What a tragedy!

When I heard the news that the nurse who had taken the hoax call at the King Edward VII hospital had been found dead, an icy chill swept over me. I am sure many people have made mistakes in their careers and this case reminded me of one I made around 1994 while teaching in a College of Further Education. My tutor group who studied Journalism alongside their A Levels, produced a student magazine once a term. We had been running close to the deadline and I did not make a final check on the content. I suppose in my sub-conscious I knew it passed through several stages including the staff in the print room.

The previous day I had been ‘subbing’ the students’ work on the screen as I worked round the class. One student had included a sexually explicit phrase and we discussed why this would be better replaced with asterisks. I myself inserted the asterisks, trusted the student to accept my decision and sent it for printing. The magazine went on sale in the College bookshop at a time interviews were being carried out for the post of Vice Principal. The incumbent VP was showing the candidates around the College when his attention was drawn to the latest magazine. On opening it, he immediately insisted it be withdrawn from sale and a message sent to my staffroom. When I returned to the staffroom there was an icy silence and a curt message to phone my Line Manager. I was unable to speak to her, the VP refused to speak to me and unfortunately this all happened on a Friday afternoon. There followed what I can only describe as the ‘worst weekend’ in my career and indeed, in my whole life. I was distraught and the whole incident became magnified in my own mind. I didn’t know how I was going to return to College the following Monday. Luckily I had a good friend – a schoolteacher – who listened to me and tried to distract me from thinking that the worst was going to happen, but she didn’t really appreciate the severity of the unfortunate incident. Had I seen an early copy I could have redacted the phrase. I would like to think the student had failed to ‘save’ my changes but I am sure this was unlikely and more likely to have been deliberate.

On the Monday morning I went to see my Line Manager expecting dismissal – that really was how it seemed to me at the time. Her first words were ‘I nearly phoned you at home’. How I wished she had as it would have saved much anguish. In hindsight I feel that the matter was not handled well enough at the time. Luckily it never caused me to lose the will to live but I was beset with feelings of shame and guilt which took some time to fade.

On a lighter note, the rest of the team – who some may have called subversive – believed the magazine should never have been withdrawn. I thought it was the right decision as Further Education lecturers are, in fact, in ‘loco parentis’ and some under sixteens may have been in the building. There was lively debate in lessons (not mine) on the use of censorship which also helped me to feel better and, eventually, we did have a good laugh.

This will be of little consolation to the nurse’s children and her immediate family but surely this tragedy could have been prevented. At the time I heard about the hoax on the news,I immediately thought about what the person who took the call may have been going through. Management should never underestimate what someone is suffering when they have made such a public mistake.

Humour should never be at another person’s expense. I can think of no printable description for the Australian hoaxers but perhaps this will be a lesson to others who think such a prank is ‘funny’.

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