Tardy to the Party: The Teacher’s Pet

Throwing a party requires a lot of work. Even a relatively intimate gathering of friends in one’s home can become a stressful, time-consuming nightmare. Furniture must be dusted, floors vacuumed. Food must be ordered or prepared or a dish must be assigned for each guest to bring. Decorations must be arranged. Pets must be lovingly corralled into a room that’s off-limits to partygoers so they’ll feel safe and secure while random strangers temporarily invade their territory.

But it all has to get done on time, because one can’t be tardy to one’s own party.

I’ve had a difficult time pinning down what I wanted to write about this month. To be honest, I’ve been ridiculously busy between work and friends and family and having to see Avengers: Endgame as soon as possible since apparently spoilers are suddenly okay to post a mere two weeks after the movie’s opening. Because, after all, if you somehow didn’t manage to pre-purchase a ticket and squeeze into a 2am showing you clearly aren’t that interested in seeing it. Sadly I accidentally stumbled across three pretty big spoilers in the days leading up to my viewing (which doesn’t count co-workers discussing the movie loudly in the middle of the lunch room, though to their credit what I heard turned out to be a general statement that wasn’t particularly spoiler-y), but at least I’ve seen it now, so there’s nothing left to be spoiled.

Of course, since then I haven’t come across any spoiler-icious posts on social media or overheard any spoiler-ific conversations.

But I digress.

I had a few ideas about what the focus of my piece would be, but I didn’t feel particularly strongly about any of them, and the whole point of “Tardy to the Party” is to talk about things I’m passionate about even though I’ve come across them later than the general public. So as I begin to write this article two days before my deadline, I find myself in that uncomfortable position of the hostess who isn’t prepared, frantically scrambling to get everything just right before the guests begin to arrive…

In the end, I decided to go with a podcast I’m currently listening to. It’s not an ongoing podcast—it has a beginning, middle, and end—and I haven’t quite finished it yet, which is why I was initially hesitant to choose it as my subject matter this month. I was uncomfortable with the notion of writing about something that I haven’t fully experienced myself yet. However, it does fit my two main criteria when picking a topic: it came out a while ago (making me tardy) and I’m completely obsessed with it. And so, my decision was made despite any misgivings I may have.

The Teacher’s Pet is a true-crime podcast investigated and hosted by Headly Thomas, released via The Australian (the national newspaper of…wait for it…Australia). At its core, it’s about the mysterious disappearance of Lynette Dawson in early January 1982, but there’s much more to the story than that. There’s creepily close twins who share everything, even sexual partners, a ring of high school teachers who prey on the prettiest, most popular students, and one particular girl who goes from student to babysitter to mistress to wife. Of course, she only graduated to “wife” once Lyn supposedly left of her own free will, vanishing into thin air without warning.

The podcast itself is comprised of a collection of narration and interviews, some of which our host conducts himself in the present, while others are taped police interviews from various years past. Headly is patient and compassionate with his interviewees, all of whom have suffered some kind of trauma related to this case. There are Lyn’s friends and family, who are still unable to reconcile the woman who reportedly abandoned her family to start life anew elsewhere with the loving, devoted mother who completely adored her two young daughters. There are her co-workers, who remember Lyn and her husband holding hands the day before she disappeared, a rare display of physical affection that convinced them the troubled marriage might be salvageable. There are the young men and women who endured sexual assault at the hands of their teachers, many of whom have never recovered from the experience, struggling with mental illness and/or turning to alcohol to ease the pain. There are the subsequent owners of Lyn’s house who would’ve literally dug deeper when doing renovations if they had only known Lyn was still missing. And there’s the current police inspector, ready and willing to take responsibility for the severely botched case even though he wasn’t the one in charge at the time Lyn vanished (nor was he involved with the original case in any way).

Over the course of the series we learn the ups and downs of Lyn’s marriage to Chris Dawson, a handsome rugby player-turned-teacher. We follow them from the beginning of their relationship, when their affection for one another seemed mutual, to its deterioration, characterized by the systematic verbal and physical abuse Chris secretly inflicted on his wife. Although the resulting bruises were observed by many, few asked Lyn about them. The ones who did reluctantly accepted her unconvincing innocent explanations (keeping in mind that it was the late 1970s-early 1980s, when most people had a “mind your own business” mentality when it came to marital problems; that’s not an excuse, it’s just the way it was back then). We hear about 16 year old Joanne Curtis and how she was introduced into the family as a babysitter, though it soon became obvious that she was much more than that. We learn that Lyn and Chris eventually decided to try counseling in an attempt to save their marriage, and just one session seems to have worked wonders according to everyone they interacted with afterward. The next day, Lyn disappeared without a trace. She didn’t take any money or belongings, only the clothes on her back, and she didn’t contact anyone aside from the handful of calls to her husband (or so he claims). She’s never seen or heard from again. Meanwhile Joanne moved in with Chris a day or two after Lyn’s hasty exit, which somehow didn’t cast any suspicion on him at all.

Chris himself defies explanation. I’ve been trying to come up with a way to describe him, but I find myself at a loss. I’ve written, deleted, and rewritten this paragraph a dozen times to no avail. At best I’d categorize him as deceptively charming…at worst I’d call him a selfish bully who will sink to whatever depths necessary to procure what he wants. His eerily close relationship with his twin brother Paul was considered excessive even by other pairs of identical twins (who should understand the special bond between them), and didn’t diminish at all even as both men grew up, married, and started their own families. And then there’s the way he groomed Joanne, a quiet, attractive girl with a less than ideal home life, to become his lover. He offered her a way out of a terrible situation, a safe place to hide from an alcoholic mother with whom she didn’t get along and an abusive step-father. Frequent babysitting jobs during the day quickly lead to invitations to watch the girls overnight, until she moved in right under Lyn’s nose. Chris claimed that it was their duty to welcome the young woman into their home in order to save her from her less-than-ideal circumstances, and for a time Lyn believed him…right up until she discovered the two of them in bed together.

Joanne had been one of Chris’s students when he manipulated her into entering a relationship with him. Unfortunately she was not the only student who was grossly taken advantage of. The tales of sexual misconduct by teachers in the unnamed high school where Chris taught are absolutely horrifying. To make matters worse, as if the acts themselves weren’t depraved enough, it appeared that these “relationships” between teachers and students were common knowledge amongst both faculty and administrators. And aside from what I would call “strong verbal warnings,” no one did anything to stop these adults from using and abusing children ranging in age from about 12 to 17. Once Chris married Joanne and the inappropriate nature of their relationship could no longer be ignored, the district merely moved him to another school, not unlike the way the Catholic church shuffled priests accused of molesting children from parish to parish. His new school had no idea what it was getting.

The best thing about The Teacher’s Pet is that it does more than just report about an almost 40 year old disappearance/likely murder. It actively seeks justice for Lyn, her family, and her friends. Anyone who has information about the case is encouraged to share what they know confidentially through the podcast’s website. As a result, what was once a cold case became a developing one, with new witnesses coming forward to share their stories between the weekly releases of episodes. Additionally, more and more men and women who were sexually abused by their teachers at the same school have started to come forward. People who have kept their experiences a secret and bottled up their emotions for decades feel like they can talk about it now. They’re forming support groups, seeking psychological help, and officially reporting the abuse to the police. They’re also looking into possible legal action against the school district.

My sole complaint about the series has to do with the quality of some of the audio, the majority of which probably can’t be helped. Older taped interviews (some of which are 20-30 years old) and conversations over the phone tend to be quieter/more muffled than newer ones. Additionally, background noises present during the more recent interviews (most notably the surprisingly loud buzz of cicadas and boisterous birds chirping enthusiastically) can be distracting and make it difficult to understand the whoever’s speaking.

Otherwise it’s very well done. So much so that it was the 2018 recipient of the Gold Walkley Award, the top journalism award in Australia. The highest compliment I can bestow on it is to admit that I’m totally addicted to it, and listen to an episode whenever I can. Well, that and write an article about it.

For more information on The Teacher’s Pet, visit the website, which contains actual episodes of the podcast as well as a plethora of other information including photographs, floorplans, transcripts of interviews, videos, etc. I only just visited the site today as I was writing this and realized that I should have been stopping by after each episode to explore all the extra tidbits that went along with them. It’s a lot easier to follow what’s going on when you have visuals to go along with what you’ve been hearing, so if you decide to listen, I highly recommend dropping by the website early on.

If you’re a fan of true crime, this podcast is for you. Once again, I want to emphasize that it doesn’t simply walk the audience through the minutiae of a cold case. Whether accidentally or by design, it ended up inspiring people who heard or saw or knew something about Lyn or Chris, no matter how small, to come forward now if they hadn’t already done so. And that breaking information is shared with us as it comes in. We get to watch a case that was carelessly brushed aside by police who were convinced that Lyn was a dissatisfied wife who left her husband to start a new life elsewhere despite the mounds of evidence to the contrary, and see it blossom into a full-fledged investigation into the probable murder of a young woman who cherished her daughters.

Check out this podcast before it disappears…missing out on this captivating case would be a crime.

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