Too Cool For School: 3 Books On Scandalous Teachers

One of my graduate school professors frequently made his students cry. Never mind that we were grown adults. A single cliche used in a class paper could result in public humiliation. And yet the competition to get into his class was fierce. No honor surpassed the chance to be taught (and belittled) by such a masterful mind.

Tyranny like this abounds in campus fiction. There, heads of the classroom are often as selfish and manipulative as despotic heads of state. They turn their students into pawns, and they get away with it because students are impressionable and easily infatuated. Here are three books about teachers whose lessons hide plenty of booby traps: Each is a textbook case of leading the vulnerable student astray.

The Secret History

by Donna Tartt

Paperback, 559 pages, Random House Inc, $16, published April 1 2004 | purchase

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Have you ever wanted to be part of a secret society? This psychological campus thriller will let you into that rarefied world — from a comfortable distance. Julian Morrow is a reclusive professor of ancient Greek, with a cult-like following among his small group of students. He creates an aura of elitism and secrecy, convincing them of his disturbing belief that "beauty is terror." In order to experience this, they hold a "bacchanal" — a night of extreme revelry, substance abuse, sex, and ultimately, murder. What's gripping and thoroughly discomfiting here isn't the rite itself, but its psychological aftereffects. The students grow unhinged, and their relationships become increasingly bizarre and incestuous. When Morrow discovers what has happened, he finds himself unable to control the monster he has created.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

by Muriel Spark

Paperback, 160 pages, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, $13.99, published February 1 2009 | purchase

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Most of us were not fortunate enough to be the creme de la creme in high school, but this is exactly what Jean Brodie expects from her young charges. Brodie is an iconoclast among the faculty at her all-girls Scottish day school. She has little use for the standard curriculum. Instead she wants her students, known as "the Brodie set," to learn the virtues of good breeding, the history of classical art, and the values of fascism. She plays her impressionable girls against one another, even manipulating one of them into having an affair with the school's art teacher. Like Julian Morrow, Brodie is also forced to leave her school — in this case, because one of her most trusted girls betrays her. What a relief to know that after such dedicated brainwashing, some of these students can still think for themselves.

What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal a Novel

by Zoe Heller

Paperback, 258 pages, St Martins Pr, $14, published June 1 2004 | purchase

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What Was She Thinking?
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Notes on a Scandal
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What is it with art teachers and illicit affairs? Mistake No. 1 for newly hired pottery teacher Sheba Hart is when she begins sleeping with a 15-year-old student. Mistake No. 2 is sharing this news with her colleague, Barbara Covett, a lonely history teacher who has taken Hart under her wing. Covett grows jealous of Hart's relationship with the boy, and manipulates Hart into a possessive, all-consuming friendship. Two students are being led wildly astray in this novel: the young boy having sex with his teacher, but also Hart herself, who is manipulated by her former mentor.

Growing up, I had my share of crushes on teachers I hoped to impress. I had no idea I'd bought into these cults of personality. So why am I drawn to these troubled (and troubling) relationships in fiction today? It's because they remind me of the danger and excitement of that vulnerable age and the thrill of traveling down the twisted path without knowing for certain that I'll be able to find my way back again.

Jennifer Miller's first novel, The Year of the Gadfly, was published this year.

Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman.

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