be no lasting damage to her emotionally. Yes, age gap relationships do work, and yes sometimes teachers and pupils get married and live happily ever after. But Forrest made the choice to become a teacher, and he needed to accept that that profession comes with a level of trust which others do not. He broke that trust, and he has potentially caused this girl more harm in the long run than if he had resisted the relationship in the first place. Love, in these cases, does not conquer all.
This post was edited in response to a court ruling which requested the identity of the girl not be revealed in the media.