Friday, February 24, 2012

Now, where did that come from?

Where did she come from?

I experienced another unusually vivid and memorable dream at the start of the week (I've had a bit of a run of them just lately).

As in the last one, denial of age and decay (and dissatisfaction with China?) was probably a large impetus: I once again found myself winding the clock back some 18 or 20 years, to when I was still in my twenties.

I was, in fact, back in the period of my life when I was a schoolteacher, my first job after university (that might have been in my mind, I suppose, because I'd recently mentioned it to a friend who's just started teaching high school in America). The school was understood to be the one where I had actually taught - although, in that devil-may-care way of dreams, its layout was nothing like that school; and none of the staff or pupils seemed to be the same. It was an entirely imaginary recreation of what my teaching experience might have been like.

Also, curiously, I was aware that I was just returning to the school after a year or two away. I'd had to quit that job abruptly because of a health crisis. I had half-heartedly considered trying to return there when I got better, but I don't think that was ever likely to come to fruition (my sudden departure was harshly judged by staff and students alike; I learned from ex-pupils I subsequently met in Oxford and London that there was a prevalent rumour I had AIDS). I suppose there must have been some wistfulness in me to return there; or at least to undo, to erase the horrific period of my illness. Over the next few years, I dreamt so often of having returned to the job after a year that I almost began to believe it must indeed have happened. (And in these early dreams, the school and its personnel were always accurately detailed, completely lifelike - unlike this most recent one.)

The dream seemed to start off as a wrestling with the question of whether or not I might return to the teaching life. I think I was not fully recovered from my ill health, and somehow only provisionally committed to a trial term, to see if I could yet cope with the workload again. It was the first day of term, so it was really a bit difficult to back out - but I did seem to be undecided, on the brink of succumbing to cold feet.

But then the dream suddenly branched off in an entirely unexpected direction - a rather pleasantly erotic direction. I found I was feeling a strong attraction to one of the older girls. She was not really very beautiful, but she had a poise and an intelligence that I found fascinating. However, I have always been sternly moralistic about the inappropriateness of romantic liaisons between teachers and students, and staunchly resisted these feelings. Well, I always have done so in real life. In the dream, my ethics proved much less robust. When the girl made it clear that she reciprocated my interest in her, I couldn't resist the temptation for long, and we were soon indulging in a furtive snog. Very nice it was, too.

That was about it for the dream. I soon awoke in a ferment of shame and self-loathing.

I would never have suspected it during my own school days (however, I went to a single sex school), but, I later learned, teacher-student liaisons are a surprisingly common phenomenon. I was startled to discover that many of my female friends at university claimed to have had such an experience, or to have had a schoolfriend who had. And a few years later, these same ladies mostly expressed shock and disappointment that I hadn't enjoyed such a relationship myself when I became a teacher. They joked that it was no more than an expected perk of the job. I was aghast.

I worry that it's really rather too easy to impress a young woman you're teaching - particularly in high school, and most particularly in a boarding school, where they may have a limited social life, limited access to male company other than boys of their own age (and boys tend to be much less mature at the same age; so, rather unsatisfying companions, usually), almost no access to adult males other than their teachers. Familiarity alone breeds affection: you tend to become fond of people you live in close proximity with, see almost every day. And the classroom can be an unusually intense, and an extremely intimate environment. Of course, they tend to admire you disproportionately as an authority figure and a fount of knowledge. And they feel grateful to you for imparting your knowledge to them, inspiring and encouraging them, helping them to get into university. No, it's not surprising that girls fall for their teachers.

I find it harder to comprehend how teachers allow themselves to fall for their students. If you do enter into such a relationship, you are unfairly exploiting a situation of unbalanced power (feminists might argue that there's almost always a situation of unbalanced power between a man and a woman, but it is particularly pronounced between a teacher and a student). And you can never really be confident how much the girl likes you, and how much she likes rather the idea of you, the role that you play in her life. I don't think many of these relationships have much longevity.

Perhaps I was lucky not to feel the temptation all that strongly. Admittedly, girls in their late teens are often in their finest bloom of prettiness; and they do generally seem to be much more 'grown up' than boys of that sort of age. The gap between a young teacher in his early twenties, fresh out of university, and a senior year student of 17 or 18 isn't so very great, is it? Well, yes, I find there is a huge gap in experience and attitude. University is a fundamental rite of passage for most of us, the point at which we begin to emerge into adulthood (although I'd venture that for most people the process is not in fact complete until two or three years into their working life). I couldn't really see myself being interested in a girl of 18 even when I was 20 and still an undergraduate, and certainly not by the time I was nearly 25 and working. (As I recounted on The Barstool the other day, I did briefly go out with a girl of 17 - when I was 31! - but it didn't work out; belated proof of my long-held prejudice.)

Moreover, I take teaching way more seriously than most people. I have a reverential awe for the function, and particularly for the notion of standing in loco parentis. You are not just responsible for your charges' education, but for their physical and moral well-being; it is a sacred trust, not to be abused.

I held myself to that principle, even though I was sorely tempted on occasion. Well, in four years, I suffered two very bad crushes on Sixth Form girls in the school where I was teaching. (We only had girls in the Sixth Form - the upper two years. I think that might have made our circumstances particularly difficult: if you've known a girl from an age where she is definitely too young for you to fancy her, I think you get used to not fancying her, to not allowing yourself to fancy her - even when she subsequently blooms into womanhood. That seems to be how it works with me, anyway.) The second of them I regard as one of the great loves of my life - we got to know each other pretty well over two years: she was a remarkable intellect, a remarkable person. And I did contemplate trying to initiate a relationship with her after we'd both left the school (the episode of life-threatening illness rather scuppered that plan; although I think I'd stepped away from it anyway - not wanting to bother the poor girl at this great transitional phase of her life [reading history at Cambridge], feeling that she could do better for herself than a physically broken down, penniless and unemployable wreck like me). But while she was a student, and I was a teacher, I kept my affections in check - never acted on them, never gave any indication of them (well, I hope; I think she suspected, towards the end).

The only person I could confide in about this moral torment was my best friend on the staff, another novice teacher I would later come to think of as The Arts Entrepreneur. Ever the cynic, he was sceptical of my supposed high ideals, and suggested it was perhaps only embarrassment, the fear of getting caught that was really restraining me. 

He proposed a taunting hypothetical to test my resolve - The Secret Tunnel. Imagine, he said, that there was a hidden underground passageway connecting your room here to hers on the other side of the school, and that you could visit her at any time you liked, with no risk of detection - would you still cling to this supposed sanctity of the teacher-student bond?

It was a very difficult question! Thank heavens it was only hypothetical.


John said...

How do you feel about the other way round- female teachers being involved with younger boys? It does happen.

Froog said...

Much rarer, I think.

Perhaps it's partly down to that question of the power-relationship. Female teachers don't usually seem quite as powerful as the men, and boys tend to be less impressed by it.

Again, it happened at the school where I taught - predominantly male pupils, only one or two female members of staff. And, in a boarding school particularly, loneliness can be a driver.

In general, though, I find it an incomprehensible aberration that way round. Girls tend to achieve full physical maturity (and get over the spotty phase), as well as at least a measure of intellectual and emotional maturity, a few years ahead of boys. Teenage boys are just not very attractive, most of the time.

And so, I guess, the cultural norm - which starts in school, because boys the same age are so spotty and useless - is that girls are usually interested in guys a bit older than themselves.

FOARP said...

Perhaps in public schools at that time it was common, but in ordinary state schools amongst people of my age and younger (i.e., born around 1980) I never heard first-hand of any such incident. Obviously relationships between male teachers and male students in boarding schools is also a known phenomenon, but this is also not something I ever heard of happening at anything but a boarding school except on the news.

At any rate, it is not advisable. My understanding is that, at least since the change in sexual offences legislation in 2003, teachers who engage in sexual relations with students under their supervision who they know to be under the age of 18 are committing a criminal offence. The maximum sentence for abuse of a position of trust is 5 years.

Anyway, playing pop-psychologist again, perhaps this is your subconscious trying to tell you to go back to teaching? God know every former teacher (well, almost every former teacher) has moments when they wish they were back in the classroom.

Froog said...

What? I should get back into teaching because it's so sexy?

There might be an element of still being attracted to teaching as a job option, but I think - if there is a 'simple interpretation' of this dream - that it's probably just to do with wanting to be able to turn back the clock, to recover a point in my life where I had more options. That might have led me initially to thoughts of returning to my first job; but then, it ambushes me that what I most regret is having missed out on a satisfying romantic relationship.

I was an invalid, penniless and miserable, for several years in my thirties, when I would have expected to be taking care of that. That probably put a lasting dent in my self-confidence, too. I'm still penniless and sickly today, so not inclined to present myself to anyone as 'a good catch'.

Froog said...

I hadn't seen details of that new law. Really - they set an age limit at 18? That seems a bizarre half-way house to me. It's difficult to justify making it different to the standard age of consent anyway. But if you're going to do that, it ought to be strictly tied to the teacher-student relationship. Some 6th Formers are over 18: they should be off-limits too.

A bit crazy to try to use the criminal law to curb this, though. It ought to be a matter of professional regulation - you get debarred from teaching if you're found to have had a relationship with a pupil. (And I think I'd take having a relationship with a pupil within a year or so of them finishing school as presumptive evidence of there having been something improper going on when they were still at school.)

Actually, I rather doubt whether this does happen more in boarding schools, because although these feelings might be more inclined to grow in such a confined environment, they also have less opportunity to develop into a relationship unobserved.

Almost all of the examples I've heard of - A LOT - happened in state schools.

FOARP said...

Yup -

"Section 16 - Abuse of position of trust: sexual activity with a child

1)A person aged 18 or over (A) commits an offence if—
(a)he intentionally touches another person (B),
(b)the touching is sexual,
(c)A is in a position of trust in relation to B,
(d)where subsection (2) applies, A knows or could reasonably be expected to know of the circumstances by virtue of which he is in a position of trust in relation to B, and
(i)B is under 18 and A does not reasonably believe that B is 18 or over, or
(ii)B is under 13."

The only exceptions being where A and B are already married or civil partners, or were already in a lawful sexual relationship immediately before the position of trust arose.

So, basically, the legal answer to your friend's tunnel conundrum is that as soon as the student blows out the candles on their 18th birthday-cake, they're fair game.

Like you said, pretty hard to justify it being different to the age of consent, but if you're going to do it, fixing it to the age of 18 doesn't make much sense.

As for the rest, all I can think is that things must have changed a lot by the time I went to school, as I've never heard of any examples from friends, girlfriends, sisters (one of whom now teaches A-level) etc. No-one nowadays (and I at least like to think I do not surround myself with po-faced kill-joys) would feel comfortable joking about teacher-student relationships as one of the perks of the job.

I guess I will have to bow to your expertise when it comes to boarding schools, but I can say that centuries of tradition indicates otherwise.

Froog said...

Well, there was one notorious example - oh, about 20 years ago now, I suppose; big News Of The World scandal splash - where supposedly half the staff were sodomising pupils. But that was a bit of a freak case: it was a very small school, very strange.

The point about boarding schools is that while pupils do enjoy a limited amount of privacy among themselves (making it relatively easy for them to cultivate homosexual relationships with peers), staff enjoy almost none. It's just about impossible for a member of staff in a boarding school to have a clandestine sexual relationship with a pupil (in that NOTW example, it didn't have to be clandestine; it was the school 'culture' that everyone was doing fairly openly).

I wonder if there has been some sort of shift in attitudes making it less common today. I suppose earlier 'maturity', earlier embarking on sexual activity may be a factor; if large numbers of people are sexually active by their early or mid-teens, they'll be enough of a pool of potential partners in the upper years of the school to keep people busy. If the teacher-pupil relationship vice really was more common back in the '70s or '80s, I speculate that it could be that back then this might have been a first sexual experience for a 16 or 17 year old girl.

Not convinced about that, though.

When I was doing my PGCE back in the late '80s, every staffroom in every school I visited or did teaching practice at had stories about this kind of thing. I can't believe it's much less common now. After all, it is a 'natural', almost inevitable product of the intimacy of the school environment. I don't approve of it, but I can entirely understand how it happens. And I'd imagine there's a fairly constant percentage (hopefully very low!) of instances across every educational administrative district.

Froog said...

And you figure, it has to be a fairly significant cultural phenomenon if they do skits about in on Little Britain.