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June 29, 2012 7:31 pm
I can still remember the brown tweed couch in the living room of the teacher figure I had an affair with when I was 16. I remember the piles of books on the floor. I never set foot in his bedroom because for some reason it scared me.
I am thinking about this long-buried interlude because of a sensational exposé that recently ran in The New York Times, revealing the “secret history of sexual abuse” at one of the city’s fancier private schools. The writer gives a detailed and disturbing account of a variety of popular male teachers in the 1980s and early 1990s molesting or assaulting male students on the lush campus, without consequences. In the weeks since the piece appeared, thousands of people have joined Facebook groups to discuss it, and the whole city seems aglow with the topic.
From the massive outpouring of high school memories, it seems that what was perhaps more common than abuse or affairs was a milder blurring of boundaries – the teachers who bought students gin and tonics or, in one case I remember, gave them drugs. The boundary-blurring, in which it was somehow considered cool or enlightened for teachers to regard their high school students as full-fledged adults, was rampant in that era. The dangerous – or at least complicated – idea is that some of the teachers viewed their students as friends. They flamboyantly, fascinatingly, surrendered bits of their authority. The students would endlessly seek out these teachers to talk – which I believe meant, in the solipsism of those years, to talk at some length about their own problems.
One thinks of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and his ambiguous flight from what he calls the “perverty” behaviour of a favourite English teacher, Mr Antolini. He wakes up in the middle of the night to find Mr Antolini, after a couple of highballs, sitting next to his bed stroking his head:
“‘What the hellya doing?’ I said.
‘Nothing! I’m simply sitting here, admiring – ’
‘What’re ya doing, anyway?’ I said over again.
I didn’t know what the hell to say – I mean I was embarrassed as hell.
‘How ’bout keeping your voice down? I’m simply sitting here – ’”
The end game of this boundary-blurring in New York private school culture often seemed to be affairs. I wouldn’t characterise the particular affairs I knew about as “a secret history of sexual abuse”. They both were and weren’t abuse, because they contained – at least for the girls I knew – elements of adventure, and were a part of our coming of age, however weird or twisted or unsavoury one can see with adult perspective that these men were. If you had asked us at the time, we would have called these entanglements “relationships”. My own affair, with the teacher figure in his thirties, actually began when we were sitting by the fireplace in his living room, snow swirling outside, and he said: “My job is breaking down the usual boundaries between people.”
What’s striking is that these boundary-breakers were often the most charismatic and successful teachers, frequently brilliant in the classroom, with mini-cults of personality springing up around them. Was this because their relation to adult life was troubled or maybe unresolved? Was it because of their loose-cannon-ness, the exciting feeling in the classroom that they were inches away from being out of control? Was it the flattering sense that they were truly and deeply fascinated with their students, and didn’t view them as sweet or predictable or interchangeable or, you know, works-in-progress? We loved those boundary-breakers maybe because they loved us back.
The boundary-breakers were restless, seeking, in a way that teenagers can recognise; they had not settled comfortably into adult life, which is for high school students an infinitely romantic quality in anyone over the age of 20. Though it could also be said that we had a certain contempt for them when they actually crossed the boundaries. There was some creepiness, some desperation or neediness that we sensed.
Looking back, what is hardest to imagine is how these grown-ups could have found us interesting enough for affairs. How could men in their thirties and forties take us seriously enough to carry on these involvements that lasted for months, or, in one case I know, years? I can understand them being attracted to high school girls of course, but to listen to them so intensely, to field the pretensions, the self-seriousness, the insecurities, to talk endlessly to them?
I am not saying that my friends and I were not extremely interesting 16-year-olds, but we were 16, with the particular admixture of opinionatedness and exhaustless insecurity and first-time-on-earth-anyone’s-thought-about-this-ness of that age. One day, on a drive through the beach houses of East Hampton, I said, “God, this is so bourgeois” – which is exactly the kind of comment that makes me wonder about any bona fide adult willing to entertain a conversation with me for a prolonged period of time.
This aspect, I admit, is not a usual staple of the many New York conversations surrounding the “secret history of sexual abuse” article. At one dinner party, I mentioned very cautiously that there were also some more straightforward affairs between teachers and students, and one grey-haired eminence said, “They can’t be consensual relationships! These are children! It’s assault or abuse.” I understood his outrage at these men, who are somehow both pathetic and repellent, but I also thought: “child” is not a wholly adequate definition of a 16- or 17-year-old girl.
The dinner party conversation continued along expected lines with expressions of moral outrage. I can’t say that words like “assault” or “molestation” accurately capture the confusing range of my own experience, however, or that of my friends who carried on affairs with teachers. I think we use these words to protect ourselves from the disturbing ambiguity of these entanglements, from the troubling implications of our own precocity. The memories that I have preclude a straightforward narrative of the teacher figure seducing me. I remember calling him in the middle of the night before the affair began. I remember arriving at his house, with a friend, with a bottle of pink champagne late at night, and flirting with him.
It is difficult to process this kind of intimacy, to unravel what it means, but, as I remember it, the power balances in many of the male-teacher/female-student relationships I observed were not always as clear as one might think. If these older men exploited us in the traditional ways older men exploit young girls, we very quickly learned to exploit them in the less publicised ways that young girls exploit older men.
When thinking about these things, we prefer the narrative of corrupted innocence, and though these men were undoubtedly corrupt, the girls in my memory were not exactly innocent. In some of these situations, the girl wields a certain kind of power because she is in the role of the innocent, corrupted, forbidden one, and because – in spite of whatever adventure she feels she is having, or exciting experience-gathering she is doing – she does not entertain what an adult would recognise as real feelings about the older man. (I think an argument can be made that you don’t have real feelings before you are in your early twenties, that those hysterical outbursts you thought were real feelings were a little too fluid and interchangeable and unrooted to be classified as real feelings.)
I remember one scene, after I broke off the relationship, that speaks to this point. He came to wait for me after school. He stood outside, down the street a little way, with a bouquet of red roses. And I remember the excruciating embarrassment of this old man (he was in his thirties!) standing there on the street with his roses. (I thought, couldn’t he have come up with something more original?) I had something of the same response when he sent me a pleading 12-page letter on yellow legal paper with a Brideshead Revisited quote about love not existing in the past tense: he was so embarrassing with these feelings. Though of course it is hard to have huge sympathy for an authority figure in his thirties who seduces a 90lb 16-year-old, it is also true that in the end it was him who was hurt. I liked him with the cruelty and passion and attention span of a child; I took what I needed and moved on.
Later, in college, for reasons now obscure to me, I thought it might be a good idea to call him up and tell him that he hadn’t harmed or traumatised me. I stood in a phone booth outside the dining hall and waited to hear the familiar voice. When I delivered my reassuring speech about how unscathed I was, how I wanted him to know that I was fine, he said, bitterly, “Of course I didn’t hurt you!” It was him who was angry at me.
I imagine the boundary-breakers are less common in today’s schools, or that they are deeper in hiding, subtler in their methods, more effective in their protective colouration. For one thing, parents are watching more closely than they were watching then. For another, freedom from social constraint and eccentricity are less valued or cherished than they were then. But this category, the boundary-breaker, is an eternal one, and I have no doubt that scattered throughout our excellent schools with their blooming campuses, these teachers are concocting their secret histories of something even now.
Katie Roiphe is a professor at New York University. Her latest book is ‘Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages’ (Dial Press).
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