Teachers How My High School Teacher Became My Abuser
My English teacher helped me believe in my writing. She also drew me into an inappropriate relationship.
When I was eighteen, a few months after graduating from high school, I found myself alone in a hotel room with my English teacher. This was the woman who’d taught me since I was fifteen, who’d introduced me to Macbeth and Toni Morrison and Rainer Maria Rilke, and whose wild, strange scrawl—a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters—came back on my papers. It was freshman year, January, my first winter break home from college. She was the only person in the world who knew where I was. I’d lied to my parents and everyone else.
I didn’t especially want to be there, in the suite she’d rented for us in Woodstock, New York. Her invitation had made me queasy, filling me with quiet panic. But when my teacher asked for something, I didn’t feel I could say no. She was my mentor, my confidante, my defender and rescuer, someone who assured me she knew me best in all the world. By then, deep down, I knew she wanted to be my lover, too. But I couldn’t let myself believe that. I drove up to Woodstock, numb. The truth arced only occasionally across my brain, like lightning, and was gone.
For months, my teacher—I’ll call her Miss X—had been drawing me into something I sensed but refused to fully understand. She’d given me a cell phone—for safety, she said, though it also allowed her to reach me any time. She bought me my first car, a rustbucket Volvo sedan, which allowed me to meet her in small towns near my college. At a dive bar in Phoenicia, Miss X taught me the right way to order drinks, how you had to leave a bill for every beer you had. Each night, she’d rent us a pair of adjacent rooms. We’d talk and drink whiskey, and when I got up to say goodnight, she’d give me a long, stifling hug. She wouldn’t pull away until I did. Only when I started to physically disentangle myself from her would she let go.
That summer, she’d quit her job at the prep school where I’d been her student. She’d asked me to meet her in Woodstock, where she was interviewing for a new position. And when I arrived, I noticed right away something was different: Miss X hadn’t rented us two rooms. This time, it was just a small, duplex apartment with a bed upstairs and a pull-out couch near the kitchenette.
Why didn’t I leave right then? Why didn’t I drive off into the distance in the beat-up sedan she’d bought for me? It’s part of what, by writing this, I want to understand.
It happened soon after she came back, in the late afternoon, and gave me a hug hello—a hug with a fermata, a hug that went on so long it became a strange, tentative dance. Her face lingered near my face. Her eyes were closed, as if she was listening for some distant music. She wouldn’t let me go.
For months, I’d prayed Miss X would release me, send me with her blessing into the wilds of college life. But in a hotel room in Woodstock, I took up a new and narrower hope: Maybe if I gave her what she wanted, she would finally realize it was wrong.
Her face bobbed slowly, close to mine. She aimed her lips up at my lips.
I was hanging from a cliff face by my fingers. I couldn’t hold on forever.
Fuck it, I thought.
And I kissed her.
In a recent Boston Review essay called “The Erotics of Mentorship,” Yale professors Marta Figlerowicz and Ayesha Ramachandran argue that the #MeToo movement may have an unfortunate, unintended consequence: removing all trace of the erotic from the teacher-student relationship.
After all, they point out, there is a long history of teacher-student romances in the Western tradition, from Socrates and Alcibiades to Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. The fear seems to be that changes wrought by #MeToo might amount to what Masha Gessen has in another context called “a moral panic”—a gathering prudishness that ultimately works to repress productive, mutually beneficial relationships. What if our attempts to protect students from exploitation and abuse, the authors wonder, serve to stifle the kind of unorthodox, enlightening affairs that populate literary history?
I’m troubled by the piece, though I couldn’t quite say why at first. The authors are right to point out that passionate teaching can bring about a kind of heightened energy between people. In my work in the classroom, I’ve experienced that feeling, too. But falling back on a convenient shorthand—the language of romantic attraction—to describe that phenomenon seems to me, at best, misguided. Isn’t what we need a better, more precise vocabulary to describe the intense bond between teachers and students—one set apart from the language of eros? After all, training can help prevent well-meaning educators from mistaking the sparkle of mentorship for something more, the way mental health professionals are taught to identify and defuse the complex energies that can be unleashed through therapy.
Mostly, though, I find the essay unsettling because it’s so uncannily familiar . It’s not just that the Boston Review piece idealizes teacher-student romances from myth, literature, and history while omitting the perspectives of contemporary students. It’s that it fails to consider just how easily its own argument—that mentorships might be more useful and productive when they contain a sexual dimension—can be wielded to excuse or recast predatory behavior. Ultimately, a painful kind of recognition makes it hard for me to accept Figlerowicz and Ramachandran’s logic. Their line of reasoning is too similar to what Miss X used on me.
Miss X and I both recognized that her mentorship and advocacy had helped to transform me from a troubled academic failure into a success story—admitted, beyond anyone’s expectations, to an Ivy League college. A romantic relationship, she assured me, was necessary to sustain that progress. I still had things to learn that only she could teach me. And why should the rules apply to us? We were special, she always told me. What looked like a transgression really showed how enlightened we were, how nonconformist, how brave. Miss X knew that, above all else, I wanted to be extraordinary—and she insisted that deepening my unconventional relationship with her was my best chance to become the person I longed to be.
The Boston Review piece cites an overture made by Socrates to the teenaged Alcibiades: “Neither guardian, nor kinsman, nor anyone is able to deliver into your hands the power which you desire, but I only,” he says. Socrates’s “I only” is the same anti-choice Miss X gave me: That only through a romantic relationship with my teacher could I fully, finally grow up.
I’ve spent the better part of a decade trying to understand what made that flawed logic so compelling. Why I accepted it intellectually, even as it left me feeling emotionally and physically degraded. Even as I wrestled constantly with a wild, mute anger, this desire to knock strangers down as I passed them on the street. For years, it was easier to blame myself. I could have been stronger. I could have avoided situations that left me vulnerable. I could have told someone. I could have said “no” more clearly, and more adamantly, than I did.
But as I’ve read the flood of essays and reporting on women’s experiences with sexual harassment and assault, I’ve started to see things differently. There are similarities between their stories and mine. The specifics are different, but the basic element is the same: Power—institutional, professional, reputational, and physical power, or the kind of power that comes with authority and trust—was abused, weaponized in order to limit a victim’s decision-making agency. That recognition helps explain the anger I feel when online commentators and professional critics blame women for not doing more to protect themselves. They misunderstand something fundamental about power: how it can compel you to enter situations you would never have imagined for yourself.
What I want to do is explain how that power was wielded over me, and why I succumbed to it.
I am now thirty-four, the same age Miss X was when she first kissed the person I used to be: her former student, desperate and out of options, alone at a hotel in Woodstock.
If I had to choose moment it started, it would be the day in 10 th grade English when I gave Miss X a short story I wrote, the first creative work I submitted in high school. I don’t remember much about the piece, only that it was about a lonely kid like me who ran away from home. What I remember most is what came back on my assignment.
Dear Joe , Miss X wrote, in her uneven scrawl,
S ome people have an ability to command the soccer field, arcing graceful kicks across a hundred feet of space. Others have a beautiful singing voice that blends effortlessly with the choir. My superpower is to identify literary talent in young people. And that is what you have—torrents of it.
At that point, I’d never said a word in class, had never raised my hand. My classmates all seemed beautiful and happy and polished and rich, and I wanted to hide the fact of what I was—how I lived with my autistic younger brother in a sea-bent old house by the train tracks in a shoreline town, while my mother worked twelve-hour days, and my father’s job took him out of town five nights a week, and the two of us brothers were often alone. The letter that came back on my story was a revelation. As I read on—her paragraphs held more than glowing praise; they swore I had some kind of rare, exquisite talent—I realized I’d been waiting my whole life for an adult to speak to me that way. A brighter future waited for me in the distance, one I could only dimly perceive, and I knew this was the beginning of it.
Over the next three years, Miss X became my mentor and champion. She taught me three straight years. She told me to apply to a summer program at the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, where I went to readings and studied with MFA students. I came home burning to be a writer. She took me a year early for her popular senior seminar, “Creative Writing,” where I workshopped with the older students like a kid who’d skipped a grade. Not just that. When I got busted for smoking pot on a school trip, or when my grades slumped so badly it was formal trouble, her interventions saved me from getting the boot.
She wrote my college recommendation, and took me on a road trip—just the two of us—to visit schools in New York State and Maine. Her parents lived up there, and she said she had to go anyway. Though I mostly stayed with older friends in their dorm rooms, Miss X structured the trip so that we spent a few nights in her empty childhood house. No one was there but us, and in that way I normalized the experience of waking up and joining her for breakfast.
None of this was a secret. My parents knew. My school did. She had their blessing, because everyone understood that Miss X just got me. “Miss X loves you,” my friends would say. “She has a crush on you.” A girlfriend I broke up with accused me of dumping her in part because Miss X had coached me to—I denied it, but she wasn’t wrong. At all times, I defended her, as ardently as she’d defended me. She’d helped me grow, and she’d earned the benefit of the doubt.
My last semester of high school, Miss X convinced me to spend eleven weeks with her at a boys’ camp in Maine, a place she’d worked every summer of her adult life.
“Come on,” I remember her telling me. “If you stay home, you’ll just smoke pot and get sad. What else are you going to do, work at McDonald’s again? Come with me. Make some money. Make new friends. Go into college feeling good.”
At first, I said no. But Miss X kept up her PR push for the summer camp in Maine—she even had another counselor call me to explain how great the whole thing was—and, eventually, I wore out. I was young then. I didn’t realize how much I was giving up. The last summer I’d ever live in my parent’s house. Nights with friends I’d never see again. The tail end of my childhood. I couldn’t know how much the impossibility of returning to all that would haunt me later, how much I’d want to make up for lost time. Instead, I spent the summer days teaching archery to wealthy teenagers, and my nights drinking on a dock by the lake. I made no lasting friendships. Instead, I had Miss X. We hung out every night; we took days off together.
She decided to quit her job at the prep school that summer. When she called the headmaster to deliver the news, I was in her bedroom with her, holding her hand. There was kinship in that. Both of us were leaving everything we knew.
One night, drunk on whiskey in her cabin, she made me promise:
“If you ever get in trouble in college,” she said, her face close to mine in the candlelight, “if you ever lose yourself, promise me you’ll let me come get you. Promise you’ll always let me come after you.”
I was young, and in love with my own pain. I hoped I might self-destructively squander much of college, as tormented geniuses will. I thought I needed saving, and I told her she could be the one. I didn’t realize what I was really giving her: permission to take up permanent residence in my life.
That night, she asked if I would tell everyone in college she was my sister. After all, she said, it wouldn’t feel right to introduce herself as my teacher. We were something more than that, she said. Almost like family.
So when my roommates started asking why an older woman was always coming by our dorm, that was the lie I chose. I told people Miss X was my sister even though, by then, it was becoming clear she wanted to be my girlfriend. I couldn’t admit that to myself, no matter how obvious it got.
She emailed me three times a day. When I briefly started seeing someone, she talked me out of it. And every few weeks, when she came to visit an adult friend of hers—also a former teacher at the prep school, then a grad student at my college—she always reserved a night for me. I was expected to join her; she never really asked. She always booked two hotel rooms and brought a bottle of Maker’s Mark.
Over fall break, she took me to dinner at an Italian restaurant in New Haven and asked vaguely if we had a future together. I gently, but clearly, told her I wasn’t interested. I felt proud I’d finally said it, and by the look on her face, I knew she’d heard me. But nothing changed. The campus visits, the too-long hugs, continued. I started to wonder if I’d only imagined saying no. Maybe it was just a dream I’d had, I wondered, the way she’d smiled at me through her tears.
My mentor, the person I trusted more than anyone else in the world, slowly became someone I feared and despised. On weekends I said I couldn’t see her, we’d fight so much I couldn’t go out or get work done. I learned early on it was easier just to give her what she wanted. Then I could almost pretend I was a normal college student—normal except for the fact that I disappeared at the strangest times, emerging days later without explanation, as if I myself had no idea where I’d been.
By sophomore year, she was talking about moving to Ithaca. She talked about marriage. I was nineteen, but it angered her when I said I wasn’t ready. Our long-distance calls became a binding ritual, conversations that went on until my ear hurt, the cartilage warm and swollen. Sometimes, after I said I loved her and I hung up, I’d go down to the College Ave bridge. Standing by the rail, I’d try to summon enough will to throw the flip phone she’d given me into one of those famous Ithaca chasms. I liked to imagine the way it would break upon the rocks, the plastic shell cracked in half like a clam. Did a phone still ring somewhere, once it was washed away by a river? I couldn’t force myself to do it.
I didn’t want to be Miss X’s lover. But I didn’t want to lose her, either. I only wanted the impossible: to go back to how things were, when I was just a bright kid she believed in. I would have given almost anything for that.
It wasn’t until my senior year of college, only months away from graduation, that I was finally ready to tell her. By then, she’d leased a house in rural Connecticut. I was supposed to move in once I’d finished school, and I couldn’t imagine that life. My friends were moving to Brooklyn.
“Miss X,” I finally said, that spring, the words I’d practiced in my mind for months. “I have some anger towards you I’ve never been able to talk about.”
“How do you mean,” she said, and her face did not look as gentle as I’d imagined.
“I feel like I never chose this,” I said, my voice shivering all over the place. “I feel like you chose this, not me. I told you no in the beginning, and you didn’t listen. You didn’t listen to me, when you always promised that you would.”
I was sure that when I said those words, something magical would happen. They’d hit the air like a good spell, and she would break. She’d be mortified, stricken, there would be no way we could go on—not when the very roots of it were rotten, not when all of it was based on a mistake. How could she ask me to continue, once I made clear she’d invaded my boundaries and abused my trust?
I remember being stunned by how calm she was. As if she’d expected those very words from me, all along. Her only faint surprise was that I hadn’t said them sooner.
“Well, you need to choose this,” she said. “Are you ready to choose this now ?”
As if it worked like that. As if you could ask for consent after the fact.
I gritted my teeth and said yes. But I knew then it would be over, even if I didn’t know how or when, as soon as I had the strength.
A few days after I graduated from college, I told Miss X I wouldn’t join her in Maine, where we’d planned to spend the summer before moving into the house in Connecticut. I told her I couldn’t go. I’d told my parents everything. I said that it was over.
That should have been the end of it. Instead, Miss X stalked and harassed me for the next six years. She flooded my email with letters, pleas, and threats, declarations of love and wild accusations and everything in between. She filled up my voicemail with calls. When I eventually changed my phone number, she posted angry messages on my friends’ Facebook walls. She found my new number somehow, and the calls started again. Her emails were sprinkled with private details about where I’d been and who’d I’d spent time with, specifics that shocked me because there was no way she could know. She was watching me, she said. She had ways. She refused to let me go.
This was the outburst I’d avoided all through college. When it came, it was bright and violent as I’d feared. But all of that that is another story. It is something I endured. What matters is, I survived it. What matters is, I eventually insisted it was my right to be free.
I don’t want to publicly account for the worst mistakes of my life. I don’t want this piece to be forever associated with my byline. It scares me that anyone I ever meet from here on out—any new acquaintance, any potential employer—will be able to read this. Mostly, I fear retribution from Miss X, who has threatened to find ways to destroy my happiness. I want to be free to live a life without her in it, the one privilege she was never willing to grant me. I’m afraid that writing this will tie me to her forever somehow, and I want to be bigger than that.
It would be so much easier to never own this.
But when I think about what the women of #MeToo have gone through—public shame and ridicule, professional banishment, threats and real-life reprisal—it’s not possible for me to stay silent. Because these women, and women journalists, have done more than bring down powerful, malignant men. They’ve also worked to offset the stigma of victimhood. This is a real, concrete thing that #MeToo has given me: A sense that my experience, which I assumed to be an unshared and singular sorrow, is really everywhere. The particulars are different, as they always are, but the basics are the same. It’s harder to feel ashamed when you realize how ordinary your story really is.
The unfortunate reality is that even victimhood, in all its excruciating pain, is common. Once I submitted to Miss X, I told myself that no one had ever done something like what the two of us were doing. Something profane enough to distress the gods, something no one would ever understand. The perceived singularity of it was what kept me silent. Abusers use this rhetoric—the flattering idea that your situation is unique—to hold their victims in the darkness.
But #MeToo has shown this, too, to be a lie. I wish I could go back in time and show the scared young man I was the front pages of this year’s New York Times , the essays and articles describing stories unlike mine, and yet just the same. I think I would have acted differently, knowing that. I wish I could tell the young person I once was that his private pain—knifelike, numbing—was not special. The feeling was as plain as dirt. There was no need to be ashamed.
You are not alone in this, I want to tell him. Ask for help. There will be love everywhere you look.