Sexual pedagogy

All the rules in the world against romancing students can't explain away the elusive emotions of this vocational hazard.

Published December 3, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Who ever tells the truth about the libidinous acts that pass between student and teacher? If you brag about it, you look like Henry Miller, and if you agonize about it, D.H. Lawrence. I'm not going to review the whole confounded subject of my relations with female students; I might be investigated. Needless to say, it's a serious occupational hazard when egotistically inclined charismatics lurk in the presence of droves of underexposed maidens. A scene from Greek mythology can't be far behind.

When I was a graduate student R.A. at the University of Michigan, I roomed with another 28-year-old from California on the ground floor of an undergraduate women's dormitory. There I got my first taste of the collegiate love that dare not speak its name. I don't know who planned the arrangement, but girls from little towns in upper Michigan seemed to line up outside our door for their dose of hedonic initiation. Spurts of homework were punctuated by rhythmic groans and shrieks, as Larry and I took turns staying late at the library. As far as I know, none of the girls ever went away unhappy.

But this graduate-undergraduate depravity -- though blessed with a certain irresistible naughtiness -- never approached the scandal of professorial transgressions. Ted, who taught English at my college, told us all about the abyss when he got caught with his proverbial pants down four years ago. We all knew he was living with one of his former students, a sweet little blond woman with three kids. Ted was one of those elliptical, multi-syllabic guys whose rap sent students hustling to the dictionary. He was overweight and balding, and many of my female students berated him for being a lech, but whether it was his faded leather jacket or mocking insouciance, somehow he succeeded in bedding down with Louise.

All went presumably well for a couple of years, until one day the rumor emerged that Ted had been arrested for stalking, among other things. The local paper said that he had been caught hiding outside Louise's house when she reported a prowler, and investigation revealed that Ted had set up a bugging device under her bed and had been listening with earphones under the house. It was a tantalizing image -- mangy Ted, instead of pontificating about "Moby-Dick," hunched over in the dark frantically trying to hear exactly what was transpiring over his head. Even worse: He had received a court order prohibiting him from contact with the woman before he was arrested in flagrante disobedio. And Ted, outlaw of lasciviousness, lifetime example of the transcendence of the id, object lesson to all of us to be more careful in channeling our desire, went to jail.

But even the specter of Ted in jail sipping orange Kool-Aid from a plastic cup wasn't enough to curb my willingness to venture into the dark side of vocational madness. I needed to experience my own dalliances ...

Christine was invisible in the ranks of a humanities class until one day I presented a lecture on the history of modern painting, including a voluptuous print by the Spanish artist Lombarte. In the stack of responses to my query about which artist resonated with students the best, which I was in the process of reading out loud to the class, one essay brought all my blood to my face. "Lombarte, master of sensuousness, catches that moment of ennui and detachment that all beautiful women have either before or after they have deeply satisfying sex. It is a portrait of languid desire."

I looked up from the paper and stared out into the room. "Who wrote this?" I asked, almost trembling, it felt so corny and bold. I knew I should have read on to the next paper, ignoring the sensation that stirred my body, but my self-control was pathetically inadequate to the occasion. Christine, whom I had never noticed before, raised her delicate little hand, and I immediately knew that Nabokov's Lolita, "light of my life, fire of my loins," was alive, was here and would be returning to be with me over and over for the rest of the semester. I stared at her for a few seconds too long, and then pulled myself down into the rest of the papers, which drifted on like a vacant tide of irrelevance.

One day she remained after class, weeping over Michael Smuin's ballet "Song for a Dead Warrior," which I had shown during the "modern dance" part of the course. I knew, as we hugged each other in sympathy for all the oppression in the history of the world, and to seal our intimate solidarity, that I was hers. I asked her to have a beer with me at the City Hotel, knowing I was opening the door into a dimly lit room of lurking taboos and uncontrollable urges. She was 23 to my 58, awful numbers in my lexicon, and there was no undoing them; it was the whimsical chronology of some malevolent god.

We nudged and rubbed against each other for the better part of a month, as she soaked up dormant knowledge from my brain, before I invited her to travel with me during spring break, envisioning intertwinings both elastic and torrid for which there would be no end. Pounding rain on the coast aborted our hiking plans in Point Reyes, so we headed south to Santa Cruz, looking for vibrant sun. We piled book finds on the bed of our hotel and drank copious amounts of tequila as we postponed the inevitable disposition of our bodies. The breakthrough occurred at a showing of "The Shawshank Redemption," the poignant ending of which ("Hope is a good thing; it may be the best thing there is") had us weeping and gripping each other's writhing hands. By the time we got back to the hotel, boundaries had been erased. What finally happened was so delirious that it evaporated as soon as it occurred, like candy so sweet it destroys the brain.

She moved in for about two weeks after the trip, strewing candles on all flat surfaces and altering the chemistry of the house. I rushed home after classes almost in panic that I had imagined her, but finding things like fresh soup and small kindnesses instead of false dreams.

And then she was gone. Small traces, like the paths of electrons, zoomed by: A tender letter, a glance, a bit of music. I visited her once in Santa Cruz, where she had moved with her lover, and slowly drove away as from a funeral. She said, "You were too sober," which was true, no more changeable than my age.

Years have gone by. I have a fine friend who climbs in my bed and then leaves, after we have celebrated each other's freedom with wine and candles. I start my classes and end them gently and ceremoniously, not bothering to return the polite solicitations that are part of my unspoken contract. But just one month ago, an invisible student from the back row came to the front of the room to lead the discussion of Oedipus, who blinded himself from the truth. I watched her walk up the aisle and take her place next to me, before she turned to me and smiled.

I recognized it right away. It was the smile of the goddess of destruction.

On intellectual grounds, these things are hard to defend. I know all the arguments: Imbalance of power, taking advantage of naiveti and so forth. Biologically, they make sense, but only if we accept that the biological imperative can overpower consciousness. If we adopt Sartre's point of view, such liaisons are immoral because those with more consciousness prey on those with less. But there is a huge assumption built into that proposition from the perspective of Buddhism, which sees consciousness as something that potentially takes many lifetimes to develop. From this point of view, an older person might be considerably less conscious than a young one, whatever blame resulting from past karma.

But none of these arguments makes any sense in the realm of the emotions. I hesitate to bow to Freud here, but the arguments of two of his descendents, Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse, are compelling. Our society does cause excess repression, and it is liberating to open oneself to "Love's Body." We paid a very high price for Puritanism. We also pay a very price for resisting it. Ultimately, these things do not get worked out on paper. They unravel themselves whenever the smile happens, and two beings, from whatever complex personal histories and psychological makeups they have, get intertwined. The goddess of love cannot be bribed. She will have her way.

By David Alford

David Alford lives and works on a ranch in the Sierras, near the town of Avery, CA.

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