Posted by: HAT | December 17, 2014

Acting Out Can Get People in Trouble

artist's interpretation of Heloise and Abelard

A real-life teacher-student relationship that crossed boundaries and ended tragically

Hi, Gang!

On Monday, there was big excitement at Number One Daughter’s school, because a popular teacher was arrested and charged with child seduction for having had a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old female student. It made the local news, and there were camera crews around the school most of the day. I got an excited text from NOD around 10:30 with the news, which had been communicated to students at the high school by the principal coming to each class with a prepared statement.

These things happen in real life, not just in Pretty Little Liars or Degrassi. It is hard not to think of Emma Bovary, and the disastrous fictional consequences of her steady diet of romantic fiction.

Unlike television teachers, real life teachers go on living their lives after the drama goes off the air. This popular and I would have to say gifted and up until now effective teacher will – if this unfolds as it seems likely to – have to live his real future life as a felon, possibly with a prison record, probably with the requirement to register as a sex offender, probably unable to teach again, certainly unable to vote unless that provision ever changes (which I cannot imagine not mattering to the sort of person who would teach social studies!), possibly divorced (for I cannot imagine something like this having no impact on a person’s marriage), and for a long time. He is only 28. I say this from the perspective of someone who is 58. Thirty years goes by pretty fast, in reality, but even so, it is a long time to be exiled from the profession you love, for which you were gifted and to which you were called. All that devastation – for what?

Unlike television teenagers, real life teenagers have to live with their friends’ and neighbors’ judgments on their behavior, and with their own consciences. If past and a little bit of present experience is any guide, there are already other voices that are saying that the girl got what she was asking for, is more vixen than victim, and is at least 50% responsible, if not more, for all that devastation. If past experience in similar situations, especially in congregations, is any guide, people’s disappointment and shock and loss and grief and annoyance and inconvenience and anger will flow into blame, and this girl will feel a good deal of that blame, and it will not feel good.

We have counseled our daughter not, NOT, to participate in the blame game that will predictably begin around the school, if past experience in similar situations, especially in congregations, is any guide. We have explained that it really doesn’t matter what her reputation is, what kind of a girl she is, or what her part of the situation was, no matter what anyone says. We have preached our sermon about teacher-student relationship, adult responsibility, and the problem of extreme power differentials in sexual relationships. How such an extreme power differential undermines the equality of the situation to such an extent that “consent” on the part of the person who is younger, more vulnerable, and in a protected relational category cannot have all the elements that must be present for that person’s “consent” to qualify as consent. It always really has more elements of “coercion,” even if it feels, even to the teenager, like something “free,” “freely chosen,” “desired.” We have stated our conviction that part of the teacher’s job is to recognize, and reckon with, the aphrodisiac effect of power; to guard against the danger of taking advantage of that, which includes guarding against the desire to take advantage of that. We have insisted that it is the responsibility of the adult, who is supposed to know why the difference between in- and out-of-bounds matters, not of the teenager, who cannot yet be expected to know, to respect that difference and to avoid getting close enough to mis-step over that boundary line. We have said all that.

But I cannot imagine, even after all my own eloquence on the subject, how I could escape feeling at least partly responsible for this disaster if I were that 16-year-old girl. I say this from the perspective of someone who is 58. I try to imagine how often, over the next four decades, the girl who took part in this drama will feel compelled to review the part she played, and how she played it, and what she will need to say to herself about it to produce a coherent and acceptable narrative of self, and what she will be able to say to herself about it that would produce anything but that, and how it will feel to have that task for the rest of her life. All that – for what?

I can, miserably, imagine being one of the parents involved. I have thought of what I would need to do to bail my child out of jail on a $10,000 cash bond, and I have tried to think of what I would say when I got there, trying to negotiate love and disappointment and outrage and grief and supportiveness and compassion and practicality and hope and despair. I have thought of what I would want to say to my child about her teacher, her friends, her school, her future, her choices, her self-esteem, our family, what we are going to do about this, how we are going to get through this. I have tried to imagine being a teacher/colleague. I have tried to imagine being an administrator at the school. I am not unhappy with the way the school officials have handled the situation, but I am glad I don’t have their jobs.

All of that is about how the drama feels, how it plays on human emotion. That is, arguably, one form of meaning. (“It was really sad.”) But does this drama say anything beyond that? Does it lead us to affirm any propositional or relational truth, and if it does, what is it? What does it mean in that sense? Because it seems to me that, at a minimum, it is the responsibility of us “innocent bystanders” to think that through.

A sufficiently anarchic utopian thinker would point out that the most evil consequences in the situation stem from the prohibition our society has imposed on this particular form of sexual behavior. If there were no prohibition, if there were no law that made it a crime for a teacher and a 16-year-old student to “date,” all this drama would be no drama at all. Rather, it wouldn’t be this drama; it might still be drama, but a different one, one more suitable for entertaining romantic fiction. How adamantly do we want to defend a law that criminalizes behavior that would be perfectly legal, if not perfectly acceptable, if the man in the drama had been the popcorn delivery guy or the janitor instead of the woman’s teacher? Freewheeling sexuality has been a recurrent feature of utopias; in one of those utopias, this whole affair would never have been a problem in the first place. Maybe “this should never have been a problem in the first place” is where this ought to go.

A sufficiently Christian thinker would point out that all the evil consequences in the situation can be read right off a sheet of virtue-ethical talking points. We live in a society that depicts sex, passion, and the gratification of sexual impulses as a paramount value. We cultivate and reward attractiveness, impulsiveness, risk-taking behavior, highly unfettered sexual expression. We actively erode the boundaries of marriage and institutional authority; we encourage teachers to interact with students “on their level,” to pursue camaraderie in preference to distance. We encourage young women to think of themselves as sexual objects, and to assess their own value on the basis of the status and attractiveness and “degree of difficulty of attraction” of their sexual partners. Then, when all of this practice for transgression ripens and bears fruit in the playing out of scenarios that were entirely foreseeable under the circumstances, we punish the individuals involved, hold ourselves harmless, and continue on our way. This is not to say the individuals are not responsible, as individuals, for their own behavior. It is only to add that our society gave them a nice push down the path to perdition, and did precious little to pull them back. If we were fully as concerned about sin and fallenness as we appear to be in these critical situations, and fully as committed to the cultivation of human virtue, no one would be in this mess, because everyone involved would have been making different decisions all along the way, starting a long way back.

I confess myself closer to the Christian than the anarcho-utopian pole on this one. Because I meant what I said to my daughter about the power differentials; removing the prohibition won’t change those. But also because I keep coming up short against the “for what?” Not that I really want to explore that in detail. But that keeps bringing me back to Emma Bovary, and to thinking about how it is that people decide – or think they have decided – what they want, and how much they want it, and whether it is really worth “going for,” whatever it is.

It is terribly easy to get caught up in the numerous narratives that are all around us contemporary Americans. I myself fall into them all the time, I who once worked in advertising and so, surely, ought to know better. I visualize myself as the protagonist of this or that narrative line; I imagine myself as the model in this or that ad, wearing those shoes, toting that bag, smiling that smile, looking that thin. I think of myself acting out this or that brightly-depicted character, or character type, saying this or that dramatically satisfying line – for instance, in my case, bringing out those freshly-baked, warmly familial crescent rolls to my happy family around the tradition-laden holiday table (which literally never happens in real life, as even when I bake those rolls, which is seldom, I do not have that family). In someone else’s case, of course, it would be different characters and different lines. One of the things this drama probably means is that critical conscious awareness of the narratives we are acting out could save us creatures of discourse and desire a lot of human suffering.

My daughter has been listening virtually non-stop to a song that presents a whole relational script in musical form; it includes the line “tell me when it’s over if the high was worth the pain.” Frankly, it seems to me that the time to think about whether the high is going to be worth the pain is not when it’s over, but before it starts. Some will think that’s “utopian,” in the “yeah, as if people will really do that” sense. I think it’s “utopian” in the “hey, it could happen” sense. But I finally think that what all this means for me is that I should, in the Kantian sense, mention how “it seems to me” to my daughter the next time I hear that song playing in the car.

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