McGrath: The cost of walking up the down staircase
By David McGrath email@example.com May 31, 2013 9:42PM
Updated: July 3, 2013 6:07AM
It happens mostly to young teachers. Maybe more often to English teachers, whose classes are forums for a variety of communication.
Say a student confides in an essay or an anonymous poem that he is attracted to his teacher. Or infatuated. Or in love. How does the teacher deal with the student crush?
The question emerges because of a lawsuit recently by a student against Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. Joseph Corlett, a 57-year-old Sarasota, Fla., man enrolled in a creative writing class at the university, wants $2.2 million in damages after he was suspended for three semesters for writing in his journal about his physical attraction for two of his female professors, according to an Associated Press story.
It’s common in creative writing class for students to keep a daily journal for recording feelings, observations or ideas that may later morph into a short story or a work of art.
But after reading his journal entry entitled “Hot for Teacher,” Corlett’s instructor, whose allure he compared to that of the character Ginger from the classic TV show “Gilligan’s Island,” notified school administrators, who suspended Corlett for what they called harassment and intimidation.
Corlett, however, claims he is innocent and was simply following instructions to write “raw” and personal feelings.
Students have had crushes on teachers since the time of Socrates. Or at least as long as there have been schools.
In the film version of Bel Kaufman’s 1965 novel, “Up the Down Staircase,” a fictional English teacher reacts insensitively to his student’s written confession of her love for him. He simply corrects errors in her paper and hands it back without comment. The humiliated teenage author later jumps to her death out a school window.
In my younger days, I was the object of a crush in the Chicago high school where I was teaching English. It was literature, not creative writing, but as such afforded ample opportunities for eclectic discussion about life’s major questions.
Amid a stack of student papers, I found an unsigned letter declaring an attraction for me and a detailed wish of how the two of us might enjoy time alone. “I have my eye on you,” it concluded, in black ink and the unmistakable handwriting of the fourth student in the third row.
Fortunately, I had seen the movie and knew to resist marking up the letter with a red pen. Later that day, I dropped the letter on the desk of one of the guidance counselors who was both a colleague and a friend.
She waited a few days before summoning the student for a routine advising session, during which she skillfully got the student to talk about her classes, teachers and her crush. With gentleness and perception, she guided the student down the correct path and away from further designs on the much older and married teacher.
The Oakland University case, of course, occurs with an adult student, but neither Corlett nor his creative writing teacher did anything wrong. He accepted an invitation to be honest and creative. She contacted a dean, someone whom she assumed would know what to do.
But administrators took over and fouled it all up. Like King Oedipus in the Shakespearean tragedy, they were more intent on meting out punishment than in seizing a teachable moment.
The thinking for their wrongheaded actions could possibly come to light in a trial, though it’s more likely that a hushed out-of-court settlement will prevent gaining such insight.
Meanwhile, I suspect that erring on the side of political correctness, in an era with increased awareness of sexual harassment and bullying, may have had something to do with the botched handling of Corlett’s case. Couple that with the usual bureaucratic bungling that ended up with Corlett being booted from the school.
Too bad Oakland University didn’t somehow find my former counselor colleague and let her advise teachers and students who find themselves going in the wrong direction on an up or down staircase. She might have accepted an offer considerably less than $2.2 million.
David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.