It wasn't really Sandra herself who changed my life, but what happened to her and how others reacted to it. Sandra was a year older than me and we went to the same school, a mixed-sex grammar school in the town of Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire. I had gone to the school a year early, at the age of ten (they did that sometimes in those days) so Sandra and I were in the same class. For one term in the first year we sat next to each other in form group, and she tried to bully me. She did it by hitting me, hard, on the hands and arms when the teacher was not looking. I was increasingly afraid to sit down next to her. I dealt with it by never looking at her, never reacting to the blows and mentally reciting Robert Louis Stevenson poems while they were going on. So it didn't work. I hadn't been bullied at primary school, and Sandra was the only one who tried it at the grammar school, though it did happen to me much later, for a sustained period in Reading Labour Party. But that is another story.
For the next year or two at school Sandra and I were in the same maths group. The teacher was Mr Dawson, who was basically a PE teacher who also taught maths. I don't think they still do it that way these days. Mr Dawson was, as PE teachers quite often are, a sadist. Stocky, barrel-chested and blond, he always seemed to be wearing a tracksuit even when he wasn't. My brother, who was taught PE by him, confirms that he bullied the boys physically, treating the weakest ones quite brutally, and that he obviously got off on seeing young boys fight each other. I don't think he was up to much at maths, we didn't learn much in his classes. He liked to undermine us, especially the cleverer ones, and Sandra was good at maths. So when he took the register he always called her "Sandra Threeman". She hated it. Sandra came from a family, and from a part of town, where not many went to the grammar school. No-one from her primary school went up to the grammar school with her, so she had to find new friends. I did too, because I had left my primary school friends behind me as I had left the school a year early. Sandra took a while to find friends, because she was tough, hard and unpleasant. Most people didn't like her much, though from quite early on the boys rumoured that Sandra was "easy". She was plain, with a square face and straight light-brown hair, but she was at home in her body in a way I took years to be - and the boys noticed that before they understood what they were noticing.
Sandra was clever but she hid it well. Her friends were mostly outside school, but two years later two girls from her primary school came to the grammar - they had passed a thing they had then called the "thirteen plus". They were called Rita Scraggs and Jane Pease, and Mr Dawson called them "Scraggy Rita" and "Pea Pod". Both of them were plainer than Sandra was. But the three of them had a life my friends and I did not understand, and we speculated about it sometimes - Sandra volunteered outside school with disabled people, and the three of them went to dance halls in Luton. They all back-combed their hair and used hair spray on it in the cloakrooms at school, which the rest of us did not do, it having gone out of fashion, we thought, though seeing those three do it with confidence sometimes made us wonder. By the time we were fourteen and fifteen it started to be said about Sandra by other girls, always in a whisper "She's had it off", which is what we called it then. None of us had.
One morning in March 1969 Sandra was not there in the cloakroom when we arrived at school. A bit later Rita Scraggs and Jane Pease were called out of assembly, and were not seen again that day. But before the end of the day we all knew, although this was well before rolling news and the internet - Sandra had been murdered. She had been hitching on the motorway, on her way back from visiting the disabled man she helped (he confirmed this to the local paper), and had been strangled and her body tied up with string and dumped, naked. She was fifteen.
For days and weeks we girls would start to say something to each other, and not quite say it. It was something like "That sort of girl..." but we didn't say it because we knew it wasn't the truth. Our parents did though. They didn't even warn us against hitch-hiking (which I did quite a lot of in my late teens), they warned us against being "that sort of girl". When Sandra Tooman's father was quoted in the local paper as saying they had better keep the murderer locked up (a man called Kenneth Pike had just been charged with the murder) or he would kill him, my mother said Mr Tooman should have stopped his daughter turning into "what she was" (my mother's words - my mother didn't know Sandra or her family) and it was too late now. I remember the contorted faces of some of my friends' mothers as they spat invective about "girls like that". The public discourse, if a town in Bedfordshire can be said to have a public discourse, was not about the murder, but about Sandra Tooman's behaviour. Her fault.
In my time at that school two pupils had died before Sandra was killed. One boy, the same age as me, died of leukaemia. I didn't know him because he had been away ill most of the time. There was a rather moving special assembly in his memory. Another boy died, and a solemn announcement was made, but no special assembly was held. It turned out he had committed suicide. For Sandra, nothing. Not even an announcement at assembly. There were reporting restrictions on the trial, and I have just tried to search, but the Director of Public Prosecutions' archive website says nothing on that case will be released for 80 years.
The killing of Sandra Tooman changed my life, not because I was close to her or even knew her very well - I didn't grieve for her - but because I learned from it that the protection of society for those who are victims in some way is conditional. Some people's lives are worth more than other people's. Except that - no they are not.
If something isn't right, it's wrong.
None of the names have been changed.