When it comes to a teacher’s love for a student, what kind of category is that love?
Those boys all must have a crush on you.
Whenever a well-intentioned person says this, I think, Ew. I feel worlds away from my students in time, as I felt from my own teachers when I was their age. Having a crush on a teacher was the furthest thing from my mind in middle school. My life science teacher was an angry bearded man with a potbelly who yelled at me every time I ruined a lab. My earth science teacher was balding, five feet tall, and nicknamed “Stumpjumper.” Mr. Schnebly, the gay librarian, had the waxy, rosy face of the decorative choirboy my mother always sat on the hearth at Christmas. No burning torches there.
As for me, perhaps I was crushable in my early years as a teacher. But I’m officially middle-aged now, and I just stocked my wardrobe with elastic-waist pants. Trust me.
In response, then, I smile awkwardly or roll my eyes. I’m annoyed. To be honest, I’m also tiny bit gratified by the veiled compliment on my attractiveness. But mostly, I’m frustrated that when it comes to the relationship between teachers and students, especially opposite-sex relationships, there’s so much we don’t say.
Let me tell you about Cole, who comes by every day before lunch to drop off his books for fifth period. He’s the kind of kid you love immediately—intelligent, alarmingly wise, witheringly funny. A few days before winter break, when he came in at lunch to drop his books off, he didn’t leave. He posed questions: What is my favorite movie franchise? (Him: Star Wars or Lord of the Rings.) What is the ideal number of kids in a family? (Him: Three.) For the next few days, we spent lunch conversing about such topics, interjecting comments about what we were eating. (Me: “All right. That’s enough lettuce. I can only handle so much sadness.”) He schooled me in YouTube humor.
The last day before break, I wasn’t in my room at lunch—I’d gone upstairs for the staff luncheon. At the end of the school day, as I was straightening my desks, Cole came into my room. He walked toward me purposefully, the dutiful walk of a child with a holiday gift, but he wasn’t carrying anything. I wondered for a second why he was there. Was he going to hug me? Then he put his hand out. I realized I was supposed to shake his hand. “Have a happy holiday, Ms. Byrd,” he said sincerely.
I felt something down to my core, something I thought might be terror.
I thought about that moment over winter break. A long time ago, I gave up on “happiness” as a permanent state of affairs, opting instead for a Buddhist-inspired view of existence as a series of moments. I’ve savored the ones you’d imagine, like saying “I do” on my wedding day and hearing my newborn son cry for the first time. But I also savor the unexpected ones, the ones you might miss if you were moving too fast. That moment with Cole was one of those moments. As someone with chronic anxiety, I experience so much of life as a floating continuously upward, my feet dangling, the air getting so thin I can hardly breathe. Teaching has kept me tethered. Cole put his hand out to me, and for a few seconds I belonged to the human race.
Of course it was terrifying. Honest moments always are.
The first time I felt this kind of connection with a male student, I was embarrassed. I was in my early twenties, without children of my own, and I had stumbled upon a kind of love I couldn’t name. Troubled, I headed to the Greeks. I read of agape, storge, eros. The first two seemed close, but neither was exactly right.
My love was nonsexual, but it felt as deep and transformative as eros. Although we typically associate eros with sex—hence the word “erotic”—I came to understand it as something broader. One of my college professors characterized eros as “passion, passion for anything.” Simply, it’s a life-giving force. As the word “platonic” reminds us, Plato himself never considered physical attraction a necessary part of eros.
After that moment with Cole, it occurred to me that I’d never felt that intense kind of affection for female students. I had positive relationships with girls; girls liked me and I liked them. But this was different. And if it wasn’t “erotic,” then why did I only feel it for boys?
I posed this question to one of my best friends, also a female middle-school teacher, when we met for lunch a few weeks ago. She’s a PhD student in psychology and the only person I know who would willingly journey with me into the bowels of human existence. I resolved she’d be the Virgil to my Dante.
“I know exactly what you mean,” she said before I even finished my foray into the nature of eros. She acknowledged that although the connections she’d made with male students weren’t at all sexual, they were “different.” She told me about some of her beloved students, and we speculated on the psychology at work. We considered the age of our students; while young children identify strongly with same-sex adults, especially their same-sex parent, preteens shift toward “otherness.” Teachers and other mentors take on a more significant role. Preteens are beginning to explore not only who they want to be, but also who they want to be with. For an adolescent boy, a female teacher may represent both what he loves about his mother and what he desires to have in a partner. Is it possible that my friend and I hadn’t felt genuine fondness for these boys at all, but simply reflected back what we sensed they felt for us?
We wondered if a teacher’s sexuality influenced her connection to her students. If we were lesbians, for example, would we feel more connected to our female students? Further, did our students’ sexuality make a difference? I thought about the sense of connection I’d felt with boys whom I suspected were gay, which I’d characterize as more intense than my connection with girls, but less intense than my connection with other boys. Maybe these feelings were more a phenomenon of gender than of sexuality.
We came to no conclusions.
Perhaps it’s folly to attempt to categorize love in the first place. The ancient Greeks would have scoffed at the paltry four letters we use to describe such a complex emotion, but is love anything other than some mad composite, more complicated and powerful than the sum of its parts?
Humans are driven to label what we feel. Our capacity for love is great, but so is our capacity for fear and shame. So we female teachers never converse with our male students with the classroom door closed. We cluck our tongues at the scandals, the Mary Kay Letourneaus and their skewed sense of reality. We roll our eyes at the tired “hot teacher” trope and the word “crush.” We’re at a loss to express how we love these boys, whom we claim as neither sons nor lovers. But that’s significant: this isn’t a love that desires to possess. It is nonphysical, expansive and light. It awakens and enlivens. Through it, I see Cole for who he is and who he will become, his whole self-independent of his physicality.
Whatever he couldn’t say out loud, he communicated through a handshake and a holiday greeting.
I can only hope I did the same.
Photo: Shelby StewardFlickr