One day in my last few weeks at my previous job, I was sitting on the windowsill and knitting during the first-period Microsoft IT Academy class.
“Ms. Miriam?” called Miss Confident. “I have a question.”
I hopped off the windowsill and came over. “Sure, what’s up?”
“Is it bad for a student to date a teacher?”
I’d been expecting something relevant to the class. A question about protecting computers from natural threats, maybe. But her screen showed that she’d finished the current activity, and this question surely fell into my purview of Postsecondary and Professional Skills. “Ah . . . yes, it is bad.”
I pondered the question a moment. How best to explain that instinctive, gut-level reaction? “Well, if you had a job, would you date your boss?”
“Sure, if he was hot.”
Cue another moment of flabbergasted silence, punctuated by a forceful image of my friend Operafloozy flailing her arms and yelling, ‘Power dynamics! Power dynamics!’
After a moment, I managed, “No, don’t date your boss, either.” Clearly that angle was not going to work. “It’s a bad idea. Relationships can get really complicated when one person has that kind of power over the other . . . the teacher could get fired.”
I realized that the gal next to her was also keenly fascinated by the conversation, and just as baffled by this hash of an explanation. I might as well draw her in.
“Okay, suppose that you and S are taking a class together, and you’re sleeping with the teacher. You both do a project, and you get a good grade on it and she doesn’t. She’s going to think that you got a better grade than she did because the teacher’s getting into your pants. You see?”
Nods, with the beginnings of comprehension.
“Or suppose you and the teacher get into a fight . . .”
Class was moving again, and I slipped back to my windowsill.
I don’t know if it was enough. It at least gave them something to think about, I hope. They’re smart kids; maybe they’ll figure it out without painful interludes of personal experience.
This is one more example of something that naturally to me. I don’t remember anyone teaching me that romantic relationships and professional relationships tangle easily, the way I remember learning to tie my shoes. It feels like something I’ve always known, though I’m sure I must have learned it at some point. Maybe I picked it up from reading lots of military sci-fi with strong female characters. Or maybe just from watching and listening to the adults in my life.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had as a child, when I was trying to explain to a classmate that I didn’t know how to jump double-dutch because no one had ever taught me. “Well, when did you learn?” I asked her.
“I didn’t. I was BORN knowing it,” she told me.
I was pretty sure she hadn’t been born knowing it, but how do you argue with that?
It’s akin to culture, I guess, the things we learn from our parents and our communities, without even knowing we learn them. Green means go. Heat rises. Red means stop, or love, or blood, or fire. A house looks like a pentagon with one door and one window. This is how you turn the wheel to parallel park. This is how far away to stand for a conversation between strangers, and how loudly to talk. Sleeping with your professors is a really bad idea.
And what do you do if you didn’t learn those things, or the things you learned are different?