I started an affair with one of my pupils 24 years ago. We feel no shame because there is no shame in falling in love
Sunday 14 February 1999
Why should this make me feel bad? It is, after all, 24 years since I started an affair with one of my students. And the affair still hasn't finished. We feel anything but shame, because there can be no shame in falling in love. No, I feel terrible because I have found in me something I never would have expected: sympathy for Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools. After all, it was his comment that teachers who have a relationship with their students shouldn't automatically be sacked that started the latest controversy, and that focused attention once again on his own affair with an ex-pupil.
I took up my first teaching post in 1973. I was 24. It happened to be in north Germany, where a shortage of English teachers meant that work was readily available. I got a job teaching students for their Abitur (A-levels).
Anyone who knows about love at first sight will understand the next bit. I walked into the first lesson on the first morning and was lost forever. The quiet, rather shy 17-year-old girl in the second row made my heart leap, my stomach churn and all the other traditional but true symptoms. We've never known why, but then you can't explain things like this. Christine wasn't particularly good at English, certainly never drew attention to herself and, above all, was completely uninterested in me. The advance grapevine had marked me down as spoken for; besides, you don't look at teachers like that. And, despite the wild feelings in me, I realised that I could never look at a pupil like that either. It was out of the question.
Except that anyone who has felt like that knows that rationality flies out of the window. I did one hilariously naff thing by lending her an LP with a song called "Lady Fantasy" marked with an asterisk; she never even noticed. After a year, fate intervened: a friend of Christine's organising a party and inviting me. On the way home, I asked Christine to share my umbrella and, in the teeming rain, we kissed outside her front door. I remember dancing home, Gene Kelly-like, and being horrified yet amazingly elated in the morning. Christine's diary merely reads: "Elke's party, Mr Shawford." But there is no sign of doubt.
Mysteriously, we both started organising parties like there was no tomorrow, always inviting loads of other people to disguise their true purpose. We both intuitively understood what was happening, and that it was completely right, yet in the eyes of most people, entirely wrong. Christine's diary regularly starts to read: "Got home at 2am/3am/ 5am". The mixed feelings of passion, love, terror and inability to fight it return to both of us today as we look back over that amazing time. It was nearly two years before we could "go public", two years filled with adventures, scrapes, near misses and numerous doomed attempts at ending it. Practically every sentence I write seems like a line from a crass pop song, but, as Christine's mother never failed to say: "Some things are meant to be."
One of the most helpful aspects of the relationship was that Christine's parents rapidly found out what was happening and supported it. They also could feel the "rightness" of what was developing, they liked me and they were interested in their daughter's happiness. But the way it came out was memorable. Christine's unwitting father agreed to find me a second- hand car and we all drove out to a small village garage to inspect it. "It'll be ideal for you to take your fiancee out in," said the dealer.
"Fiancee? Don't be daft. This is her English teacher," protested Christine's dad.
"No way," replied the dealer. "Have you seen the way they're looking at each other?"
That evening, it all tumbled out. And was given the seal of approval. This made everything a lot easier. Added to that, we were sensible. We continued to go out with groups of other students, none of whom suspected what was happening after they said goodnight. We would drive to cinemas and pizzerias in other cities, with poor Christine crouched on the floor in the back of my VW Beetle. We even took a four-day break in Copenhagen, where I had a friend who was in on the secret. The diary reveals a level of activity which scarcely seems credible, 17 years of marriage and two teenage children later. Boy, was it love.
Frequently we would decide that it had to stop, that the stress was unbearable. These interludes would last a day or two before we would bow to the inevitable. Things which would start the doubts could be pretty unpleasant. One evening, we were indiscreet on a tram, only to become aware that we were being observed by a pupil from Christine's class. "That's it," I thought, "I'm sacked." But he never said a word. He must have woken up and assumed he'd imagined it.
At school, we were so discreet that it was probably noticeable how distant we were. I remember one occasion when Christine had emerged from a dreadful oral exam and was sitting in the corridor in floods of tears. Even the most cold-hearted teacher would have comforted her. I had to walk past without casting her a glance.
The only matter of disagreement, which niggles to this day, was the fact that my determination not to show Christine any favouritism meant that I erred on the side of caution in marking her work and awarding her all- important marks (which would have a crucial influence on A-level grades, university admission, etc). It worked, in that no one suspected any preferential treatment, but maybe I could have been a little more generous.
On several occasions, we had to attend social events like parties and gigs and pretend not to have any relationship other than the teacher-pupil one. To this day, my flesh creeps at the Richard Thompson song "The Way That It Shows": "Your gaze of compassion, just a little too right ... A slip of the tongue, a squeeze of the hand, that's the way that it shows."
For make no mistake, this was a serious business. The fact that we felt we had to go through with it is significant. Even though Christine was over the age of consent, her parents approved and I wasn't hugely older than her, from an educational point of view, it would undoubtedly have been a sacking offence.
And then, in early 1976, it all became dark, nasty and very frightening. The local authority where I was working realised that they no longer needed foreign teachers and effectively, that I was to be sacked. A huge protest erupted. Students, parents and staff all agreed that it was essential that I should stay. The entire school went on strike, there were protest marches in the city centre, a TV documentary was made and the story was front page news in German newspapers. My landlady reported that two men had been snooping around my flat, in the wake of a Communist paper implying that I was being removed for alleged left-wing sympathies. I remain convinced that they were either from the tabloid press or the local authority, seeking evidence on which to sack me. If only they had known what to look for, they would have found it in abundance. As it was, they left empty-handed. The protests failed, my contract was duly terminated and Christine and I relocated to England, where we have lived happily ever after.
None of the above will be comprehensible to anyone who has never been hopelessly in love. But do you know, I believe Chris Woodhead will understand.
The author's name has been changed.
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