“Essentially, if a student gave me a hug, I was supposed to act like I was getting arrested. If that’s not a disgusting assumption of male guilt, I’m not sure what is.”
As a young, male teacher in the New York City Public School system, I was taught (by the New York City Board Of Education itself), if a student should ever initiate a hug with me, the most appropriate response would be for me to put my hands up in the air (as opposed to embracing the student). Essentially, if a student gave me a hug, I was supposed to act like I was getting arrested. Of course, I never followed such absurd rules. I accepted, and gave out, hugs at every turn. But, still, if that’s not a disgusting assumption of male guilt, I’m not sure what is.
Never mind that I had gone through the same training rigors as my female colleagues. When it came down to instructing us on appropriate interaction with students, there was a clear divide based on gender—the women were advised as professional teachers, and the men were advised as professional touchers.
Teachers have boatloads of responsibility. For eight hours a day (10 months a year), they’re expected to educate and look out for the well being of thirty or so young lives. In some cases, these children spend more time with their teacher than they do with their own parents or family. Teaching is a profession often undervalued (in pay-scale and esteem) in the United States, but few professions are bestowed such trust in helping to raise our future leaders.
So, there I was … Second Grade Teacher. Classroom 124. Mr. Kaplan at the helm, 30-35 kids yearly, looking to me to entertain, educate, and to keep them safe, Monday through Friday. There was no video camera recording our classroom events. Few other teachers visited for very long. I rarely saw my supervisor, even more rarely saw our principal. Whoever peeped their head into our classroom, we were often too busy laughing and learning, and occasionally arguing, to notice.
On the other hand, whenever my class was at gym or lunch, and I had the freedom to roam the halls solo, other teachers, supervisors, custodians, etc., would make sure to let me know they were watching me. They also wanted me to make sure I was watching myself … around the children.
They all instructed me to never be alone, one on one, with a student. They all warned me against being too affectionate with the students. If I were too nice to the girls, I would be looked at as a possible pedophile and sexual predator. If I were too friendly to the boys, I would run the risk of being viewed as a sexual deviant. To avoid all complications, I was taught to show no affection at all (other than words of encouragement, and the occasional smile or hi-five). These warnings continued even after I was a seasoned teacher, with tenure.
I shared these warnings with my male colleagues, and we soon discovered that all us guys had been similarly cautioned. We were entrusted to take care of our students’ daily emotional and educational needs, but were hardly trusted to keep our hands to ourselves. As male teachers, we were essentially presumed guilty until proven innocent.
And while us dudes were walking on eggshells, female teachers were freely hugging students, left and right. Some even spent time with their students outside of school. As a sort of reward for being good in class, or for positive academic achievement, these teachers would hang out with selected students for weekend excursions to Coney Island or Central Park or wherever. These teachers weren’t viewed as rebels, and I never once thought they were up to no good. I just remember being jealous that they had the luxury of spending more time with their favorite students (sorry, it’s true, teachers do have favorites) if they wished. If I (or any male teacher) tried such a field trip, we would be putting our job in immediate jeopardy.
Ultimately, I never followed anyone’s warnings. I freely gave out and accepted hugs. Could anything be more simple than a kid reaching out for a little affection?! And I gave extra attention, even one on one, to students that needed more emotional support. Sometimes it was a hug, sometimes it was just to listen or talk. Whatever it was, I never turned a student away. Even today, years later, I still keep in touch (via Facebook) with some of my former students. To the people involved, it is a mutually beneficial relationship, and there’s nothing weird about it. But to some outsiders it is relationship asking for trouble.
What’s (legitimately) more troublesome to me however, is how and why our society perpetuates the idea that an appropriate male should be cold and stiff (not that kind of stiff) around young, impressionable, and fragile children. To be a man who is too warm, affectionate, or loving, is un-male, strange, and suspicious. Fortunately for me, I had a family who always encouraged me to think for myself and be proud of who I am. They also taught me to kiss and hug unflinchingly. That’s right—I kiss my mother and my father, and I’m proud of it. And by the way, my father is the most manly, awesome, strong male I can think of (neck and neck with Muhammad Ali).
Perhaps, if our society was slightly less rigid about their ideas of what it means to be a man, and slightly less suspicious of our ability to cause destruction, we would find that there are plenty of dudes (teachers, lawyers, custodians, football players, artists, etc.) out there like me—men who are as capable of as much love, warmth, and nurturing as any woman out there. And the only thing we men are inherently guilty of is having a penis. Sorry, but since I was born with it, I think I’ll hang onto it. If that’s alright with you, of course.