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The news vans were out in force yesterday afternoon at Brea-Olinda High School, in the parking lot during the graduation ceremony for the city’s nearby junior high. According to my (graduating) daughter, the students didn’t know why. It wasn’t long until we all found out. Math teacher Michelle Johnson had been arrested on the charge of having sex with a student (or, said some reports, two.)
That put a damper on the day. Probably on the summer, too. And next year. It will be a topic of discussion.
1. Turning Down Sex with Attractive Partners
One of the hardest things for adults in positions of power to learn is how to turn down the prospect of sex with those who have less power — students, direct supervisees, parishioners, classified workers, interns, even lobbyists. Adults do have to learn this, though — and more simply than learning it they have to remember, every time a chance for such sex arises, that it may not only be the ethical thing to do, but in some cases it’s the law. But as the flesh is weak — and as late adolescents maybe sexually mature and aware –the best response to news that an adult with power had sex with willing partner seems to be neither glee nor revulsion, but humility and understanding. If you personally can’t say “there but for the grace of God go I” at this sort of story, plenty of people you know can. Most, hopefully, never acted on it, rather than just didn’t get caught.
I was a college and university professor for about a decade; I was a university teaching assistant for a few years before that. It was no secret that some professors were always on the prowl for willing partners of either gender (or both) and it was no secret that some students were interested in sex either for reasons of career advancement or … because they were horny, and a fling with a professor was some sort of prize, especially as compared to the either less available or less appetizing choices among one’s peers. (Or maybe it was just variety, notch-carving, or the gathering of a good story to tell later about one’s wild youth.)
I was lucky in that my teaching career coincided almost precisely with the years of my first marriage, which boosted my immunity to cheating. (I also knew that my then-wife, who was also entering academia, would have men flinging themselves at her continually, so maintaining fidelity was a smart choice in terms of reciprocity. Why yes, I did study evolutionary biology in school, why do you ask?) For all that, though, if one were to roll the dice of my teaching career a 100 times I don’t know in how many of them I would have avoided sex with students — perhaps fewer than I’d like to imagine. (I also had the benefit of being pudgy and balding, so I was able to avoid some of the firehose of youthful hormonal attention to which some of my colleagues were exposed. But, for men, having breasts pressed up against your shoulder by young women who want a better grade is part of academia — and if that makes you want to become an academic, get a grip.)
At least, if I had strayed, I was teaching college. My students were legal adults. Imagine how difficult it can be for people teaching high school, where not only one’s job is continually on the line, but one’s freedom. And I don’t say that to sympathize with those who do have sex with their students, but merely to sympathize with their possibly having to put a lot of effort into resisting temptation. It is, though part of the job to do so.
So that’s one reason that I get no prurient excitement from the arrest of Michelle Lynn Johnson this past week for having sex with a student or two at Brea-Olinda High School. Another reason is that she was my daughter’s AP Statistics teacher. (Maybe eventually she will be one again — “innocent until proven guilty” and all that.) So I got a bit of an insider perspective, once I broke the news to her last night. The verdict: my daughter thought that she was a good teacher — but she was “close to her students.” Uh-oh.
2. The War on Friendliness
I’ll tell you one thing that does seriously bother me about this news (aside from its illegality, which I respect.) It’s not so much the “loss of innocence” among 16- or 17-year-old boys, who as I recall are generally out to lose at least some aspects their innocence as quickly and often and as possible with as many partners as are willing. (Or perhaps I’m projecting from my own adolescence.) It’s how this sort of event brings what may well be wholesome interactions between adults and their charges under suspicion.
Michelle Johnson, I’m told, was very friendly with her students — and, from my daughter’s perspective, especially with her male students. (She was an advanced math teacher; her students probably skewed male.) She was fine with her female students as well, according to my daughter, but it was different. That difference, I’m guessing, involved a cloud of young male hormones. And when I say “friendly,” of course, I mean — friendly. Cordial. Bantering. The sorts of things that a good teacher will often do — even innocently.
A petite and attractive blonde, from her mid-30s to mid-40s at Brea-Olinda, Johnson would apparently sometimes go hiking with her students. If you’re picturing her going out every weekend to have sex al fresco with a different boy, you’re probably highly mistaken. (I wasn’t there so I can’t say for sure; it just seems like that would be unnecessarily dangerous.) She liked hiking; she liked the company of young male students, in whom the best is often brought out by cordial and supportive adult companionship. One can talk differently to an adult than to a peer. Nine out of ten, 99 out of 100, social interactions with young male students may have been entirely G-rated — (or, given innocence until guilt proven, even 10 and 100 of them.)
And, that’s generally good. Having these social interactions with adults is an important part of adolescent socialization. One just doesn’t want it to end up as victimization — even if the adolescents happened to be willing victims. A teacher who will take students out hiking on his or her own time, if it’s not a way to wangle sex out of them and if they can resist offers of sex, is doing something great. It is not the sort of thing that I’d want to see discouraged out of the concern that it might lead to sex — because lots of things might lead to sex if one or both parties are sufficiently intent on it. (At least hiking gives you fresh air.)
What bothers me about this case is in part that it may bring so much good and wholesome student-teacher interaction into question. This is, of course, sort of stupid. Teachers can seduce students just as well from a position of glowering dominance as from a position of friendly and sociable egalitarianism. But the latter — the part that strikes me, frankly, as less twisted than a stern “I want to see you in my office” et alia — is probably what is more likely to strike people as dangerous in the wake of this news. My best relationships with high school teachers — yes, all of them non-sexual, thanks for asking — were congenial ones, where I was able to hoist myself up to peer for a few moments over the transom of adulthood and get a sense of what positive adult relationships would bring. I hate the idea of that being lost — and I don’t think that its loss would actually make my children much less vulnerable to sexual predation.
3. Anonymous Commenters for Vicarious Thrills
For other disturbing reactions, let’s head over to the OC Weekly. Note that this is one time that I don’t blame the Weekly for what is said on their site: it’s not (entirely) their fault that they have a largely immature male audience. The sole female commenter, judging by names and avatar pictures, said: “What is wrong with these women??” After that … yaaaaaagggghhhhh! Judge for yourself.
One guy wanted to express his cultural knowledge in three short comments:
- i’m hot for teacher
- Reminds me of the movie the graduate , Mrs Robinson
- I thought only men we’re [sic] pedophiles?
Well, that’s nice. Other people were just celebratory:
- You go girl!!
- what’s wrong with that!?
- i like the florida teacher better.. she was hot.
- Hope teacher’s like this are still around when my boy turns 14. Save me the trouble of taking him down to TJ.
- … Why the hell didn’t any hot teachers fuck me in high school huh? Wtf?
- We need to find the male student immediately… and give him his luckiest boy in the world award.
- Ah, the things we learn in school.
- Let’s be perfectly honest. Ninety percent of adult guys envy these high school boys. And, the 10% who (say they) don’t are either gay, ill, or lying.
- She’s trying for Teacher of the Year, 2013.
Note: she actually was Teacher of the Year in 2009. As I said, she apparently did a good job of teaching.
- I bet the father thought there was somethin goin on after his boy went from getting “F’s” to strait “A’s” !! haha !
Had this been a female student with a male teacher, you’d probably get the same joke but not the “haha.”
Then, finally, we have one anonymous defender …
- this woman was a great person and a great teacher. i still dont believe that the allegations are true as she is still one of the greatest teachers i will have ever encountered in my whole academic career.
… and one anonymous attacker:
- In her 2012 yearbook photo she says:
“If I had super powers, I’d go back in line and re-live my Twenties!”.
This is a women who hangs at Panera with her students, tweets jokes and likes the boys in her class to call her Mom. FREEPER: Female Creeper.
I don’t know if any of that was true. The “Mom” thing, if true, would need to be explained. Tweeting jokes, hanging at Panera — are these really going to be considered problems? As for touting how great the decade of the Twenties is — is that really a bad thing to say for people on the verge of entering it?
4. The double-standard
Then there’s the elephant in the room — the double-standard:
- I totally agree our attitude to a male teacher with a female student is different, but we seem to have so many of these here, and I think the language is usually similar.
Is this situation, if true, somehow less bad than the situation when a male teacher has sex with a female student? (I’m going to restrict myself to examples of heterosexual relations here to simplify things.) Legally, I don’t think that there is or ought to be a difference. In terms of my subjective sense of things: absolutely. It’s not that this is OK or that it’s harmless, but it isdifferent. First, of course, is the matter of the threat of pregnancy. But it goes beyond that. The fact is that the two kinds of transgressions occur in a different social context, in which young men (and I’m going to draw that line where many states do, at 16+) are not nearly so stigmatized as young women.
Try to imagine a situation where a young woman had had sex with a 45 year old male teacher. Do you really expect that you’d see the sorts of celebratory comments that you find above? I think that you’d find lots of “slut,” “bitch,” and “ho” in those comments — and not a lot of envy at their “luck,” not a lot of “attagirl!”
Whatever your reaction, whether she’s guilty or innocent, I doubt that
Monica Michelle Johnson is going to be around OC to hear it for long. The case may or may not be resolved in her favor, but it’s likely that the scarlet letter branding her will never be gone so long as she’s in Orange County.