Where is the line between being that cool professor who shows up to student events and that skeezy professor who used to be cool but still shows up to stuff? Is it 40? Tenure? Marriage?
Wherever the line lies — and it’s a preciously fine one, and one that you mistakenly cross at your peril — I seem still to be on the safe side of it. One of my former students, who graduated some years back, is in a band* that passed through campus last night, and a current student of mine, who put on the show, asked me to come. “Keith would love to see you,” she said, and of course I would love to see Keith, so I sucked up all the courage I needed and went.
And I did need that courage, because in the very dim light of the Doms Social Room, in the basement of the Smith Campus Center, I could no longer see that line, and spent much of the evening afraid I’d crossed it. My student reassured me that I had not, and a couple of my other students did spend some time talking to me (one of them, I’ll note parenthetically, quite significantly stoned, a state that made me… envious. Man, do I miss being young), so I felt a bit better about the whole thing, at least for the moment. I just don’t want to cross that line unawares, you know? As I told R. sometime back, when, post-tenure, I dropped the super-professional drag I’d been wearing and went back to dressing a bit more hoochie, as my sister puts it — anyhow, as I told R., it’s one thing to look like you’re twenty-five. It’s quite another to look like you’re trying to look like you’re twenty-five. And I never, ever, want to fall into the latter.
But clearly the possibility was on my mind, even after deciding I’d safely navigated the show, as early this morning I dreamed that I was having an affair with not one but two of my students. And… how to put this? If I were the kind of professor who did that kind of thing, which I most decidedly am not,** these were not the students I’d have chosen for the position, so to speak. I spent the first half of the dream flabbergasted that not only was I having these affairs, but apparently the students involved were talking about them freely. I kept nervously moving around the room, trying to bring order back to my house (the students in question had tried to help by “cleaning” the house, but had put things away in entirely the wrong places). Finally, I decided to give them a tour of the place, and here’s where the dream phase-shifted into the recurring dream I have about living in a house in which I suddenly discover extra rooms, rooms that I did not know were there, rooms that can be mine, if I want them. There’s always at least one extra kitchen, and one very large room with many beds, large and small. The new spaces I find are usually uninhabited, though sometimes there’s the vaguest of notions that they belong to my father; this morning, though, the very large room with many beds was inhabited by lots of young girls, orphans, I think, and then there was some opening at the end of the room through which one could see a barn-like structure, and outside, where it was green and idyllic.
(Plus there was this whole sidetrack in which I discovered that my bad roommate from grad school was living in part of the house. When we actually lived together, she was trying desperately to meet someone and get married; in the dream, her room was littered with pregnancy tests and ovulation predictors, which gave me the willies. Not to mention that she wasn’t supposed to be living there at all.)
Tell me that’s not ripe for analysis. I’ve always understood the extra-rooms dream to be some kind of psychic warning, a poke from the unconscious saying that there’s more hidden inside me than I could think possible. That coupled with the student-affairs aspect of the dream just gives me shivers.
*The band, incidentally, was fabulous. The last time I’d seen Keith play was the night before he graduated, with a previous band, and while he was good then, this was a quantum leap beyond that. Keep your eyes out for these guys: We Are Scientists. They’re based in Brooklyn, and just played shows at SXSW and the Viper Room (which is wayyyy too hip for me), and are about to head off on a tour of the UK, where apparently they’re getting radio play. Rumor has it that a major-label deal has recently been struck; you can say, with me, you knew them when.
**I want to emphasize that I am not, really really not, that kind of professor. Really and truly. I tend, however, to take rather a more tolerant view of such behavior in others, though, in no small part because I was that kind of student. It was a radically different time, though, before “sexual harassment” was really on anybody’s conceptual or litigious radar, back when we actually had the temerity to think that some people — even young, female people — might have the emotional wherewithal to be actual consenting partners in such an arrangement. And while I won’t go quite as far as some who claim that such affairs can be productive and good and should be promoted, I will say that my college life would have been severely impoverished if even flirtation with the idea of such an affair were as severely proscribed as it is today. There’s something intensely libidinal about the work done in an academic environment, and the effects of that spillover into the physical were mostly only positive, for me, lending both my life and my work a kind of charge that I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on. But I’m still not that kind of professor, because I look at these kids by whom I’m surrounded, day in and day out, and think, “good grief, they’re kids.” Which thought really does make me wonder a bit what that professor back in my past was thinking, for god’s sake.