The thing about power is, sometimes you don’t know when you’re facing it. Sometimes it can be sneaky, subtle and charming, even. Sometimes you don’t realize that it’s at the root of your interactions. And sometimes, it’s only when the bad thing has happened, that you begin to understand how little of it that you have.
I have always had unwavering trust in teachers. I think it’s because I was thrown into American kindergarten not speaking a word of English, and automatically relied on my teachers to protect, nurture and help me, in addition to teach me. Since then, my feelings towards teachers has evolved into respect and trust. In my mind, teachers rank above everything else in the silent hierarchy of what and who was right. I never questioned them, and if a teacher ever scolded me or expressed slight displeasure at something I did, it ruined me for at least two or three days. To me, they were demigods. Untouchable.
In my freshman year of college, I took a poetry course, an entry-level class on the list of required courses for all English majors. It was taught by a graduate student named N. At the time, I thought he was a professor - I didn’t realize that most entry-level courses were taught by graduate students.
Maybe that was my first mistake.
When N. walked into the classroom on the second day (he canceled the first day of class for reasons unexplained. I showed up to an empty classroom and sat there for twenty minutes before seeing the email in my inbox), I thought he looked more like a computer science professor than one in English literature. He was tall and thin, with a dwindling mop of red hair and translucent skin, interrupted only by the red and brown splotches running down the right side of his face and neck.
He used words I never heard out loud before, words that I registered but didn’t understand. He referenced obscure things that even now, after years of collegiate schooling (including courses in social science, philosophy and theory), I still cannot place. He had a curious obsession with tennis and rabbits, the latter of which he proudly reminded us time and time again. He and his girlfriend owned at least three rabbits, one named King.
He wasn’t a good teacher. Often, N. would stand at the front of the classroom lecturing on Keats, Philip Larkin or Elizabeth Bishop, the podium acting as a barrier between us and him. It was a dreadful class, which was a bummer, because I quite liked poetry.
Disclaimer: It is in my blood to be a good student. I have never had the ability to “not give a fuck” about school, even when I wanted to. I threw a dramatic fit and screamed at my father over my high school physics homework, simply because I didn’t understand circuits. I cried in front of my freshmen biology teacher when she told me that I had gotten an 86 on my Biology final. I racked up almost 20 “Homework Pass” coupons in elementary school, and didn't use a single one.
So even with N.’s poor lecturing and teaching etiquette, I recognized that he was an incredibly smart, if not socially awkward and unaware, person. I had a lot to learn from him. I only needed to decipher the useful nuggets of information buried beneath his stacked vocabulary and philosophical meanderings. I resorted to keeping my head down and taking frantic notes as he spoke, looking up once or twice to give an encouraging nod or affect a look of deep thought on my face.
He canceled class often with emails referencing Heidegger and making jokes that none of us understood. He didn’t seem to expect us to participate in class. He assigned marginal homework, the most of which was to read a selection of poems before class so that we could “discuss” them. This simply meant that he would ask us how we liked a poem before going on to dole out his own thoughts on the matter.
But alas, the curse of the entry-level college class means that participation points somehow have to factor into your final grade. So I spoke up once, offering an obvious opinion that everyone else was just too lazy to attempt. He looked startled that anyone had taken time to lift their head from their droopy-eyed daydream, as if realizing for the first time that there were actual students in the classroom.
The next morning, I woke up to an email from him commending me for my insights and my “clear voice. You should speak up in class more often,” the message read.
A year after I left that class, I got a friend request from him on Facebook. I accepted, finding it odd, but saw that he had also friended two other classmates of mine. So maybe it’s just what happens in college, I thought. Teachers befriend their students.
That’s when he started sending me messages about my Tumblr. I was just discovering feminism, sexual liberation and writing pocket posts on how much I love Southern Gothic literature, Faulkner and typewriters. He messaged me responses to those posts, which at the time, I found strange and invasive-- why was this grown man reading the uninformed thoughts of a 19-year-old girl? Moreover, he had a beautiful Korean girlfriend at the time. His messages were as all-over-the-place as his lectures had been: undecipherable and self-serving.
“Also covered well by Marc Almond (of Soft Cell fame) live ('92) and by Faudel via Algerian rai (don't know the year) for a tribute compilation. Faudel's cover is a little too busy, but worth a listen.
I know everything about Brel. Don't be scared. He is my Belgian Apollo.
You familiar with Jill Tracy's music? Or Tiger Lillies? May be to yr liking. Then again, may be too Brecht/Weill and Weimar cabaret..”
And on it went for little over a year. He tried to get me to join his reading club, but I gave some poor excuse about being too busy with school (although now that I look back on it, how was he--a graduate student--not more busy? He must have seen through my excuse). His messages got progressively weirder, less accessible, somehow more intimate. One message was written completely in iambic pentameter.
"I want to sit out in the cold with you
And talk about the sunshine. Is that wrong?
Also, make room for Herzog in your life;
His is a wondrous and uncanny mind."
I was uncomfortable, but I couldn’t explain why. I took a long time (often weeks) to respond to his messages, and did so with brief, lowercased flippancy. One or two sentences was all he got. I made extra sure to always include errors, just to show how uninterested I was.
But I suppose that wasn't enough. He continued sending me his responses to my Tumblr/blog posts, Facebook statuses, and uploaded pictures.
You make strange, lovely faces. Thanks for that.
I only ran into him once in person, but it was cold and I had a scarf and beanie to protect me. Sometimes, I caught fleeting sights of him through cracked doorways in the English building, but always fled before the recognition dawned on him.
He deleted his Facebook account a year later, and I never heard from him again. (I just checked as of writing this - he is back on it, and we are still friends.) This was one of the last messages I ever received from him, almost two years after everything started:
I have inexplicable, strange dreams. Sometime early this morning, I dreamed that we were strolling through a parking lot (although we never arrived anywhere--perhaps the lot was our destination?), where, apparently, we argued about physics. You complained that the way I talked about Hoffmann particles was condescending and obscurantist and why can't I explain things clearly? (Author's query: "Hoffmann particles"?! where did my poor sleeping brain come up with "Hoffmann particles"? How funny. And specific. I remember a dream from over a decade ago in which I discovered a new Charles Aznavour album from the 70s--in my dream he had died, although he actually still lives and continues to record--and I read and still recall to this day the track listing on an imaginary album full of songs that never existed. What a restless mind I have.) To which I replied, "Because I don't really understand it," or something like that, I can't remember the words exactly. I'm fairly sure the dream didn't end there, but that's the last I know. I'm also fairly sure that this is the only dream I've had in which someone berated me and exposed me for a science fraud. It's going to be a special memory, I tell you. Well interrogated, my somnambulistic Grand Inquisitor.
I don’t know if I would have ever humored this behavior had it not come from a teacher. But by the time I left his class, I realized that he wasn’t a true professor, simply a graduate student who taught entry-level undergraduate courses. But still, the memory of having been a student under this person affected my behavior even after I left his class. I was more lenient, more accepting and humored more than I would have if some random dude had just started messaging me these things.
He was my teacher, and for that, I gave him a extra freedom. Because he had the power of knowledge and grades and authority. And I? I was just a stupid student with a baby brain.
Finally, my sincerest apologies for nagging you with these and other (no doubt) questions. Unfortunately for you, you're interesting.
This was my first encounter with a teacher who, in my opinion, overstepped his boundaries. Nothing horrible happened. I wasn’t damaged, thank goodness. N. is probably a decent guy, just a little haphazard and unaware. He probably didn’t mean anything by it.
But it didn’t feel okay. I was uncomfortable. I tried to change my routes around campus to avoid him. I got a sinking feeling every time he contacted me. I didn't want to write on my blog anymore.
I've debated posting this, because to this day, a part of me wants to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I overreacted. Maybe I misread. Maybe I even goaded him on by responding at all. Maybe I should have told him that I didn't want to talk to him anymore. Maybe I should have asked about his girlfriend.
But I didn't. I felt compelled to respond, because he had been my teacher, and I owed him that much.
So, now what: At the end of the day, I knew that I didn't feel okay. And right now, I think it’s more important than ever to acknowledge that.