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Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Across The Pond and Beyond: Angie Russell from Home And Away

A lot of people don't seem to understand or realize the amount of power that some teachers possess when it comes to how they handle a classroom filled with kids. Teachers are responsible for providing lesson plans and homework assignments that will enable their students to pass into the next grade, taking them one step closer into adulthood.

I would also like to think that most teachers will do whatever it takes to ensure that every student gets a fair shake in the world, and that they will often sacrifice their time and efforts to ensure that every student gets a chance to succeed. Whether it be staying after class to help a student with a homework assignment, coaching a group of students through a school play, or just being there to listen to a problem that they have, I do believe that most teachers want to make a difference in their students lives both inside and outside of the classroom.

So, what happens when you end up with a teacher that does none of those things? When you have a teacher that picks on you and chooses not to help, but to harm a student? When you have a teacher that saw a student as her own personal cause, or emotionally abuses a student to the point that they don't know what is right or wrong?

Unfortunately, there are some teachers who are like this. Teachers who for whatever reason seem to play favourites, or use their power or tenure in their jobs as an excuse to go after a student for no reason whatsoever.

I know this because I had a teacher that was exactly like this. And I warn ahead of time, when it comes time to talk about my experience, I will not be kind. In fact, it could likely end up being one of my most emotionally charged and heated blog entries to date.

But first, I would like to talk about a fictional teacher who like the one that I'm going to be talking about in this blog did the same exact thing my teacher did to me. She set her sights on a particular student, did everything in her power to emotionally abuse the student, and the end result made the teacher end up looking like public enemy number one.

If anyone had followed this blog from the very early beginnings, you may remember that one of my first entries had to do with the Australian soap opera, Home and Away. I did a sketch on the character of Bobby Simpson, who appeared on the program from 1988-1993. The show is currently still airing on Australia's Seven Network, and this January will celebrate 24 years on the air. During this time, hundreds of new characters have appeared on that program, and quite a few prominent actors and actresses have appeared on that show, including Simon Baker, Naomi Watts, and the late Heath Ledger.

One of the most talked about characters to appear on the program Home and Away only managed to last a little over six months on the program, yet upon her debut in September 2002, became one of the most hated people in the whole town of Summer Bay.

Granted, the actress playing her (Laurie Foell) did such a good job with the role, and was so convincing at it that Australian viewers (as well as this Canadian who watched the storyline on videos posted on video-sharing sites) loved the actress, yet hated the character.

The name of the person is question was Angela Russell, or Angie, as most people called her. Angie was a gorgeous blonde, just entering her 40s, and had just gotten a job at Summer Bay High School. With her teenage son Dylan, things were looking up for Angie, and she thought that she could make a brand new life for herself in Summer Bay.

But hardly anyone ever comes onto a soap opera innocent and pure, now? Do they?

For Angie Russell had a secret. She actually came to Summer Bay looking for her first real love, a man by the name of Rhys Sutherland. She and Rhys had made a pact to be together when both of them turned 40, but unfortunately for her, Rhys had moved on. He married a woman named Shelley, and they had three daughters, Dani, Jade, and Kirsty.

Unbeknownst to everyone except Rhys and Angie, they had a one-night stand with each other while he was still married to Shelley, and the result was Dylan.

Or so she thought...

Anyway, Angie kept the secret of Dylan's paternity from everyone (not even Rhys knew), and had it not been for the fact that Dylan started dating Kirsty Sutherland, Angie probably would have kept the secret hidden. But with Dylan and Kirsty supposedly being half-siblings, Angie knew that in order to stop the relationship from going further, she had to tell Rhys the truth.

The revelation that Dylan was Rhys' son had negative effects on the Sutherland family. Shelley left Rhys (after falling victim to mind games courtesy of Angie), and the Sutherland family was fractured. Although the Sutherland girls eventually accepted Dylan as part of the family, they had no love for Angie, who tried again to go after Rhys romantically. But Rhys was in no mood to get reacquainted, and pushed Angie away.

This set the stage for Angie's descent into madness, and how she ended up targetting one student in particular because of her inability to separate her home life from her work life.

Certainly, Angie had her share of enemies. She played mind games with her school co-worker Sally Fletcher, and she also managed to wreak havoc with several of the Bay's residents.

However, she saved her venom for student Nick Smith. And what she did to Nick goes beyond being a bad teacher. She crossed the line.

Angie had seen Nick in a negative view ever since Nick and Dylan developed a feud, culminating in a fight. That was strike one, and in Angie's twisted world, one strike was all she needed to destroy a person.

So Angie did what she felt was necessary to try and get Nick out of the picture. Taking a page from the manual of Mary Kay Letourneau, Angie amped up her femininity and began to seduce the young Nick. Nick was left very confused by the whole thing, and wasn't sure what to do. The flirting by Angie caused Nick to have conflicting feelings, and effectively ended a relationship that he was in with Jade Sutherland (effectively killing two birds with one stone, as far as Angie was concerned).

After the break-up between Nick and Jade, Nick told his foster mother Irene everything that had happened, and when Nick tried to confront Angie about what she was doing, Angie's behaviour became even more cold and calculating. She purposely ripped her clothes, messed up her hair and began screaming at the top of her lungs, claiming that Nick had assaulted her in the classroom.

As a result of Angie's manipulative plot, Nick was expelled from Summer Bay High, and the police were ready to file charges against Nick. Angie later dropped those charges, but by then, the damage had been done. The whole town began to turn against Angie, and Angie began to lose her mind even more, burning down a boat shed, and filing a defamation of character suit against Morag Bellingham (a justice who had discovered that Angie had gotten thrown out of her last school for doing the same thing to another student that she had just done to Nick Smith).

By this point, Nick's friends, Seb Miller, Jade, and Kirsty had enough of Angie, and they wanted to team up to get evidence that Angie had set Nick up in hopes of getting Angie to leave Summer Bay. Although it took some time, they managed to get a videotaped confession of Angie admitting that she set Nick up because 'she could'. During this time, it was revealled that Dylan was not Rhys' son, and that although she had honestly been mistaken, she used that information to manipulate Rhys even further before the truth came out. So to say that Angie's hourglass was running low was an understatement at this point.

The truth about Angie and Nick finally came out in one of Sally Fletcher's classes. Seb, Jade, and Kirsty made a video project for the class called 'J'Accuse', and as you'll see in this clip, it was worthy of an A+.

Once that video came out, the writing was on the wall for Angela Russell. She was relieved of all of her teaching duties, and had to face an embarrassing and humiliating walk of shame past all of the people she had manipulated and hurt along the way in an attempt to get what she wanted.

Couldn't have happened to a nicer broad.

A few days after that incident, someone had decided to use brute force to get their message out about Angie, and the resulting confrontation sealed the fate of our teacher from hell. But, nobody could say that she hadn't done anything to deserve it. She was a piece of work, she was. But who committed the crime? I'll leave it up to you to Google to find out.

Certainly, Angela Russell was one of those short-term characters that on most shows don't really amount to anything. Yet in her six month stint on Home and Away, she was one of the more interesting (if not sadistic) characters to ever appear on that show (and quite possibly in the history of global soap operas).

Now, I won't claim that my own experience with my teacher from hell was anything like what Angie did to Nick. That was a fictional story, and quite a bit over the top in comparison to my experience.

And unlike Nick, who was a boy of sixteen when the Home and Away storyline was going on, my story starts back in the first grade.

When first grade began, I was a boy who was six years old, and very nervous about going to that class. After being secluded in the kindergarten class area prior to first grade, this was really my first time being in a school with bigger kids. Having gone to a K-8 school, it was a scary feeling to be the little fish in a big pond, so to speak.

Little did I know that upon entering my first grade classroom that being a small kid in a big school would be the least of my worries.

I guess I'll start by talking about the interesting character quirk that I had when I was in first grade. I used to walk on my tip-toes, rather than my heels, as most kids tended to do.

A lot of people mistakenly believed that I did this strictly by choice, but that wasn't the case at all. From as far back as I can remember until I reached sixth grade, I walked on my toes because I found it extremely painful to even attempt to walk flat-footed. Having been born with naturally thicker arches in my feet than most others had, it took a great deal of time for me to adjust to them, and grow into them. As a result of this, I was unable to walk for long distances at a time, and I only felt comfort by walking on my toes.

I'm fully able to walk normally now, but prior to that, it wasn't easy. It was bad enough that the kids in my class used to make fun of me for seemingly re-enacting that dreadful 'Tiptoe Through The Tulips' song every chance I got. But looking back on it, we were all only five and six at the time, so I can look past it.

So, yeah. I'll admit it. I had a deformity as a child. It just happened to be my feet. But, contain your laughter, because everyone had at least one thing about themselves that they couldn't control. All I could do though was adapt to the idea, and accept the fact that I was different from the other kids. If all that I had against me was my walking style, then I could accept it, right?

That is until she came into my life.

Do you want to know something? Initially, I wasn't even supposed to be in her class. My classroom assignment was switched just hours before the first day of school. The school had made no attempt to even contact my parents about the classroom reassignment, and when they called the school to try and fix the problem, they basically gave them the excuse that the classroom that I was supposed to be in was overcrowded. But what was done was done. I knew a couple of kids from kindergarten were in my class, and I got along with them, so I accepted the new classroom assignment and tried to keep as open a mind as a six year old boy could.

But then things really started to go pear-shaped.

It all started with our classroom writing assignments. My teacher had made comments about how my handwriting was the absolute worst in the class, right in front of everyone in the classroom. I mean, yes, certainly my handwriting wasn't calligraphy ready, but I was only six. At least it was legible which was more than I could say for some of the others in class.

She also was incredibly nit-picky about the artwork that I had done. In particular with our daily journal (of which 85% of the entries were made-up anyway). Apparently, my art skills were limited to blobs that resembled houses and cars, as well as naked stick people. Again, not Picasso worthy, but certainly far from being the worst. Yet, she seemed to think that I wasn't applying myself.

Her assessment? I had horrible motor skills for my age, and she would make it her personal mission to make sure that these skills were corrected. So, every week, it was being booted out of the classroom to 'improve my motor skills', which involved such lovely lessons like walking around school hallways with a book on my head, and being forced to use writing utensils with mega-gigantic pencil holders, which basically screamed 'Hey, look at me, I'm too stupid to hold a pencil properly!'.

She even went as far as designing a special set of crayons for me to use. Problem was that she only gave me seven crayons. No green crayon. Oh, and did I mention that I was not allowed to use the crayons provided for the rest of the class until I mastered the art of holding a pencil properly? So, whenever we had to do an assignment where we had to colour anything green, the best I could do was mix blue and yellow together because she wouldn't allow me to borrow a green crayon from the crayon bin at each table.

If that wasn't being obsessed with power, I don't know what is.

Of course, my teacher was so convinced that there was something physically wrong with me that she never bothered to check the facts as to why I seemed to have such difficulty with motor skills. If she had, she would have discovered that I was rushing through class assignments as a way to compete with my classmates. We were six years old, and we all competed to see who could get their work done the fastest, and ultimately, the quality of my work did suffer. Had she bothered to find this fact out, she could have worked with me, and taught me that by slowing down, I could achieve better quality work. But, no, according to her, I had brain damage or something.

She never really let me feel like I was a part of the class. She purposely left me out of group assignments, and when we had our school fundraising drive for the holiday season, she made a big show out of handing everyone in the class the fundraising booklet for the 1987 drive except me. I asked her why I wasn't able to have a book, and she told me that she didn't have enough, even though I knew that she had extra copies on her desk. My honest opinion was that she almost got off on keeping me from doing what all the other kids were doing because I honestly think that she saw me as a reject of some sort. That I was unable to be rehabilitated, even though in many ways, I didn't feel like I was any different from anyone else.

(Oh, by the way, for future holiday drives, I was the second place top seller in my whole school in 1990, 1991 and 1992! Take that, unbelieving grade one teacher!)

And then there was that fateful day in the middle of the school year that really sent things spiraling out of control.

It had started off just like any other day. But then shortly after lunch, I remember that I had to use the washroom really badly. The boys washroom was just down the hall across from room 8 (my classroom was room 7), so it wasn't that far a walk. I have no idea what the protocol is for leaving class to use the washroom now, but back during the 1987/1988 school year, you had to ask the teacher for permission in order to leave the classroom for a bathroom break. So, me being one who tried to follow the rules, asked the teacher if I could use the washroom.

So, imagine my surprise when my teacher refused to let me go.

She wouldn't let me go until I did something for her.

She wouldn't let me go to the bathroom until I promised her in front of the whole class that I would walk on my flat feet to the bathroom and all the way back to class.

Yep, you read that right. She took my physical weakness and used it to humiliate me in front of the class.

That's despicable.

Yet, the scared six-year-old me did exactly that, because he feared having to stay after school, or have to do extra homework. Looking back on it now, I really should have told off that evil wench of a teacher. But back in those days, the only insults I knew were something along the lines of 'YOU'RE MEAN!'

Hardly the words that make up a meaningful confrontation.

The twisted thing about it is that deep down in her mind, I honestly think she thought she was helping me. She thought that by moulding me into her own version of the perfect student that I would end up being a better example for everyone around me. She didn't even make the effort to understand that I was different, and that my differences were not anything that I could change overnight, if at all.

What she inevitably ended up doing was giving the kids in my class more ammunition to make fun of me. After all, if the teacher could do it, what stopped the kids, right?  And believe me when I tell you that some of the kids took real advantage of that.

What she did was try to make me her own personal cause. Someone she tried desperately to fix, even though I was never broken.

What she did was set the stage for years of self-hate, and self-loathing because I didn't think I could ever be good enough for anyone. If I couldn't be good enough for a teacher, what chance did I have with the rest of the world?

What she unforgivable.

I have absolutely no idea what ever became of her. I refuse to even so much as put down the identity of this person who dared call herself a teacher. She was no such thing. A teacher is supposed to be an inspiration to students and help them become better adults. They are not supposed to make students feel worse about themselves. And any teacher that does this, such as my first grade teacher or the fictional Angela Russell deserves to have their teaching certificates shredded in a paper shredder.

I honestly don't know what I would do if I ever bumped into my first grade teacher out on the street. It's been 25 years almost since I saw her last, and I doubt we'd even recognize each other on the street. A few years back, I might have laid into her and made her feel small...but then I would be just like her, and despite everything she put me through, I am better than that. I can't say that I love her, because I really don't have any love for her at all. But I can't really say I hate her either. If anything, I'm indifferent. I don't feel anything for this woman. She may have hurt me emotionally years ago, but after writing this blog entry, I am at peace with it. I just wonder if she feels the same after all this time.

It is important to know that not all teachers are like my first grade teacher, or Angela Russell. Most teachers do make that effort to connect with their students in a positive manner. For every Angela Russell, there's a teacher who would stay after school to explain a difficult homework assignment to a student. For every first grade teacher from hell, there's a teacher who would fight to keep art programs in public schools to help students better express themselves.

And for every Angela Russell and first grade teacher from hell, there are millions of other teachers who work hard to make sure that their students are well-prepared for the world outside of school, and to make sure that they grow up to be well-adjusted young adults.

Besides, if there's anything that I have learned, it's that karma has a way of working out.  In the end, despite her manipulations which lead to years of self-loathing, I ended up becoming not a bad person.  And that I credit to the many teachers who gave a damn about me and my future.

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