To sir, with love?

The last thing my professor taught me was that he was only human.

Published March 13, 1999 7:53PM (EST)

"I fell in love with all of you." A candle in the middle of the table illuminated Professor Frankel's face, carving it with shadows. Closing his beady eyes behind thick lenses, he went on in a trancelike voice: "I feel like I know you better than you know yourselves. By reading your writing, I've stepped into the most intimate moments of your lives." His eyes opened. "I've walked around inside your minds."

My former classmates Astrid and Esther wore implacable expressions and stared off into the middle distance like wax sculptures. Professor Frankel -- whose name I have changed -- had planned a reunion for his favorite students and I had come to the restaurant hoping the other two would lend an air of normalcy to the evening. But I felt as uncomfortable with them present as I would have had Frankel and I been dining solo.

"Now, I am going outside to smoke," Professor Frankel said, rising from the table trailing his linen napkin, walking with the shuffle of an old man.

"He said that to me before," Astrid said, nonchalantly. "I just looked at him like he'd told me it was raining. I like to make him squirm."

To think: Only a year before, when I was senior in college, I was still seeking out Frankel's time and attention. Now the thought of being alone with him made me shudder. But since he was my favorite teacher -- a prominent, talented writer who bathed me in the strange, intimate flattery of being a favorite student -- it was difficult to overestimate his impact on my life. Other than my parents, he was the only adult who had ever taken a strong interest in me. And I credited him with helping me get through college. But now with his words of "love" and "walking around inside my mind" he'd brought the unpleasant truth of our relationship crashing into my consciousness. Behind all our discussions about language and literature, we had always, quietly, been speaking about something more unruly -- that precarious place where fact and fiction blur, where teacher and student meet and fall, somehow, in love.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"This is a class about reporting the truth, Stromberg. You've given me lies," Frankel bellowed from the back of the classroom in the first real class of my freshman year of college. The room was deadly silent; all my classmates stared at me. Moments earlier he had showered me with praise. "This is wonderful writing. Wonderful! Now, read it in your father's voice."

He'd jumped from his chair and raised his right arm, pointing at me like a
conductor poised for the finale of a movement.

"P-professor," I stuttered.

"Just do it! You've heard your father speak a thousand times, just mimic him. Don't be nervous. If you can write something this good, this evocative, then you can read it with equal fervor."

I hadn't actually considered the possibility that Professor Frankel might
believe my story, or that I'd have to read it in front of the class. I had become enraptured by his brilliant performance at the introductory class.
He'd talked about storytelling, writing about lives. He gave his potential
students an assignment: Write a story about our families in 24 hours.

My passion for getting into his class had greatly outweighed any inspiration I felt to write about my family. We were normal. We had no stories. Finally, desperately, I eked out a story about imaginary parents. Whether or not they were real seemed irrelevant to me.

Now, sitting in front of the class, I tried to imagine what my overall-clad,
balding, beer-drinking, trailer-park dwelling imaginary father would sound
like. But this depiction was so far from the truth that my mind went blank.

"This isn't really about my father," I stammered. "I made this up. I wasn't trying to deceive you. I just wanted to get into this class."

Professor Frankel's eyes widened and his Einstein-like hair seemed to stand on end.

"This is the worst thing that any of you can ever do!" he yelled. "I should kick you out of my class for these lies." His voice trailed off. The class waited for him to finish. "This is a class about reporting the truth," he hissed, pounding the table. "The truth! Class dismissed."

"Stromberg is obviously very talented but at what remains unseen."

Three months later, at the end of the semester, Professor Frankel had indicted me again, this time by writing an evaluation that was part of my official school record. I reread the sentence in amazement, unsure if I'd been insulted or praised.

"Following her first deception this professor was never sure whether or not he could trust her."

What was he trying to do to me? I'd persevered through his class despite our "misunderstanding," telling myself I was doing the right thing by meeting his challenge. We worked intensively on my prose and by every indication I was excelling in his class. He even went so far as to encourage me when I didn't deserve to be encouraged. But now Professor Frankel had gone too far. In retaliation, I wrote an evaluation of him to his file. At my small liberal arts college, students and professors were expected to evaluate each other. It was part of the deal.

"Professor Frankel has crossed the line between personal and professional by
trying to become too involved in his students' lives."

It was difficult to describe what I meant. His evaluation of me was
insensitive and mean-spirited, but it was hardly a crime. Yet there was
something else, something less tangible, insidious, like a peculiar smell in
a room. Professor Frankel cared too much about me. He seemed to
take my writing personally, though it had nothing to do with him. That he'd
taken the time to write the scathing evaluation of me was a clue.

And yet that interest in me was also the reason he'd paid any attention to my writing. And in some way the act of writing the letter was still about my admiration for this passionate, eccentric man. Though we'd butted heads, I respected him for standing his ground. And this was what I was trying to do.

I signed it and submitted it to his department. I felt relieved to have the
whole thing over with. I stopped writing and averted my eyes when we passed
on campus. The years passed and I delved into my other studies: religion, anthropology, legal theory. I became enraged when a class discussed sexual harassment. I vowed to become a lawyer.

Three years later I returned to Professor Frankel's class.

I sat slouched in my chair at the back of the classroom hoping he wouldn't
recognize me. He explained that it would be a class of literary journalism and we would be placing ourselves in "the thick of life." The assignment was to write a story about an epiphany we'd had. As before, we had 24 hours.

For once I knew exactly what I would write about. The previous summer I'd
worked for a man named Joey Escovini at a shoe store. "Do whatever it takes to sell the shoe," he'd say, winking his good eye and staring at my breasts. "Whatever it takes." That summer had been torture, an exercise in tolerance and a firsthand lesson in sexual harassment. I had a lot to say.

I typed feverishly for several hours, then tiptoed up the stairs to Professor Frankel's office and quietly slid my story under the door. When I returned to my dorm room 20 minutes later the phone rang.

"Stromberg. This is Professor Frankel. Can you come to my office? We need
to talk about our past."

"Our past?" I thought sarcastically. The next thing you'll be talking about is "our future."

But a few minutes later I sat before Professor Frankel in his office. "Stromberg. I need to know why you wrote this letter to my file," he said,
lifting a sheet of paper from his desk.

I had expected him to apologize to me for the evaluation he'd written, and
possibly to pummel me with the meaning of "truth" one more time. I'd all but forgotten about my letter. Besides, I didn't think I should apologize for what I'd written. I wasn't sorry. At the time, it had seemed like the right thing to do.

"I wrote that letter because I felt upset about how I'd been treated in your
class. I was mad at you for what you wrote in my evaluation. I was just
telling my version of things."

Professor Frankel was silent. He looked more sad than indignant, a shabby
puddle of a man melting in his chair.

"Maybe my attempt to report the truth was misguided," I said. "You know about my problems with truth."

He gave no indication he found my joke amusing. Then, suddenly, a wave of
confidence splashed over me. "I came to your class this morning because I think that I can learn something from you regardless of our past. The story I submitted is true. I don't know if it's good enough to get me into your class, but it's true."

"The story is good enough," Professor Frankel said, quickly. "You will find
your name on my class roster."

Then, as abruptly as he would later excuse himself from the restaurant table
after pronouncing his love to his former students, he changed the subject.

"Have you thought about what you will be doing for your thesis?"

"Oh. Yes. I mean no. I mean I've thought about it but no, I have no idea
what I'm doing." I bit my lip, willing myself not to break down in his office.
As the last few months of college rapidly approached I felt increasingly
anxious about what I was going to do. Just as willing as I had been to turn him in as a quasi-harasser, I was now eager for his words of wisdom about my future. Despite all my sense of growing maturity -- I was still his student, hungry for his influence.

"I'd like you to consider writing your thesis in literary journalism. Write about whatever you'd like. Write about life. But don't waste your talent on bullshit analytical papers that you don't care about. The story you wrote for my class had so much power. Did you like writing it?"

"Like writing it?" I thought for a moment. "Like didn't come into it. I had to write it."

My answer was an epiphany. Suddenly, hundreds of stories filled my head.
Professor Frankel had just spoken about education in a way I'd never
considered. He wasn't interested in what I thought I "should" do. He was
encouraging me to listen to my heart and trust my instincts.

"Stromberg, I'd like to head up your thesis committee. Think about it and get back to me."

Then he turned to his desk and began shuffling papers, an indication that our meeting was over.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"Shall we order another bottle of wine?" Frankel said. The conversation had
languished since he'd told us he'd fallen in love with us. "Why did you wreck everything?" I wanted to demand. But I remained quiet because there was a part of me that wanted to salvage our relationship, such as it was.

None of us wanted wine. Frankel became sullen. He pulled the silver credit
card from his wallet. "This one's on your alma mater," he said bitterly.

Quickly, Astrid and Esther said goodbye and left.

"Don't be so nervous, Stromberg," he said, leaning toward me. "I don't bite."

I took a deep breath wondering what he'd say next.

"I'd like to see your apartment."

The real Frankel loomed in front of me, stripped of his professorial mystique.

"Take me to your apartment," said the drunken man. "I've always wanted to see where you live." I started to laugh. He didn't have access
to my inner thoughts anymore. It was as if Frankel had taken my writings
personally -- that by trusting him to read and comment on my inner thoughts,
I'd been communicating a deeper affection.

"What's so funny, Stromberg," he said, irritably.

"Don't you get it, Frankel? You didn't fall in love with me. You
fell in love with an idea. You've fallen for the romance of the proverbial
student-professor relationship. But it's not like that for us. I'm not the
person you think you know from reading my writing. And you're not coming
to my apartment."

This is what I wish I'd said. But the truth was, I'd fallen in love with an
idea as well. I'd fallen for the idea of Frankel as a perfect being, the
ultimate professor: brilliant, inspiring, dedicated, harmless. But I'd
forgotten that Frankel was human -- complicated as any person. And
stranger than most.

"No, you can't come to my apartment," I said, shaking my head. "But thank you for dinner, Frankel, really. The rack of lamb was delicious."

Then we stood silently for an excruciating moment, taking each other in. But there was still a part of me that wanted to preserve the memory of the person I'd respected and revered. "I'm working on a story right now," I said slowly. "Maybe when it's finished I could send it to you and you could let me know what you think."

"I'd like that, Stromberg," he said quietly, looking away. "I really would."

By Susanna Stromberg

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