Monday, 2 August 2010

Seven people or things that changed my life (3) Sandra Tooman

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.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow thats some storey.

Your PE teacher reminded me of mine, always in a track suit, quite rough. He didnt each maths though, but one day he filled in as a substitute, we learned nothing from him.

One thing he did that annoyed me, the people in the football team became a sort of elite, and they were automaticaaly selected for every other team. Not that I was any good at sport but I could play cricket, but had no chance with him in charge.

We had no deaths, but one boy was caned and expelled, we lived in fear of that cane.

Funny what we learn at school.

Anonymous said...

Horrific.

Also very strange in terms of what happened to people you were at school with - in my case a very ordinary mixed sex non-fee-paying grammar school in the Midlands.

After a period of thirty two years, I met up with someone who I was in the sixth form with. In fact, we had first met when our mothers wheeled us out together in our perambulators. We went to primary school and grammar school together and were always in the same set although not close friends.

We now meet up for lunch regularly.
Out of our sixth form English Lit set, one is a social worker and a widow - her husband died of lung cancer some thirteen years ago. I remember when they started 'going out' - he was five years older and 'in insurance'.

One, my friend, is an internationally acclaimed writer. His book The Verneys was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize three years ago and his current book on 16th century pirates has been lauded in all the national papers.

Another is a doctor, another an acclaimed psychiatrist. At school he stood out as being 'illegitimate'.

Another is a judge - he took over from the judge who was suspended in the notorious housekeeper 'Red Hot Chilli' case; another is a certified and sectioned schizophrenic - I was an MP and another is a famous paedophile.


Life.

Anonymous said...

That's very touching Jane. And very disturbing. I can totally see it though. Had it happened to someone at my school I am sure the reactions of parents would have been exactly the same.

I wish I could say "We've come a long way" but I wonder.

Where I live, in east London,girls are regularly being murdered by their relatives for being "easy" ie accepting a drink from a man or having a boyfriend from a different religious community.

No much eyelid batting is done, in truth.

Technogran said...

What a totally moving story. And she had been out doing good, something for someone who was less fortunate than herself. Was she 'easy' or simply just more 'worldly wise' than the rest of the other pupils? I remember those kinds of attitudes,for that time was also the same time as I was at school or just after. My name as well. Sandra.

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

This is very powerful. There were girls like Sandra at my school, and had one of them been killed, the death would have had the same response. But it didn't happen, so it took me much longer to realize how we treat people who are "beneath us" in one way or another.

Anonymous said...

There is also the temptation to treat such people as saints.

Jane's piece makes it quite plain that in certain ways, Sandra wasn't a very nice person at all.

Point is that nobody deserves to be murdered whether they are rich or poor, nice or nasty - or, like most people, a blend of all.

Anonymous said...

I was bullied at both my schools (fifty years ago), but the bullying (by some teachers as well as other boys) was far worse at my hybrid grammar / public school than at my lower middle class primary school. It helped form my political views from an early age, making me a democratic socialist. The racist nature of much of the bullying also made me a Zionist.

The worst bully became Head Boy, and rugby and cricket captain. My normal response to bullying was a left hook, leading to visits to the headmaster, who kept telling me to count up to ten.

Strangely, another classmate, who was never a bully, became the leader of an anarchist terrorist group.

Julian said...

Thank you for this Jane. As a fellow classmate of Sandra's in the late 60's I was deeply saddened by what happened and the circumstances.

I thought I knew Sandra relatively well, and she often told me how she filled her social life over the weekends, what she didn't say was how she voluntered to help others.

Having some fond memories of my schooldays, you certainly reminded me that there were some real pratt teachers that were around then. Lets hope that todays professionals inspire pupils

jane said...

thanks to you Julian. Do you remember me? Would I remember you?