Setting Rules for Teen Romance
It was the last night of a week-long field trip for the high school seniors enrolled in a popular environmental history class. Gradually, one by one, the students and faculty chaperones drifted to their tents, sleeping bags, and well-earned rest. One student, Verna, and her teacher, Justin, stayed and tended to the fire. There were pieces of kindling and a few logs between them and the fire.
"I'm going to miss school, I hate to admit. It even sounds so cheesy to me because I never much liked school," Verna said. "A few classes, one or two teachers -- like you, Justin -- that's what I'll remember."
That last comment flared up suddenly like a distant meteoric disturbance and Justin watched it tail away. "You'd be weird if you didn't feel a little sad leaving school," he said. To him, that seemed like the right thing to say under the circumstances, whatever these circumstances were.
"The closer I get to leaving the more I miss the school, my friends, the teachers. Even though I want to get out of this place, I'm going to miss a few people a lot, like you."
"We can stay in touch." Immediately he flinched, and he wondered if he had been careless and sent an unintended signal.
"Really? You mean you wouldn't mind if I wrote you sometimes?"
There seemed to be no turning back now, though he didn't want her to misunderstand. "Of course not. Why, I'd be disappointed if I didn't hear from you. I stay in touch with my students all the time. E-mail's great for that."
"Do you want to be friends with me -- after high school?"
Wait a second, was that what they were, friends? When he used the term and when she used the term, did they mean the same thing? Why was he feeling so uncomfortable? He hoped she understood he was first and foremost her teacher. He also hoped this would be the last time they would talk in this way about their relationship.
Verna reached for a log at the moment he leaned forward to do the same, and her hand brushed his arm. She didn't pull back, and she gazed into the fire and said nothing. To Verna, it felt like destiny. To Justin, it was a sign it was getting too late.
"I think we should turn in," he stammered.
"You're right, Justin." She made no move to go.
"Morning is right around the corner." Did he just need to say something -- anything?
"I feel like watching our fire for a while," she whispered, her voice drifting like smoke. She threw on another log and watched the sparks fly. "Sweet dreams."
In eighteen hours, he thought, they would be driving back, back to home, back to school. These were the places they knew from before, or these were the places they thought they used to know. Mostly, these were the places he needed to keep in their place.
Relationships, Entanglements, Confusions, Misreadings, and Other Signs of Growing Up
In this story we observe a real, substantive connection between Verna and Justin, each bringing to the relationship powerful and complicated needs, desires, hopes, and experiences. Are all of their emotions and fantasies clean, rational, and manageable? Hardly.
Anyone who has ever walked by a group of teenagers knows well that they are swimming in an ocean of hormones and passions. So it would be naive to gloss over the existence or misgauge the power of emotional entanglements between teachers and students, the affection they have for each other, the attraction. But the question that matters between Justin and Verna, as the emotional tides rise, is: Who is responsible here? That is, who is finally answerable for the expression of their feelings?
Though there's plenty of room for interesting debate on the topic of student/teacher relations, there's no room for disagreement in a community that supports (and therefore protects) adolescents in their experiential searches. The adult is the one accountable, and the teenager (even the most mature ones) must be safeguarded.
Teenagers Count on Adults' Being Adults Because Teenagers are Not
When adults allow their relationships with teenagers to be eroticized, or sexualized, they have crossed a moral line that can never be uncrossed, and disaster awaits everyone involved. True, principled adults who are also charismatic may unintentionally inspire ideas of romance in their students. Most of a teenager's romantic conceptions glide effortlessly into sexualizable ones, after all. But adults have to carry and manage honestly all the ambiguities, including their own; that is, it is altogether possible that Verna could misread the signal of Justin's interest in her friendship.
Justin may indeed mean to promote a friendship, but Verna may construe that to be a stepping-stone, an implicit invitation, to what is presumably a more serious (that is, a sexual) relationship. Can this teenager reveal herself in such a vulnerable way and not be scarred? Yes. Can the teacher respond by both affirming his boundaries and not dismissing her or her feelings? Yes.
Romance and Sex: There's a Difference
For at the same time -- and this is tricky -- a certain kind of romance does have a legitimate place in education. Though this is a difficult proposition to elucidate, education is itself a romance -- the romance of learning, of growing, of becoming. Romance does not mean or imply sex.
Teenagers are expanding emotionally and are thrilling to the world within and the world without, all of which can make high school such an exhilarating, beautiful, intense experience. Of course, they may identify (out of inexperience) that blossoming within themselves with the person who appears to be the agent of inspiration, and as a result they romanticize their teacher.
Ethical, well-balanced adults understand this transferring process and do not cultivate the teenager's illusions; instead, they redirect that romance into a passion enkindling the student's own learning and self-discovery. This is always a conscious decision and it is, finally, that which distinguishes excellent, principled teachers.
Teenagers Trust the Adult to Set Boundaries
Justin eventually insists on maintaining a boundary. Could Verna misinterpret his final signal and press a romantic interest in him? Of course, and some teenagers certainly would. But actually, that prospect seems unlikely in her case, because, tellingly, her question "Do you want to be friends with me -- after high school?" is also her subtle insistence upon the maintenance of boundaries with which she herself is comfortable.
Will she test these boundaries again? Very likely, and deep down, she hopes Justin maintains them, since this would allow her to address the inner turmoil occasioned by her imminent graduation.
Teenagers Count on Parents
In the shifting world of being a senior, teenagers count on their parents more than they can or will say. As parents, resolve not to become one more problem for them to deal with.
If your relationship has been strong, they will overlook you during this time. Not out of disregard, quite the opposite; because they can count on your love and support, they can take you for granted during this overwhelming onslaught of mixed-up feelings, convoluted thoughts, fears, and fantasies.
Give them quiet space and plenty of support, both verbal and nonverbal. Tell them you love them and are proud of them, and do this often. Take advantage of the chances they give you. For example, when they regress and want to stay home with a very mild case of the flu, take the day off, if you can, and pamper them anyway. If it helps, think of your presence as an early graduation gift. Your being there with them will mean as much as anything you say. And it will mean more than they can possibly tell you.
Copyright © 2000 by Joseph DiPrisco and Michael Riera. Reprinted by permission of Perseus Publishing. All rights reserved.