Exit Stage Left Part Eight
If you need to start from the beginning of this series of blogs, please click here:
The Shape of Evil
When I was a child, I was taught about evil. The nuns who instructed me were fixated on the topic. As an adult, I embraced a more secular philosophy, and I ceased to believe in evil as an absolute concept any longer. I preferred to consider evil as people who are ignorant and as a result of their ignorance, their actions do harm. The months of dealing with the ballet school have again made me consider the nature of evil; and I again believe in the more abstract, nebulous concept of evil. I have met it; embodied by many of the staff at the ballet school: a man who repeatedly humiliates and child in front of his peers; a woman who is hysterical and victorious during a meeting with a child in which a more nurturing and sombre tone is essential; a man who excuses all the behaviour of his staff because either his intelligence or sense of morality has been muted by a misguided sense of righteousness.
The evil that I meet repeatedly during my miserable dealings with the ballet school involves an inability to recognise the objective truth, take responsibility for mistakes and repair the damage done. They persist in presenting a front; of flawlessness; incapable of admitting that their organisation is flawed and needs urgently to reconsider its core values. Like the Catholic Church, or the Anglican Church, or the BBC, or football clubs, the need to protect the institution’s reputation eclipses recognition of the harm that is being done. This is certainly one manifestation of evil. I do not believe that the terrible abuses suffered at those other organisations are comparable to what my son experienced. The breadth and depth of damage done by priests, or Radio DJs, or football coaches exceeds by far the current dangers at the ballet school. But the ballet school is inhabiting a similar territory. The landscape is the same, even if the events are different. I truly believe that the need to conceal and hide their mistakes results in evil. I truly believe that the ballet school is desperately scared of a scandal waiting to break, and I predict that unless it seeks to change the way it behaves, far worse occurrences than those endured by our child are going to happen. I really believe we will be reading about the ballet school in our newspapers soon. This is my motivation for writing this particular series of blogs. This is why I made the complaint about the way the girl in my son’s class was spoken to, when it didn't actually involve our son. I believe the protection of all children is the responsibility of all of us, and the measures to protect them may not be compromised.
In dealing with the school, I have made two mistakes. These are the understandable I suppose, considering everything that we were dealing with:
We have waited weeks to hear the official written response from the school, and during this time we have been providing for our son’s education and, with the help of our newly discovered teachers, his ballet training. In the meantime I speak to an expert in dealing with trauma - a wise psychologist and academic who purely coincidentally has years of experience of dealing with students at various ballet schools. After listening to my story, she explains to me that it is essential that our son is given a chance to deal with the trauma himself without any intervention. In our case, the best people to help him at the moment are those around him. She tells us that sympathetic and patient parenting are his best chances of making a swift recovery.. We are only to get an expert involved if he shows no signs of improving in three or four months. The events are still too close for any expert in trauma to get involved, in her view. I am appreciative to be talking to someone so reasonable and full of sense; but I am seriously doubtful that I am able to be in anyway effective in this role. At work, I am a brilliant listener; at home my skills of listening and empathising need a great deal of development.
We are seriously worried about him. He is subdued and depressed. During this time he has two episodes when he refuses to leave the house for about three days each time. On one occasion he leaves for class, only to return thirty minutes later. One of his ballet teachers even phones me to ask what she can do to help. She gives me a message to give him - a statement resonating with tough love:
‘Your not coming to class is no good; you are ridiculously talented!’
The following day, I escort him to her class; and almost literally push him into the studio and wait outside.
His mother has encourage him to construct and paint tiny plastic models that she has bought for him. This shows a considerable insight on her part, and soon becomes an important part of his recovery. As his world is falling apart, he is able at least to have some control over the tiny model in his hands. He is keeping himself together by assembling and painting miniature figures.
Eventually the written response arrives from the school. I am on a train when they ping into my mailbox. I quickly open all the documents and scan through them. If it weren’t a matter of child safe-guarding in which we are seeking action, their responses would have been comic: imagine a response as written by Chris Morris, or Ricky Gervais, or Armando Iannucci.. They write three times in the various documents that the problems have arisen because I am not intelligent enough to understand the school’s procedural documents; this resulted in the staff being too perplexed by my idiotic questions. I'd like it made known that during the entire three months of dealing with the school, I haven't made a single comment about anyone’s intelligence. It's rude to do so, and anyway, their actions speak for themselves.
Their conduct has also been erratic. One of the reasons why we have been waiting so long, is because the safe-guarding officer at the school has been waiting for written confirmation from the Local Area Designated Officer (LADO) to say that no agency involvement is required regarding the ballet teacher’s comments in class (I love you etc.) - involvement from the police or social services is not required in the LADO's view. I phone the LADO myself, and ask what the delay is in supplying the written confirmation. The LADO is bemused. She has made is perfectly clear to the safe-guarding officer that if no agency intervention is required, no written confirmation will be sent. Speaking to the LADO, I realise that she has not been told of the whole story. She has only been given a selection of details. Oddly, she also knows nothing about the other incidents: the twerking or the calling a young woman sexy. She asks for me to put this in writing. I send an email.
Among their excuses and clear grasping at straws, the response documents also contain the following nuggets:
Still, today, I wonder if, as they are writing this, they are aware of how ridiculous their reasoning is. Are they really oblivious to the paradoxes contained in their all too transparent excuses? Can they see how ridiculous they appear? These are the questions that I would love to ask them, even today; if I was still in contact with anyone at the school that is. I still wonder which lawyer - if any - gave them clearance to send me such a preposterous document.
Basically, they didn’t yield or concede on a single issue of my complaint. That afternoon, the safe-guarding officer sent me an email demanding to know - now they had responded to my complaint - whether my son will be returning to school. It seems, then, that on some matters they can really take their time, but on other matters, immediate action is required. She threatened to report me to the education and welfare officer. Fortunately I had been having long conversations with the education and welfare officer about everything, so I knew how to reply. If I hadn't had the necessary information, this bullying approach from the safe-guarding officer would have freaked me out. I am still resentful of this attempt to bully me. I replied to the safe-guarding officer that she was welcome to report us to education and welfare, but, as I am already in contact with the local authority, she will be wasting her time, because as long as a complaint is ongoing, I am under no obligation to return my son to school or make any immediate decisions. She doesn't carry out her threat. Standing up to bullies is one of the only ways to thwart their evil.
I then write a letter of complaint to the governors asking for their help and intervention in accordance with the school’s complaint procedure.
Next time: More threats from the school, and the meeting the governors.
Exit Stage Left Part Seven
If you need to start from the beginning of this series of blogs, please click here:
One More Meeting and Trying to Heal
On the same afternoon that I had taken him home, the safe-guarding officer wanted me drive him back to school so she could speak to him, about the ballet teacher’s conduct in class. I pointed out that another senior member of staff had already interviewed him last week, but she insisted that she also had the opportunity to do so.
This interview with our son was a travesty - have no other word for it, and for me it marks a major turning point in the story. The safe-guarding officer is waiting for us, so is his ballet teacher, and the member of staff who gave him his second tutorial. One greets us in reception, one is waiting at the bottom of the stairs, and the other is waiting at the top of the stairs. Our son has to walk past two of his persecutors on the way to the meeting. The safe-guarding officer has prepared ten questions. I am given these questions but no time to read them. The nature of the questions to a child are irresponsible, often putting him in the position of second-guessing what was in the mind of the adult: for example, ‘What do you think the teacher meant when he said I love you?’
I am completely ignored in the meeting, and any questions about why our son was being put through this again we dismissed with the wave of a hand, and an abrupt: ‘I am here to talk to him, not you.’
There was a member of the pastoral team taking a record, and whenever our son said anything that might be of use to the school, the safe-guarding officer shrieked at the woman writing: 'Write that down, write that down!' Despite all this, our son remained calm, and answered the often loaded questions as well as he can. He leaves with his integrity intact.
We are rushed out of the office as quickly as we were rushed in. Afterwards I felt dizzy with anxiety and anger. We are in and out of the school in ten minutes including the time it takes to parade past his persecutors. During the drive home, I know that something has changed inside me - a new calculating cold anger has hatched. I also know that it was very unlikely that he would be returning to the school. I have just witnessed behaviour I can only describe as abusive. I feel like screaming something guttural and primal. All trust between us and the school are now broken. In this moment in time there is no-one on earth I hate more than the school’s safe-guarding officer. Her behaviour disgusts me.
What follows now is a big space. The school need time to write their responses, and even though they keep saying that they want to get our son back to school as soon as possible, they are taking weeks to respond to our complaints. They are clearly consulting with their lawyers. We knew that we had to get him dancing again, especially as it looked like his formal schooling and training was now on an involuntary hiatus. His mother did some research. This is one of her many strengths. When given a project, she commits to it single-mindedly; and this project was simple: find the best ballet teachers available. One name kept coming up again and again. So his mum took him to one of her classes. I have many examples of this teacher’s almost psychic intuition, her heightened awareness and kindness, and on her first encounter with our son - a terrified creature shaking at the barre who has just spilled his bottle of water all over the floor - she takes him by the hand and leads him to a place where he can't hide at the back and where she is close to him. She is still one of his main ballet teachers. I will write more about their relationship on another occasion because theirs has become a beautiful story. The debt of gratitude I feel I owe this kind, wise and highly skilled teacher is immense.
However, just before this void of waiting and uncertainty began, our son told us two more things he wanted us to know about the school; events that had happened very recently. The first involved his ballet teacher, and a girl in his class. The teacher entered the class one day when he was teaching both boys and girls, looked at one of the girls and said, Oh [name of pupil], you're looking sexy today. This story spread throughout the year like a proverbial rash, and this child had the comment repeated to her by teenage boys on several occasions over the next few days. Our son understands the implications of this event, and the seriousness of the accusation; he is not making this up. Much later, another parent from the year repeats the story to me, exactly as our son has told it.
The second incident involves a different teacher. The students were asked to ‘twerk’ during one class. Some students found this to be excruciatingly painful. Our son was probably not alone in experiencing a double hit of pain: the first was from being asked to ‘shake his booty’ with the other children, and the second was his empathy for those who found it even more distressing than him. Apparently, the member of staff encouraged the twerking by joining in himself. This incident really did happen. I know it to be a fact, because in some written documentation, which I will describe at length in the next blog, they admit that it happened. In fact, they admit that the twerking occurred regularly with all year groups.
It is time to make a self-aware declaration. If you hadn't realised, we are a liberal, left-leaning family of almost comic proportions. The way we fulfil our expectations of the guardian-reading, left-voting, anti-patriarchal egalitarian stereotype is often amusing even to us: politics, gender issues, cultural appropriation are often debated at meal-times with force. The use of ‘black face’ in The Nutcracker makes me wince; the trend is now to tone it down - but the representation of the Chinese 'tea' dance by mainly white dancers presents a real issue to me. Some people find my view extreme. However, I cannot imagine in whose universe it is okay for a middle aged man to describe a fourteen year old girl as ‘sexy’, or for another middle aged man to ‘get down with the kids’ by joining them for a twerk. Do I think that these offences warrant the perpetrators losing their jobs? Yes. I do.
It takes me only twenty-four hours to make the decision: I write another letter of complaint.
In pulp fiction Harvey Keitel plays a character called The Wolf. He has repeated this role in an advert for car insurance. Basically when something terrible has happened, The Wolf come to the rescue and clean it up. In the ballet world there are teachers who fulfil the same function. I mentioned to someone the difficulties we are experiencing and he presses a scrap of paper into my hand with a name and number written on it. He simply tells me to ‘call her’, so I do. This teacher makes repairing broken ballet children her speciality. She is the Harvey Keitel of the ballet world - a Wolf of classical ballet, and she is kept extremely busy. She serves pupils of many ballet schools, and she is highly effective at what she does: sensible, pragmatic, experienced and generous. I have since met 'wolves' in other parts of the country. It seems that for every ballet school, there is at least one Wolf waiting to clear up the bloody mess.
It is a struggle, but get our son dancing again. He goes to class every day. We have found him two teachers whom he is responding to well, despite the fact that he comes across as a bit broken broken and very lost. This is unsurprising. He has been wrenched from his normal life, and severed from his friends; but at the same time he doesn't want to return to such a cruel environment. Anyway, there is the small matter of the ballet teacher’s counter-allegation which needs to be cleared up.
I then decide that in this long and vicious limbo that I am going to become his teacher for academic subjects. We read together - Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. It is exactly what is needed to transport him to another place, to think about other problems that people have to face: the struggles of immigration, the extremes of wealth and poverty, and surviving when the odds are stacked against you. We do a project on road movies - Little Miss Sunshine is his favourite; and we read Growth Mindset by Carol Dweck.. He continues to work his way through his maths book. At the moment this feels fine, although it is not sustainable. But I want him to return to school - whichever school - with an ability to think and write clearly, having not fallen behind on his maths, and with a appreciation of failure as an opportunity to learn. The exploration of Growth Mindset prompts much discussion between us, and he tells stories of what has been said to the children during ballet at his school. A growth mindset seems the opposite of what he has encountered in ballet class where failure is something to be feared and avoided at all costs - as if dancers are born fully formed and perfect. He still seems somewhat broken; heavy, reluctant and hesitant. It is like our child is made of Lego. We are putting him back together brick by brick.
But I still feel lucky: I am hoping and praying that we have got him out in time.
Next Time: We receive the documents we have been waiting for.
Exit Stage Left Part Six
If you have not read part five, please click here:
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We had no intention of letting our son know that there had been a counter-allegation against him. But the member of staff mentioned it to him in the meeting, and he found out. This put us all in a difficult situation. The allegation was so illogical and so clearly fabricated that there was, in my view, no point in worrying him about it. But someone from the school had revealed it to him, and the cat was out of the bag. The damage was done.
By the end of the week his cold had cleared and it was clear that he would be able to return to school. Or, at least, his health was no longer keeping him from attending. But none of us wanted him there until the ballet teacher’s counter-allegation had been either explained or retracted. Our son could not remember the occasion in which he had treated the ballet teacher as a confidante; nor could he ever remember confessing to him that he had lied to us, and as I wrote in the last blog - he wanted us to go the parent teacher consultation anyway, so any lie to deter us would be completely illogical. Besides, we couldn't locate the ‘lie’ or its content; and for that matter, neither could the school.
It's worth noting at this stage that over the course of our discussions with the school - a period of over three months - I ask for this allegation to be explained or retracted about fifteen times. My request is made in writing, in meetings and in phone conversations. The school have never to this day offered an explanation, retraction, or apology.
Then he told us something chilling about the teacher - something that had not come out over Christmas - in front of all the children he had his back and shoulders painfully held and manipulated, while the teacher recited the names of the back muscles. This recitation was something that the teacher also proudly did during the meeting with his mum. It seems an odd type of party trick - is this something that all ballet teachers do?
The situation is having a terrible impact on all of us. I feel terrible. In fact I am beside myself; only just keeping it together. I email the safe-guarding officer at the school and explain that I no longer feel that the school offers a safe environment for my son. After a wait, she eventually replies with several suggestions:
Late on Sunday night, I am still desperate about what to do. So, in a terrible state, I phone social services and ask for advice. I appreciate the absurdity of this. The phone-line that usually receives calls about serious and horrific incidents is now getting a call about whether a ballet class might be a safe environment or not. Here is a recap - this is what I explained to the social worker.
I'm in the bathroom when the phone rings. It's the woman from social services again. She has been thinking about our case. She is suddenly sympathetic and has two pieces of advice to offer:
Neither of theses points would have occurred to me. Her advice is to prove invaluable; it is as if she can see into the future.
On Monday morning, I simply do not know what to do. With a heavy heart, I drive to the school with our son, and ask to speak to the safe-guarding officer. She is not in the building, and won't be coming until much later that day. I ask to speak to others from the safe-guarding team. A message is sent to them, but they refuse to speak with me. In fact one of them goes in and out of the building several times while we are waiting - all eye contact is purposefully avoided.
Eventually, they manage to get the safe-guarding officer on the phone. We are escorted to a room where we can speak in private. In short, our conversation reveals that nothing has been done in order to assist getting our son back to school. This is beyond my belief. The other adult that they had assured would be in the room during ballet was the pianist - who had not been told that they would be taking on the additional responsibility of watching out for potential abuse; the named pastoral staff members had also not been alerted to the situation, but she repeated the reassurance that no staff member would ever mention what had happened - in public or in private. Bearing in mind how indiscreet the ballet teacher has already been, I think that this is a case of the horse bolting several weeks after the stable door being shut.
Back in the reception area, our looks at me and says, ‘Just don't leave me here, Daddy’. I arrange for another phone call to be made to the safe-guarding officer, and ask our son to explain his reasons for coming home himself. He is logical, and articulate and displays a wisdom exceeding his thirteen years. He calmly says to her that all the measures she is suggesting potentially punish him. He has done nothing wrong, but he is being made to carry all responsibility. He is innocent, and it is the teacher who is in the wrong - he is sensible, spontaneous and clear-thinking in an incredibly difficult situation. I have never been more proud of him or impressed with his maturity.
Their failure to guarantee a safe environment for a child is astonishing.
We get in the car. I phone his mum, and I tell her that I am bringing him home.
Next time: setting him free
Exit Stage Left Part Five
If you have not read the other posts in this series from the beginning, please go back to this post first::
Talked At and Talked Over
During the Christmas holiday we learned so much more of what had been happening to our son. We already knew about the tutorials and how utterly demoralised he had felt on returning to ballet after the illness, but at the time we did not know about the ballet teacher revealing to the entire class the details of the telephone conversation he had listened to, nor did we know about the line, Why are you scared of me? I love you. I love you. We also found out that it was the second tutorial which had provided the worst moment and the most destructive experience for our a thirteen year old - an age when children are crucially still trying to make sense of the world. In his view, the teacher in this second tutorial was cruel and abusive. She is indeed one of those adults who wears her authority with the same relish as she wears her plastic red finger nails. In meetings, I have found myself handling her with care; and I am an adult rather than a teenager in the unhappy predicament of living away from home, so therefore requiring the adults in life to be more compassionate and reliable rather malicious and harmful. So, over an unhappy and uncertain Christmas break, we begin to understand just how our son had been made to suffer.
The meeting with the director of the school approached. There was an almost comical exchange of emails between me and one of his assistants when I learned that they intended for one of the members of staff who featured in the complaint to be present in the role of scribe. At length, I pointed out that while I had no objection to her attendance, it would be extremely uncomfortable for her. Even after I had pointed out that they had a duty of care to one of their employees, to not put her through unnecessarily duress, I was assured that all was fine, and that she would indeed attend.
The day of the meeting arrived. Before the meeting we were greeted by another member of the senior management team who introduced herself to us as the new scribe. They had, for some reason, decided to spare the other person the awful experience of being directly complained about. No mention of the switch in staff was made, and I didn't want to draw anyone’s attention to it. I wanted to get this matter settled once and for all. I only mention it now because it is typical of how the ballet school conducts itself. There is no sense of a more professional way to behave: meetings are cancelled at the last moment, or people you expect to be there are not, or your conversations are listened in to, or confidential information is publicly disclosed.. It is as if the gene in their organisation which regulates propriety has mutated into pompous self-regard.
The meeting went badly. My written complaint against the school was clean and clinical. I used the language of their own policy documents to point out everything in their own assessment process that was not adhered to. But, the director used his own language to explain the events. There was no mention of ‘formative’ or ‘summative’ assessment; he talked instead about ‘formal’ or ‘informal’ tutorials. No one discussed our son’s glandular fever or his recovery. He said it was normal practice for a member of staff to be allowed to overhear a phone conversation as it saved time in the long run communicating what had been said; my need for privacy (as declared in the school's own policy documents) did not seem to concern him. I was talked at, interrupted and talked over. At several points in the director’s monologue I found a brief space to mention that what he was saying didn't actually make any sense. At these points the other staff member - who had introduced herself as the note taker and who has nothing to do with the ballet side of the school - took it upon herself to try and explain. I guess that she was not such an impartial note-taker after all.
Incidentally, this is the first time that they had conceded that someone else was in the room during my initial phone conversation. Up until this point, it had been denied, but the teacher’s public revelations of the content of the conversation meant that it was blatantly obvious that he heard everything. I decided that it was expedient at this point to not remind them that I had been lied to up until now. Although it would have been really satisfying, I decided to have more restraint than to rub their proverbial noses in it.
At one point the director’s tone changed. He seemed almost cheerful. He actually made eye-contact with us for a brief moment. There was something he wanted to say about our son’s behaviour. He seemed almost cheerful as prepared to deliver his bombshell: Our son had made a confession to the ballet teacher. He had taken the teacher into his confidence and told him that he had been lying to us.
We asked about the content of these lies.
Well, they didn't know the specifics.
We asked to what end he would have lied to us.
Well, he didn't want us to come to the teacher parent meetings - so he lied to us.
But he did want us to come to the meetings. That was why he sent us all those emails in block capitals telling us that we HAD to be there. This vague counter-allegation made no sense.
During the months ahead, this allegation is never substantiated, nor is it retracted. It is a lie. Neither the school nor I realise it at this point, but they have just provided me with the reason why our complaint can never be settled.
We were spoken at for two hours and during this time nothing said reflected the school's own policy documents.
At the end of the meeting, I present them with another written complaint.. I make the comments made by the ballet teacher (I love you and Why are you scared of me? and so is your mother happy, now?.) part of the formal process. We are also told at the end of the meeting that our son is sick. He has a heavy cold and the medical member of staff wants him to be sent home. It is a bit awkward because we hadn't actually told him that we were coming into school for the meeting. He has a brief meeting with the member of staff who had been the ‘scribe’ in order to discuss details of a teacher telling a student he loves him. I have to stop this meeting because she doesn't stick to questions covering the subjects we had agreed to before bringing him in. We then all return home.
None of us realised at this point in time that he is never going to return to school as a pupil ever again.
It is what happens next that makes it impossible to allow him to return. .