There is a criminal proceeding in New York State’s Westchester County right now in which a 29 year old high school teacher named Marci Stein is being tried for having had sex—not all at once, as far as I can figure out—with three teenage boys from her school. I’m going to say something terribly unfashionable about this, and then try to scramble back to fashionable acceptability only if I can bring with me an articulation of the several dark thoughts that got me interested in the case to begin with.
Now, I want to assure everyone that the sternly adult portion of my personality is suitably shocked&appalled by Ms. Stein’s exploitive behavior, of course. But the part of me that remembers what the world looked like and what sorts of things seemed to threaten me while I was a teenager up in North Bay is asking, and not very politely, what sort of dipsticks would rat out a teacher who gave away free blowjobs.
While I was growing up nothing as remarkable as this happened to anyone in my high school. That didn’t keep me and my friends from having a lot of now-unacceptable but entertaining fantasies about our attractive female teachers. Most of them were daydreams, a few moistened the night, and a sizable percentage of them involved pretty much what Marci Stein is alleged to have done with her three students. I can’t testify with any certainty what I’d have done if one of my female teachers had offered to tutor me in the mysteries of human sexuality as Stein is alleged to have done with her lads. I might have run for cover, who knows? But you know what? I might have also gone "Whoopee!" Likewise my friends. What I’m not uncertain about is two things: 1.) within three hours every male student in the school would have known about it, along with most of the girls, and 2.) No one would have ratted out the teacher.
I’m sure, incidentally, that there would have been some long-term consequences for the teacher, and they wouldn’t have been very pleasant. Likely her teaching career would have been shortened, at least in the local district. Things get around a small town, and they come back on people in unexpected ways. But criminal charges and kids giving lurid testimony in court before a judge? Nah…
If what I’ve just said means I have an attitude problem, I’m sorry. Censorious readers should understand that I’m aware that we’re in the 21st Century and that I’m fully compliant with the current rulebook. It is the pedagogic intentions of the current rulebook I’m here to take issue with, along with some of its collateral effects. Under today’s rulebook, we are asked to sacrifice any and everything—pleasure or contradictory moral precept—to the cause of ethnic, bodily, and psychological self-esteem and to the sanctity of our self-confirming prejudices. Damn all that old-fashioned shit like common sense, worldly education, open discussion, the purposeful suspension of disbelief, experience-as-teacher, and so on down a very long list. Who needs them?
The teenage boy in me that remembers himself and his world was educated differently than today’s children, and he has compelled the compliant adult to look at the specific conditions of the Stein case. The first thing we notice is that the trial location and person names involved indicate that this ain’t about folks downtrodden and oppressed. These are wealthy, mobile Americans getting the best that America’s systems of entitlement offer. We do register the dangling danger that Ms. Stein may be one of those people who dots the "I" at the end of her name with a happyface, and might therefore be a minor-league Karla Holmulka with the right letters of the alphabet in her name to mask the deeper Disney psychosis in her soul. But I kind of think not. Marci Stein is more Pure Product of America Gone Crazy than American Psycho; She’s only moderately fucked up, done in by the candystore and the Mall. Similarly, the lads. The sorts of life-choices people in Westchester County face are about Volvos or BMWs, or which psychiatrist they’ll choose to relieve them of guilt or bare their neuroses. The three boys Stein is alleged to have assaulted are likely headed for university, not to reform school or the shoe factory. So why are they ratting out their teacher?
Maybe it was because she taught them to. The uncontested Zeitgeist of today’s education system—to be sharply distinguished from the occasional educators who still co-exist with its oppressive apparatuses—is to sanctify and protect a shrinking and mostly contradictory set of virtues and values that can’t be personally earned and are very hard for an individual child to examine in any meaningful way: Entrepreneurs are good; hurting people’s feelings is bad (particularly if they come from a gender and ethnicity that has been oppressed in the recent past); Don’t let anyone touch you unless they’re holding you at gun-point or have a nurse present—and even then, demand the use of prophylactics and make it clear immediately after that you’ve been victimized.
This state of educational affairs came about because our educational administrators and theoreticians—never famous for their sense of humour—wanted to stamp out the racism, sexism and environmental indifference of the society at large by working through the children in their care. As Walt Disney used to say, if you own the children, sooner or later, you’ll get the rest. So, over the last twenty years they’ve programmed North America’s children to be indiscriminately hypersensitive to all distinctions that might possible have negative connotations or be hurtful to the hypersensitive.
I’m not suggesting that racism, sexism and environmental indifference don’t need to be stomped on. Those things have wasted innumerable human talents, they’ve sucked the joy and dignity from the lives of billions and we all ought to do what we can to eradicate them. I just happen to have some, er, issues with the current zeal with which we’re doing our stomping, and some comments on acceptable methods of achieving the desired state of affairs.
One of the casualties of doing it the way we’re going about it, for instance, is irony, which is the basis of artistic discrimination but an unruly wild card in the pursuit of any sort of social compliance and conformity. That smart-assed behavior, verbal or physical, is no longer tolerated in the general sense is an equally damaging effect. Stomping smart-alecs may sound like a good idea, but it isn’t. What gets ploughed under with the rude and hurtful barbs is the surest guarantee of the political rights that nurture and protect democracy, and perhaps the only reliable one. So long as we guarantee everyone’s right to make smart-assed, irreverent remarks, or at least put strict limits on punishment for making them, we protect all our other human rights.
That irreverent laughter is democracy’s truest companion was one of the least appreciated truths of the 20th Century. That laughter is the most corrosive human behavior to authority and the always-murderous pursuit of orthodoxy was the century’s most assiduously obscured secret. All authoritarians know or at least sense the power of laughter and irreverence, because every defense they mount against them instantly betrays their ultimate program. Yet in the last quarter of the 20th Century, our education system, at every level, has been reconstructed so as to support a moral orthodoxy that will undermine precisely the institutions that render competent, democratic citizens: systematic skepticism, tolerance, a sense of the value of free inquiry, a sense of life as indeterminate intellectual adventure.
I’m one of those people, in other words, who thinks that education is supposed to infuse us with an appetite for difference, and that social democracy is supposed give us a joyful hunger for education, not make us want to hold hands, sit in a circle, and ostracize anyone who doesn’t want to do the same. But it leaves me, still, at some remove from an explanation of my misgivings about the three young men in Westchester County who turned in their teacher. I won’t, for instance, argue that a high school teacher giving a student a blowjob is a victimless crime, because I can’t say for sure what the specifics were. What I will say is that if it happened to me while I was a schoolboy, I’d have thought of it first as an educational moment, not a violation of personal space or private autonomy. Had anyone asked me if it was an incident of adults exploiting children, treating them badly, abusing them, I’d have laughed in their faces. And then I’d have answered their question this way: "Sure. What do you expect?"
And don’t kid yourself. Nearly everyone of my generation, including the educators who have erected the cynical and Stalinoid educational monstrosity that entices our children to become self-involved zealots and bigots instead of students and democratic citizens, would, if they stopped dissembling and genuflecting for a moment, knows exactly what I’m getting at, too.
August 10th, 2001 1514 w.