Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Teachers: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly (plus the Sexy!) Part 3b

(This is the final section of the third installment of a post on teachers. See Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and the first part of of Part 3 here.)

The Sexy, Part B

It was near the end of September, not long after the discussion about the Vietnam War, that I began to linger in Mr. S's classroom after dismissal. At first our conversations were trivial and impersonal—discussions of assignments or continuations of classroom debates—but they soon evolved into more relaxed, personal exchanges about all manner of topic. I took these conversations seriously, occasionally even prepping for them! They had become the highlights of my week and I consistently skipped math class so that I wouldn't have to forego them. At some point, Mr. S expressed concern about my math grades but after I reassured him that I was doing well, he stopped worrying and accepted my decision to skip. I can't imagine a teacher doing that today, but it was a different era, one whose spirit was more conducive to respecting kids' inclinations and choices. Even then it was a Zeitgeist on its way out, but Mr S, with his irreverence for convention and rules, seemed to embody it perfectly.

In our after-class chats we talked a lot about books, with him recommending and lending, and me acting like an eager sponge. In the first few weeks alone, he introduced me to Susan Sontag's I, Etcetera Joan Didion's Play it as It Lays and The White Album, Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, Proust (whom he adored but recommended I hold off reading until I was over thirty), and poetry by Rimbaud, Verlaine and Éluard. One day he brought in his copy of Violette LeDuc's classic of lesbian lit,  La Batarde; I'd asked to borrow it after reading about Simone De Beauvoir's interest in Leduc. As I flipped through it, I jokingly said I was going to show it to my parents and ask them what they thought of his taste in literature. He grabbed the book out of my hand, tore out the page where he'd written his name and handed it back to me. This gesture (which I assured him was unnecessary) was a springboard to talk about homophobia, a new-ish term at the time, whose meaning he explained to me. This in turn led to a discussion of "projection"—a concept that interested him. People who fear homosexual urges in themselves, he explained, will often project that fear onto another, thus relieving them of the burden of confronting the true source of their fear.

Books were not the only conduits to such discussions. Music and movies played a similar role. Mr. S would recommend movies that were playing at the local rep cinemas, alerting me to foreign films that he thought might interest me, especially classics of the French New Wave. (He shared my Francophilia, though in his case it was more understandable—his mother was Swiss French.) But he surprised me by praising certain popular movies as well. I remember him pronouncing Saturday Night Fever a "well-made movie." At the time, I was firmly in the "disco sucks" camp; such praise coming from him was a significant challenge to my adolescent snobbery.

Other topics I remember discussing included: the legalization of marijuana—I was in favour, he did not disagree; the jock-ish culture of high school; Canadian and American politics; and suburbia, against which I chafed but which he defended as a quiet place where people understandably chose to raise kids. "How can you defend it?" I asked. "It's soul-destroying." He shrugged. "Living here is part of why you are who you are." But the next day he brought in his copy of Cheever's Bullet Park for me to read: "My favourite suburban novel," he said.

What surprises me when I look back on those chats is not their breadth and occasional depth, but that they occurred at all. My own participation is not particularly surprising: the student "crush" is a familiar trope in both popular and literary culture, though I would argue that the trivializing term (often applied to unsanctioned attractions, especially those of the young) does not do justice to the potent mix of sexual and intellectual attraction I felt towards Mr. S. More difficult to understand from my perspective is Mr. S's motivation. I wondered then and I wonder now why he was willing to forgo so much of his prep time to engage in an ongoing conversation with a student. The more I think of it, though, the more I realize that what is important is not that he didn't feel anything inappropriate—though I believe he did not—but that if he did, I didn't know. He did not let it show. There was no physical contact between us, with one minor exception. On a spring day when I was the last to leave his classroom, he followed me out, and as I moved through the doorway, he took hold of my braid and let it run through his fingers. It was in all likelihood an innocent, affectionate gesture—which didn't stop me from wandering around for the rest of the day in a thrilled daze, thinking to myself, he touched my hair, he touched my hair!

But the point is, regardless of what he may have felt, and what I clearly did feel, nothing (beyond hair-touching) happened. Or rather what happened was entirely positive, from a pedagogic perspective: feelings rippling beneath the surface of our interaction acted as a catalyst for engaged teaching and learning. It's no accident that I produced better work and learned more in Mr. S's class than I had in the previous three years of high school English.

As I mentioned in Part A of this post, Eros has been recognized as an inducement to learning since antiquity. In the Platonic model, however, love or desire for a person is only the beginning of a process which, if all goes well, ends with the learner transferring her affection to Beauty or Knowledge itself. Human love, of the sort a student might feel towards a teacher, is merely a means to a "higher" end. (See the Ladder of Love.) It's a nice idea, but I don't think one has to view this progression as inevitable or necessary, in order to appreciate the role that Eros can play in learning. A love that remains focussed on a person or that is mixed with desire is a feeling that can produce intense and pleasurable learning. What is there to object to in that? (I'm not saying this is the only way to motivate students!) Love between student and teacher cannot be acted on under most normal circumstances; but it needn't be denied or suppressed either. As long as there are teachers like Mr. S, there will be students who love them. I say let the kids love and learn.

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