Just as I predicted, right before grades are due the students compliment me more, and want to touch me. This is to a certain extent about grades, and wanting to seduce the teacher into a higher mark. We as teachers need to show the students other models for interacting with members of the opposite sex in a professional setting--other ways besides flirtation and babying. We care about them and their best work, we're intellectually demanding--that's how we express our affection.
But there's more than the grade at stake. Toward the end of the semester, the students are trying to understand how to say goodbye to someone who has opened up an emotional world for them in poetry. There may be some psychological transference involved (the teacher is either a demon or a goddess); there cannot be any countertransference. I mean that no matter how adorable or talented the students may be, the teacher has to maintain pristine boundaries while the students are still enrolled at the university. After they graduate, if we maintain dialogue, remain friendly, then we may become true friends, part of the family even. I'm still friends with a poet from the very first class I taught at Livingston College in 1971. (He wrote the intro to my new book of poems!)
Today in class, one of the immensely talented women students asked me if she could touch my shoe! My shoes are textured. Any style-conscious woman noticing the shoes might be intrigued. But the student needed to cross a boundary, to touch. I should have said, "You don't need to touch them." I wasn't on the ball. "Sure," I said. And she touched. We'll see what happens next.
Any small frame break can lead to a barrage of inappropriate material. I asked the students to write their quizzes in the form of a letter, and one of the male students started out (and ended) by professing his love for me.
This is the kind of problematic situation that creative writing teachers will find themselves in the midst of. And we should be talking about it more, amongst ourselves.
I think my students are amazing--wonderful, talented human beings, funny, quirky and yes, adorable people. I will work for their professional success. Hopefully, one day, some of us will be friends, too. That's how it works. That's how we protect our students' best interests, and our own. For now, don't touch my shoe---not even if it's a bronze Cole-Haan, priced to go with silk and champagne!
Causes Marilyn Kallet Supports
Southern Poverty Law Center, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, ACLU, Amnesty International, Save Darfur.