Please Please Please, Just Keep Your Clothes On
I wrote something similar to this on Facebook today, but my Facebook page is reserved for people I know in real life, and I was spurred by a comment from an old grad school colleague to put this somewhere more accessible to students and coworkers, so I'm taking the opportunity to piece together a few comments I've made to make one public comment.
Some background: Last night, the Times reported that author Ron Carlson resigned as the head of UCI's prestigious creative writing MFA program in fiction because he was accused of sexual misconduct with a tenth grade girl at a boarding school while he taught there in the 1970s. He was, at the time, in his mid-twenties.
I don't know Ron. We might've met once, though I can't recall the context. But some of my writer friends consider him a mentor and are heartbroken by the allegations. One of my own mentors mentioned that Ron had always been generous to him, but he'd heard plenty of whispers over the years about misconduct. This, I told him, sounded like something I'd said earlier this year about Junot Díaz, a man who'd been kind to me when I was an MFA student running a book review website but who has been abusive to others, including an acquaintance of mine.
My thoughts: Earlier this month, I spent three weeks living in the UCLA dorms while teaching composition and creative writing at a summer camp for high schoolers. My room was across from the boys' bathroom, and occasionally boys would walk down the hall to the showers wearing nothing but their underwear. Since there was no air conditioning in our building, I often kept my door open, and the boys would occasionally say hello or ask me a question, and I'd respond by telling them to go put on some clothes. Every night at curfew, our female director and male assistant director knocked on every single kid's door for room checks, and too often they were greeted by teenagers in their undergarments.
This made us teachers very uncomfortable. While we're all for body positivity and not policing the way people dress, it also wasn't appropriate for us, the supervising adults, to see them traipsing about in nothing but boxers and bralettes. It put us in an awkward position—a position already awkward enough since it was also our job to make sure they didn't sneak into one another's rooms to have sex. One of my coworkers told me that one previous summer, he sat in the hallway for hours after curfew to keep one boy from sneaking out to a girl's room. Thwarted, the boy decided to climb out his window and shimmy across the fifth floor ledge to get to the girl's window.
All of this was also uncomfortable because it was our job to protect them. We watched them take their medication, we made sure they ate more than Cup Noodles and soft serve every night, and when they didn't show up for class we freaked out thinking they'd fallen into a ditch somewhere when actually they were just so dead asleep that they couldn’t hear me, then the AD, then the director banging on their doors and calling their cell phones. They weren't just our students; they were our kids. OUR KIDS. How does one protect kids too oblivious to realize that opening their doors in their underwear for just anyone—but most especially their unsuspecting teachers—is all kinds of inappropriate?
My students were lucky, though, because my coworkers are amazing people who were too protective to let them wander the dorms in their various states of undress. Because let's be real: a teacher who isn't embarrassed, uncomfortable, or at least annoyed by this probably shouldn't be teaching. And the idea that a fellow teacher would so much as entertain the idea of kissing a high school student, never mind groping or having sex with one, is disgusting. It's not just a matter of age or authority. It's a gross violation of the role we play in our students' lives and the role they play in ours. I've been teaching long enough that some of the kids I've taught are college graduates now, and I'm so proud to see that some have become teachers and writers themselves. I get to call them peers now. But they are still my kids. They will never stop being my kids.
So the idea that anyone would defend Ron Carlson simply because the allegations against him are decades old? That makes me sick. The idea that he shouldn't have his teaching career derailed for something he did to a tenth grader when he was a twenty-something boarding school teacher? The idea that his touching a fifteen-year-old girl is some sort of youthful transgression that we should look past? It makes me physically ill because how dare he take on the mantle of teacher and do that to one of his kids. If he so much as flirted with the girl, his career should've been derailed decades ago because he was never truly a teacher in the first place.
And I can't believe any of that is up for debate.