Play "Misty" for me

When a student turned her affections on me, I learned the values of professional boundaries.

Published December 10, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

There are two sides to the "sexual pedagogy" coin: our attraction to and involvement with students, and the unrequited attractions they sometimes have for us. The latter can be anything from mildly amusing bits of romantic illusion to a real-life version of Clint Eastwood's stalking drama "Play Misty for Me."

The earliest episode I remember occurred in my first year of
teaching, at a junior high school in Palo Alto. "Mara," a
precocious little seventh-grader, mailed me booklets of scented love poems,
bound in pink ribbons, into which she had poured her delicate soul. She
lingered after class to discuss whatever she could manufacture as an excuse,
staking out a spot on the edge of a desk so she could swing a lithe leg in
what she thought was irresistible provocation. Of course I enjoyed it. Who
doesn't enjoy being adored? But soon enough, as things go, she carried her
capacity for crushes to a different recipient. The others who took her place over the next couple of years became a source of both delight and irritation as my wife and I handled their mysterious phone calls and fervent little gifts.

The scariest crush I've ever been on the receiving end of
occurred about four years ago, at Columbia College. "Diane" was an invisible student in my philosophy class for a month or so before she showed up in my office one afternoon bearing news of the historic inevitability of our involvement with each other.

"There's just something about you. I mean, it's about time we talked to
each other, don't you think?" Having entered my slum-like office one morning, she balanced herself on the edge of my mangy easy chair and spoke with airy self-assurance. "I'm Diane Weintraub, from your Tuesday philosophy class."

"Diane, huh." I glanced up and gave her the once-over. I was in a
perfunctory mood and resented the intrusion. She backed away slightly,
startled, uneasy, but didn't try to avoid my gaze.

Oh man, I thought, this is going to be difficult. Diane was drastically overweight and homely in the most unsavory fashion: jowly, beady-eyed, somewhat resembling a stuffed cobra. But my sexist, body-fetishistic first impressions had been wrong before, so I immediately countered my own perception and gave her the benefit of the doubt.

"Well, what do we need to discuss?" I didn't want to talk to her, but there she was. Her face twisted into a ghastly, reddish smile. "I was meant to take your philosophy class, wasn't I? I mean, we had to meet
each other. It is our destiny."

I stared at her for a moment, glancing down at her calico dress and tennis
shoes, trying to remember what one says to an unwanted advance.

"Destiny, huh? What is this 'destiny' thing? Do you really believe in that
stuff? Wait. Of course you do. Otherwise you wouldn't be in here, would
you?" I was vacillating between amusement and irritation.

But Diane was up on her swollen feet, backing toward the door with a shocked look on her face, sweating, trembling. "I shouldn't have come. I thought you would understand."

I stood up too. "Look," I said, trying to pacify her; "You don't know me at
all. I'm just your philosophy teacher. Nothing is 'intended.' Relax. We'll
talk again soon." Jesus, I thought. I'm creating an unwanted future.

She lurched out the door, lumbered up the incline away from the patio
outside my office. I stood at the door and watched her monumental flanks pound the hillside, amazed by the extent of my own prejudice.

Diane was not in class the next day. I went over the seating chart to
verify the legitimacy of her presence. There she was: Diane, third from the left in the next-to-last row.

There was a note in my box from her, though. "Thanks for telling me that
we'll talk again soon. I am really looking forward to it. When would be a
good time for you? Call me. Diane."

I ignored the apocalyptic note. She was in my office the next morning.
"Why didn't you call me?" she demanded. "That wasn't very nice. Here I was kind enough to leave you a note and you didn't respond to it. What kind of a friendship is that?"

"Diane, we're not friends. You are a student in my class. I'm perfectly
willing to meet with you during my office hours, as with any of my
students." I manufactured as much robotic detachment as I could. It didn't work.

"I'm not just any student and you know that, silly." She then shoved me
slightly in a kind of conspiratorial way that made me cringe. "You can
pretend all you want that there's not something special between us, but it
won't do any good."

We were suddenly frozen in a state of imbalance. Neither of us said
anything. I looked around to see if there was anything I could use as a
weapon and found only books and a few small statues I keep on
my desk. I had a sudden urge to stab her with the thin figure from Kenya.

"Look," she said, "I know you're busy right now and don't have time for me. That's OK. Let's wait until tomorrow. I'll come by about 10 with coffee and we'll have a good chat." And she was gone.

I stared at the bookshelf for a moment. The room felt haunted, as if tinged
with dread. I called the counselor's office and asked if anybody knew a
"Diane Weintraub," and if there was any record on her. There was nothing, except that she was a sophomore, majoring in English. Maybe she was specializing in Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft. Maybe she'd just gotten carried away with her studies.

When I walked to the parking lot that afternoon, she was waiting for me at
my car. "How did you know which one was my car?" I demanded.

"I told the business office that you had told me to leave a book in your
car and they described it to me," she said enthusiastically, as if I would
be pleased with her ingenuity.

"Listen, Diane, I'm in a real hurry to get to the post office. I'll see you
tomorrow, OK?" This was serious. I wondered if the yellow pages listed
security services for stalked middle-aged men?

She looked perturbed and muttered, "Why are you always trying to get rid of me? Why don't you just accept our destiny, that we are meant to be together?"

This time I said nothing and climbed into my car. As I pulled
out of the parking lot I could see her in the mirror standing with her
hands on her hips, scowling. I didn't sleep much that night, half expecting
to see her face at my bedroom window.

The next morning she was at my office door waiting for me with two coffee cups in her hands. "That was really rude of you last night," she pouted. "You probably didn't have to go to the post office at all, did you?"

I had decided to confront her. "Diane, sit down. You're right, we have to
talk, but not about what you think. You must stop making these approaches to me. There is nothing between us. There is no 'destiny.' I am committed to somebody else. Please drop this fantasy and allow us both to get on with our lives, me to teach philosophy here at this college and you to do whatever you choose to do with your life. You simply must not
carry on like this any longer. It is disturbing to me and it must end." I
should have been holding a club while I delivered my speech.

Whew! Why hadn't I defused her right from the start? I turned back to my
desk and pushed a few papers around, waiting for her to leave. But suddenly she was pounding me on the back and shouting, "You disloyal son-of-a-bitch. Here I care so much about you and what do you do? Just look at you, trying to hide, trying to pretend it isn't happening, trying to avoid the issue! Look at me! Look at me! You call yourself a teacher and you won't even relate to a student who is trying to get through to you?"

When I turned around and stood up, glaring, towering over her, she recoiled visibly and mumbled, "I'm sorry, David, I'm so
sorry. I don't know what came over me. You're right. I'll leave you alone.
It'll never happen again." And she fled, sobbing and stumbling up the hill,
hunched over like she was carrying a huge weight.

I called the counselor and asked for help. "I'll call her in," Elise said.
"I'll explain to her the inappropriateness of her behavior and try to see if
we can find some professional help for her."

That night my phone rang several times, but there was nobody there.

The next night she was on the phone. "David, I'm so glad you are willing
to talk to me. It is more important to me than anything, than my life." She
hung up.

For the next couple of class sessions, Diane sat silently in the back, not
looking at me, not doing anything. I had almost erased her from my
consciousness when she showed up again at the office.

This time she was completely contrite. "I'm so sorry, really I am. It feels
like something just took me over, like an alien and I couldn't help myself.
I understand now, and I'm sorry I made you feel so bad." I nodded in tense
agreement, doubting that her conversion was genuine.

Nothing happened for about a week. Then the phone calls began. Nobody on the other end. Two or three times a night. I called the counselor's
office, and Elise said that she had met with Diane and counseled her to
leave me alone.

One night as I was leaving my evening class, I thought I caught a glimpse of her in the shadows of the parking lot, but I couldn't be sure. However, there was a note on my car: "You shouldn't play around with people's lives like this." No signature.

What was I doing to cause all this? Would I have been so repulsed if she
had been attractive to me? Was there some way to stop her neurotic
attraction without hurting her too badly? Was this the price I was paying
for my own lechery? How was I "playing around with her life?" I was plagued with questions.

Then it ended as suddenly as it began. Diane dropped out of my class and
didn't contact me for more than a year. I forgot all about her. But one
sublime fall day, as I was sitting outside my office enjoying the crystalline
air, she came around the corner and greeted me.

"David, there you are. I just wanted to tell you 'thank you,' from the
bottom of my heart. I don't know what would have happened if you had
responded to me, had lived up to my fantasy about you. I'm so happy now.
I've found myself; now I know who I am."

God, I wished she had stopped right there. It sounded so sane. But then
she veered off into the hinterland of myopia: "In fact I can say that those times we had together, talking, understanding
each other, really communicating were the best times I had back then; and
now, remembering them, I can see that there was something between us that
can never be taken away, won't be taken away, no matter what happens now ..." and she reached out for me, as if to touch me or worse, to actually embrace me.

I said, "Look, Diane, it's time for me to go now." I stood up and strode to
my office, reached inside for a book, closed the door and rapidly walked

The empty phone calls subsided after a month or so. And then, nothing. For two more years.

Last week, I met a friend at the City Hotel for lunch. I got there early.
Before my friend arrived, the door to the restaurant opened and the
monolithic, almost dinosauric Diane walked out. She spotted me before I
realized who it was.

"Hello, David," she said, and continued on out of the hotel. That was last
week. So far no phone calls.

What is it about the unapproachable, the unavailable, that arouses such
desire, such resentment? We put ourselves at risk by becoming public
personas, of course, even in the puny little way teachers do. Visibility
has unintended consequences. I do hope the Dianes of the world who are
out there understand that we mean them no harm, even though we call their
attention to ourselves.

But enough of unrequitedness. Enough of petty little crushes. Enough, even, of my own roiling perturbations. None of it is charming, none of it. I'm tired of the bad and the good. I don't want to see another Mara or Diane ever again. Leave me alone, please.
I just want to finish the year with my ego no more inflated than it already is and my well-being unthreatened.

Wait a minute -- I'll be right back. The phone is ringing again.

By David Alford

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

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