A life out of key

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As I followed last month's big educational scandal in Britain, the story of the teacher who ran away with a young schoolgirl, a song was going round in my head. The obvious one (what else?): Sting's "Don't Stand So Close to Me," the last big hit by The Police back in 1980 (they recorded a moodier reprise of it in 1986). Sting's lyrics ("Young teacher, the subject // Of schoolgirl fantasy…”) are a remarkable piece of writing, telling their story in spare yet evocative phrases. But I've noticed something else: The grammar of the song's chord structure also contributes to the storytelling.

Those rare few of us in the professoriate who become inflamed with lust for a college student may well be contemplating a career-harming ethics violation, but usually it's not actually a felony. Things were very different for Jeremy Forrest. He's a married man of 30, teaching at the Bishop Bell Church of England Mathematics & Computing Specialist School in Eastbourne, on England's south coast. He saw his student Megan Stammers frequently outside school hours, often under the pretext of extra coaching in mathematics ("This girl's an open page…”). He wrote a song for her. She sent him 47 messages on Twitter in 25 days. She is just 15 years old. ("This girl is half his age…”)

On the plane coming back from a school trip to Los Angeles some months ago they were observed holding hands. Someone reported them ("Her friends are so jealous // You know how bad girls get…”). Forrest's conduct came under the scrutiny of the East Sussex County Council and the school management ("Strong words in the staffroom // The accusations fly”). The police took their cell phones away for examination.

Then on September 20, Forrest disappeared from the school and so did Stammers. They had fled the country, crossing the English Channel on a car ferry (Stammers showed her mother's passport, and no one batted an eye), and disappearing into France. They drove as far as Paris in his black Ford Fiesta ("Wet bus stop, she's waiting // His car is warm and dry…”). There they abandoned it and took the train à grande vitesse to Bordeaux, three hours to the south-west..

His blog reports that his love for Megan had hit him "like heroin." ("Temptation, frustration // So bad it makes him cry…”). And he needed a fix.

Because they made their run for happiness while she was still 15, he faces very serious criminal charges [worse than I reported in the first version of this post; I have updated at 13:45 on October 9]: Under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 Section 16, it is a criminal offense for an adult to sexually touch a person under the age of 18 in relation to whom the adult is in a position of trust. This covers teacher-pupil relationships in addition to many other kinds of working relationship. The maximum sentence is 5 years' imprisonment.

It might not have been so in France, where 15 is the age of sexual consent: The two apparently weren't breaking any French law, and at first the French police weren't particularly eager to launch a major search. But the British police informed the French that the charge would be child abduction, and requested extradition.

The young lovers were picked up in south-western France on September 29. Forrester can look forward to a jail sentence and many years on Britain's awkwardly named "Violent and Sex Offender Register."

And the song that tells his story seems to echo the chaotic state of his hopeless obsession and doomed plans in the strange syntax of its musical structure. It opens (at least, according to the tab sites on the web like this one that supply chord sequences for guitarists) alternating between E-flat major and F major, and then G minor and F major. The melody, while not atonal, gives no real clue as to what we should think of as the home key (there may be one, but it really isn't clear to me). And when we get to the chorus ("Don't stand, Don't stand so // Don't stand so close to me”), we shift without warning into two cycles of an unexpectedly alien sequence: D – A – D – A – Bm – A – D7 – Em. Then, with the home key still unresolved, we're plunged headlong into another round of the E♭ – F part.

The jarring, unsettling changes and the lack of commitment to a home key feels (to anyone with even a little sense of the grammar of chord sequences) rootless, confused, indecisive, almost unhinged.

Plunging from E♭ and F into D and A, and thence to E minor? Where the hell are we?

You're on a TGV to the Gare de Bordeaux Saint-Jean with an underaged girl who hit you like heroin, and you don't even know what key your life is in.

[Thanx to Eric Smith for criminal law information and to Michael Drake, Giacomo A. M. Ponzetto, and Mark Steedman for syntactic and musicological discussion. None of the musicologists agree with what I say above, or with each other (for example, Ponzetto voices the interesting idea that the verse is really in B♭ major, though the tonic never appears); but all agree that the song has some really interesting strangeness about it.]

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