Traumatic, unbearable experiences that seem to shatter our grasp of reality trigger a simple coping mechanism: when one encounters something that seems to come close to our wildest nightmares in real life, one is inclined to narrativise, to fictionalise – to turn what has happened into a story that at least sounds plausible.
One such example is the unbelievable, horrendous death of a British school teacher: a Spanish and Religious Education teacher at a college in Leeds was killed, reportedly by one of her students, who is said to have attacked her, in a most despicable act, in the classroom, mid-lesson, with a knife and to have stabbed her to death.
The story has been reported as the ‘first ever student murder of a teacher in UK class‘, and it brings back powerful memories of similar incidents in other countries – most notably the U.S. Subsequently, media reports have created a narrative that have turned the teacher into an almost superhuman hero and saint and the alleged perpetrator into a drug-using loner (with the ultimate Great British insult added: he was middle-class, too!).
The following considerations, while sparked by this outrageous crime, are unrelated to the actual case. They are observations on the discourse that surrounds this case, like many other similar ones, with no intention to hurt the feelings of those who have to come to terms with a horrendous, life-changing incident.
It will be of little (or in fact: no) consolation to those directly affected by this crime – in fact, they may find this to be adding insult to their injury –, but the sad truth is: many people get killed, every day, and many, if not most, of them do not receive the same level of attention.
Not all men (and women!) are equal in death. When teachers die in acts of violence, they become instant heroes.
The same applies to soldiers who get killed outside of battle, and it also applies to policemen and firefighters who die while doing their job: they all represent roles and ideals in society that are larger than life. When a taxi driver, a mechanic, a judge, or even a medical doctor suffer freak deaths – well, that’s sad, but ultimately – such is life: apart from personal stories, few claims for heroic worship tend to get made for them. And when a prostitute or a homeless person gets killed . . . ? Death is an extremely classist matter.
Yet, what is remarkable about this?
Well, chances are – and again, I do not wish to cast even the faintest shade over the life and achievements of the Leeds teacher or anyone else specifically! – that not every teacher is a hero. Some teachers may in fact be really rather awful (which does not mean, of course, that they deserve a horrendous death!).
Yet, we are still to await the news report of a teacher killed in the classroom that points out that this very teacher truly was a piece of work. (If a teacher is bad in news reports, it is usually to do with inappropriate relationships between them and their pupils – with a certain variation on the theme depending on the gender spread: somehow a female teacher having an affair with a male student seem to be marginally more acceptable, in public opinion, than a male teacher having an affair with a female student.)
The relation of fantasy and violent behaviour in real life is an interesting one. Is it fantasy that allows us to explore what is beyond reach in reality, or does fantasy show us what is within reach, while in real life we choose to restrict ourselves?
In the 1980s, there was a computer game for the Commodore C64 called Teacher Busters. It was banned in Germany, which added to its popularity in subculture. The idea of this game was to put ammunition on a tank and to go for a hunt for one’s teacher – it is both amusing and shocking to find it played now, some thirty years later, on YouTube for public entertainment:
One must wonder how many teachers had to die multiple virtual deaths – a (admittedly rather sick) coping mechanism with stress and perceived unfair, harsh treatment by figures of authority.
A teacher killed in real life, ideally a moral person exercising their authority, provides the subject for a tragedy – a quasi-hero who had to face an unfair fate. In a virtual scenario, such as the computer game, the same rules do not appear to apply – regardless of just how sickening one may find such games.
Yet, the motive can be elevated even further – and here, after long last, this becomes relevant to the student of the Classical world. Can the motive of killing one’s own teacher ever become something comedic?
Yes, it can, to the present day – regardless of whether or not one finds this to happen in poor taste.
Plautus, in his play Bacchides (‘The Two Bacchises’), did think so, too. In the second scene of the play, he puts Lydus, a paedagogus, and Pistoclerus, his tutee, on stage. Pistoclerus is increasingly annoyed by the way Lydus treats him – he feels patronised and abused by him. Finally Pistoclerus bursts forth (Plaut. Bacch. 155):
Fiam, ut ego opinor, Hercules, tu autem Linus.
I’ll turn into Hercules, I guess, and you’ll be Linus.
This is anything but a nice wander through Greek mythology: Linus was Hercules’ (music) teacher, and Hercules famously slays him in an outburst of anger, when he felt mistreated. Apollodorus, in his Bibliotheke, a collection of classical myths, relates the story as follows (2.4.9):
‘Hercules was taught to drive a chariot by Amphitryon, to wrestle by Autolycus, to shoot with the bow by Eurytus, to fence by Castor, and to play the lyre by Linus. This Linus was a brother of Orpheus; he came to Thebes and became a Theban, but was killed by Hercules with a blow of the lyre; for being struck by him, Hercules flew into a rage and slew him. When he was tried for murder, Hercules quoted a law of Rhadamanthys, who laid it down that whoever defends himself against a wrongful aggressor shall go free, and so he was acquitted.’
The same story, before Plautus ever made his casual comment, was the subject of comedic treatment by Greek authors, not least in the genre of the satyr play.
Where is the humorous element? How can this possibly be entertaining, an event that in real life has no comedic potential whatsoever (but is typically described as tragic)?
In the case of Hercules, it seems, it is virtually impossible for any literary author to take Linus’ perspective: Linus had it coming (or so the myth goes, anyway!), and Hercules was the right person to commit this crime – Hercules, the literary archetype of the comedic over-strong, under-brained numbnuts (regardless of how much Disney wanted to rehabilitate him at that front).
It may just be that Hercules’ simple, unreflective way of dealing with abuse, in a controlled fantasy space no less, offers comic relief to a situation that in real life, as much as it has been experienced by everyone, does not ever allow for a physical solution of the same type.
Is this what allows this story to work, in literature and on stage?
Plautus’ paedagogus remains alive, thankfully, despite the obvious threat. He answers Pistoclerus back with an equally mythic example (Plaut. Bacch. 156-7):
pol metuo magis ne Phoenix tuis factis fuam
teque ad patrem esse mortuom renuntiem.
By Pollux, I am rather more afraid that I’ll become a Phoenix to your deeds, and that I get to report your death to your father after all.
Phoenix, Achilles’ advisor, famously accompanied Achilles to Troy and had to report Achilles’ death to his father.
Pistoclerus, in turn, says (Plaut. Bacch. 158):
satis historiarum est.
Enough of those old stories already!
If only real life horror stories could be averted with similar ease . . .