Small-Town Miasma

David Stark / Zarkonnen
18 Dec 2015, 11:57 p.m.

tw: physical abuse

I recently had the chance to catch up with an old friend, the sister of my best friend back in primary school. Late in the evening we started talking about our shared experiences with some of the awful teachers we'd both had. One of them was especially prominent: when I was in fourth grade, he had this tendency to lift me up bodily by my hair as a punishment. Other kids he hit in the head or dangled by their feet out of a second-story window - over hard concrete.

I also remembered that, years later, I saw a newspaper article that he'd been fired from his job. I decided to see if I could dig up the details.

It wasn't entirely easy. I didn't remember his first name, and all this happened in the days before everything was on the Internet. I started searching the archives of the town newspaper, which eventually yielded me his first name. That got me to a human interest bit about his wedding. Armed with the name of his wife I could now find the right phone book entry, and his current address.

Searching for his name and address, I started getting a "right to be forgotten" notice from Google. Did he have his past de-indexed? But the search did result in a DNS registry entry pointing to a website. That got me a picture of him, and I could finally confirm that yes, this was the same guy who had abused me and others twenty years earlier.

Turns out he's now running a "boutique" school with small classes and a lot of verbiage about pedagogy. I really hope he's stopped abusing kids.

Continuing to scan through the archives of the local newspaper, I eventually found a letter from the school board who fired him in 2006, more than a decade after my encounter with him. Hundreds of locals had petitioned the board to have him reinstated, because he was apparently such a nice teacher, and so good with the kids.

Now that I had a date, I switched to regional newspaper archives and finally found some proper articles on the topic - possibly the results Google had hidden from me. He'd been let go after a long period of deteriorating relations with the school. Some references were made to his violent behaviour towards kids, but he insisted to the press that he was a "peaceful man" and that those few incidents were long past.

I don't entirely know how I feel about all this. I could of course call him up at midnight and yell rage down the phone. I could leave comments on his school's website making not-so-veiled references. But really, I'm no longer upset about the specifics of his behaviour. It was all part of a general small-town miasma.

In retrospect, I believe he got away with his violence for so long because he knew perfectly well who was whose child. I don't think he ever laid a hand on the kids of the Important People In Town. My parents had moved there only recently, and in the parochial logic of small-town Switzerland that made me an outsider, and a safe target. And my friend's parents weren't even from Switzerland.

The same kind of logic continued all the way through secondary school. My gym teacher lobbied against me getting into high school because of some personal antipathy. The fact that I was constantly bullied was largely ignored.

Knowing this, it's hardly surprising that when it came to choosing a university, my first thought was "anywhere but Switzerland". I found life at Cambridge, that supposed bastion of privilege, far more safe and egalitarian, probably in part due to my choice of college.

I returned to Switzerland a few years ago, and was at first worried that I would hate the place. But living in relatively cosmopolitan Zurich, at some distance in time and space, has helped a lot. None of my family or friends still live in that awful town, so I have no reason to ever go there again.

I can live my own life, a far better one than they wanted to give me back there, and leave the place to rot.