In high school, a series of sexual harassment incidents occurred involving my English teacher. Ten years ago, he was released early on good behavior. He spent a mere sixteen months in jail for luring a 17-year-old into a prolonged sexual relationship. The first victim was my friend’s sister, and soon after, several others came forward. Luckily, I was not one of them. As I pause to reflect on how this man affected my life, I am brought back to the memories of those days in high school, and I look today with the lens of someone who is becoming a writer.
Looking at it now, I am surprised to see how little was done to help us students to process these events that hit so close to home. Thinking back, adults never said much to us about it, at least that I recall. One day we came to class, and he wasn’t there. A sub took his place for several days and eventually the news came out. These memories are fuzzy. What I do remember is what he taught me: how to write.
His charismatic personality made class exciting. He made us laugh, while maintaining high expectations of us. This was AP English, and slacking off was not tolerated. His lessons and practices stuck with me. For example, we would receive extra credit for writing this quote on the top of any paper: A good reader always reads with a pen in hand. I can recall it now without hesitation, and you can find me highlighting and jotting down ideas on the sides of my books. He also taught me the concept of ‘presumed authority’ (PA, as he abbreviated it), which is how a reader perceives you as a writer when they begin your piece. Your authority would drop down if you made a simple mistake, such as a grammatical error or a misspelling. It would take a bigger drop if you made an error like a misused quote or claiming an erroneous fact. In these instances, the reader is left thinking, What does this writer know? Why would I trust what they have to say? I’ll never forget the time we wrote about the civil rights movement. Feeling too lazy to write out his whole name, I thought it would be okay to just call him ‘Martin Luther.’ A big red PA was scribbled on the side of my paper. My stomach dropped when I realized I had referred to a different historical figure by mistake, a mistake I would never again repeat.
He is now registered online as a sex offender with the listing ”sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust.” The part that sticks out to me is ”position of trust”. As 16- and 17-year-old students, we were children. I didn’t think so then, but I have no doubt now. As a child, I looked up to him. Yes, I trusted him. Although he didn’t violate my trust directly, I still can’t reconcile the situation from my faded memory. A sense of betrayal and confusion remains present. I didn’t want to believe it, but I also wasn’t surprised when I heard the news. His charming demeanor always bordered on the flirtatious with me and my friends. Yet, because he had our trust, we assumed it was harmless. We assumed he was harmless. We saw him simply as an older guy who wanted to make us laugh. What could be so bad about that?
Today I look at his photo from his arrest with a strange sadness. The dissonance of the two people I know him to be is present. Now, nearer to his age when he committed these crimes and a teacher myself, I am understanding more deeply the cruelty of his actions. Only weeks ago did I begin pursuing my career as a writer. Coming across his name and remembering those days, I began to wonder how these events may have changed my relationship with writing. Is there a part of me that still feels abandoned by the man who nurtured this talent of mine? When I remember and use his lessons, am I pardoning what he has done? Does the stain of his actions mark my writing?
Photo by Caleb Roenigk