On Friday, University of Hawaii geobiologist A. Hope Jahren published a New York Times essay that laid bare one of the most insidious barriers to women’s self-confidence and success in STEM fields: sexual harassment. Through the story of a former student who asked for advice about confronting unwanted flirtations from a senior colleague, Jahren identifies a specific archetype of male authority figure in academia who introduces unwelcome sexual undertones to a professional environment.
These men frequently open their advances toward younger women in their classes or departments with an email, Jahren writes. Sometimes it opens with “I need to tell you,” or “It’s late and I can’t sleep.” It often closes with an acknowledgement of the note’s impropriety: “You know I could get fired for this.” The subjects of their harassment are left with the loathsome decision of whether to ignore the come-ons and risk letting it continue, or report it and risk backlash from an industry that has a history of papering over sexual harassment and continues to rely on written recommendations.
Jahren discloses that, since she writes about gender dynamics in the world of science, women facing such predicaments often ask her for advice. “My inbox is an inadvertent clearinghouse for unsolicited love notes,” she writes. Since her Times essay went live, Jahren has gotten a different set of responses:
Srsly my email: Women- I read ur piece. I am going to do X. Men- I read ur piece. You should do X. And Y. And Z. And then report back to me.— Hope Jahren (@HopeJahren) March 6, 2016
Getting email frm HS girls getting lovenotes frm teachers. GO talk to your daughters & nieces abt how u are prepared to support them TODAY.— Hope Jahren (@HopeJahren) March 6, 2016
Struck by that last tweet, on Monday, Toast editor Nicole Cliffe started collecting and retweeting responses from people who experienced or witnessed advances from teachers in elementary, middle, and high school.
@Nicole_Cliffe Middle school math teacher got "talked to" by the principal EVERY YEAR for harassing girls. I'm 24 now, and he's still there.— Devon Bowie (@devondevonbowie) March 7, 2016
@Nicole_Cliffe my elementary gym teacher let his "favorite" girl students sit on his lap. very coveted, none of us thought it was weird— coggs (@coggs) March 7, 2016
Some users recount teacher-student relationships that ended in marriage when the younger party turned 18. Many describe behavior that appeared normal, even exciting at the time, but now seems alarming, wrong, and possibly pathological.
@Nicole_Cliffe A beloved 30yo teacher at my HS had a special study group of favorite students… & had an affair w/ one. They're now married.— Libby Nelson (@libbyanelson) March 7, 2016
One of the most prominent threads that’s emerged from Cliffe’s feed is a narrative of the “cool” teacher: an authority figure, usually male, who connects with students on “their level” and uses his social cachet to groom a student, usually female, into an inappropriate relationship. The teacher—or youth pastor, or soccer coach, or choir director—takes an interest in his students’ personal lives, which is taken by students as flattering evidence of their maturity and worthiness as the teacher’s equal, not a violation of their boundaries. To teen girls in the midst of—or watching a friend in the midst of—a flirtation or sexual relationship with a teacher, he may be at once “cooler” than all the other adults in her life, but with more emotional intelligence than the comparatively immature boys in her grade. From a distance provided by age and experience, he is, of course, an insecure predator who’s adept at manipulation and deeply, profoundly uncool.
@Nicole_Cliffe My popular HS English teacher showed up unannounced at my dorm fresh. yr of college. Luckily, dorm staff intervened. (1/2)— Traci Siegel (@ttsiegel) March 7, 2016
“In retrospect it’s so obvious that the ‘cool’ teachers are suspect,” Slate contributor Ruth Graham says. “What adult cares about seeming cool to 15-year-olds?” Of course, #notallcoolteachers are sex offenders. The difference between a cool, appropriate teacher and a cool, creepy teacher lies in how he treats different kinds of students and the subject matter that makes him cool. “My 10th grade history teacher was very freaking cool, and not at all creepy,” Slate editorial assistant Laura Bradley says. “He loaned everyone his CDs and talked to us about music and stuff, but treated the boys and girls exactly the same, and never pried or got too far into anyone’s personal life. It was all low-stakes subjects.” On the other end of the spectrum is my seventh grade history teacher, who tried to win our admiration by commenting on the rising hemlines in middle-school fashion, flinging rubber bands at the girl students, and making sex jokes when we turned to page 69 in our textbooks. The boy students thought he was hilarious and “cool”; some girls relished the extra attention, but others felt uneasy in his presence.
One of the most famous “cool” high school teachers in recent pop-culture memory is Alexander Maksik, whose critically acclaimed novel, You Deserve Nothing, was based on an alleged affair he had with a student. “He was a very popular teacher, and many saw him as a mentor,” wrote Slate contributor Elissa Strauss, who interviewed several of Maksik’s former students in 2011. “Some said that he treated them like adults and got them thinking about life's big questions.” Maksik made a guest appearance on Cliffe’s Twitter feed on Monday:
@Nicole_Cliffe went to high school where my fave teacher slept w a student and wrote a NYT-rave review novel justifying his actions— Liz Watson (@watsontots) March 7, 2016
@Nicole_Cliffe then he got caught! I still have "the squid and the whale" he lent me-RED FUCKIN FLAG— Liz Watson (@watsontots) March 7, 2016
Watson mentions The Squid and the Whale, which, like Mr. Holland’s Opus and most other cinematic depictions of boundary-crossing teacher-student relationships, illustrates the trope’s most typical script. Jahren explains it in her Times piece: “The [authority figure] goes on to tell her that she is special in some way, that his passion is an unfamiliar feeling that she has awakened in him, the important suggestion being that she has brought this upon herself.” Cliffe tweeted the high school version:
If a teacher in HS had told me I was an old soul and he was in love with me, it would 100% have worked, because I was a TEENAGE GIRL.— Nicole Cliffe (@Nicole_Cliffe) March 7, 2016
"No one understands how complex and mature you are! I can tell you're not like these other girls."— Nicole Cliffe (@Nicole_Cliffe) March 7, 2016
To a precocious teen who feels disillusioned with age-appropriate relationships and yearns to be seen as a wise-beyond-her-years woman, being singled out by a “cool” teacher or other respected adult offers a heady rush. That’s exactly why it’s the preferred angle of authority figures who wish to exploit their underlings. In response to Cliffe’s tweets, one user pointed out that Donald Nelson Bills, a Utah high school teacher convicted last year for raping one of his students, would “tell the girl she was one of his favorite and brightest students.”
The strikingly similar stories on Cliffe’s feed point to the ubiquity of the creepy or criminal teacher and the infrequency with which he’s held to task:
.@Nicole_Cliffe it was widely acknowledged AP psych teacher in my HS was hitting on girls. We were all creeped out, school did nothing.— Robyn Swirling (@RSwirling) March 7, 2016
@Nicole_Cliffe What’s amazing to me is people know this stuff is happening in high schools (at least mine) & nobody does anything about it.— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) March 7, 2016
One Slate staffer remembers a high school English teacher who wrote a novel about a teacher who has an affair with his student. “Three people in my class think it’s based on them,” she says. “He still teaches at my high school.” Even if they don’t know exactly why or to what degree a teacher’s behavior is wrong, students often have a sure sense of who’s crossing boundaries and how. The challenge Jahren and Cliffe put to parents and teachers on Monday is to listen.