The first of June, and I’m back at the summer house on Woodrow Island. I guess I’ve spent around 35 of my 58 summers here. It’s our family home, passed from grandparents to my parents and now to me. I bought out the cousins’ shares a decade ago, when they were looking to raise tuition for college and music lessons for their kids, and now, both halves of the duplex are mine. Each summer, I rent out one side to vacationing families, while the other provides me with sanctuary.
I turn in my grades, close up my apartment, catch the ferry, and for three months, I am sheltered from the busyness, stress, and politics of being a lit professor at City College. Usually, I sign next year’s faculty contract before leaving. This year, I didn’t. I have until the end of the month. Of course I will, I’m sure. I just can’t think about it now. I couldn’t bring myself to click the “Accept” button on the digital form.
It was a tough year. A close friend, another faculty member, was accused of sexual harassment by one of my favorite students. I wasn’t surprised. It was a matter of time. I told Denny a few years ago, after he put his hand on my thigh during a committee meeting, that he had to change his ways.
“You can’t get away with that anymore, Denny! It’s not the 70’s.”
He kept it up, not with me, but with others.
“Denny,” I said to him early in the second semester, “You been following this #MeToo thing? These are different times. The culture has shifted, Denny.”
So I wasn’t surprised when, during office hours, Sasha came in to disclose what had happened. If it hadn’t been her, it would have been someone else.
“I know you’re friends with Professor Carrington,” she said. “This is hard for me. I respect you, I really do. But Professor Carrington–I’m sure you’re going to hear from someone. You might was well hear from me. I had to report him to the dean.”
I listened. Inappropriate touching. Inappropriate comments. Intrusion of personal space.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“I’m embarrassed,” Sasha said. “And I feel guilty. Did I do the wrong thing? But I told him to stop. He didn’t, like, hurt me. And… I don’t even know if it was sexual. But it wasn’t wanted. It felt wrong.”
“You did the right thing, Sasha. You have the right to have your space, your boundaries, respected.”
“Nobody knows but you and the dean,” she said.
It stayed confidential. Even Denny never found out who’d lodged the complaint. He was put on administrative leave for the next two semesters, and he had to complete a series of trainings before returning to teach.
“I’m being ‘reprogrammed,'” he said.
“It’s a good thing,” I told him. “If you can’t change yourself, then you might as well participate in something that can help you change.”
He grumbled. “I like the freedom of being able to express how I feel.”
I remained friends with him–we went way back, and we’d shared more conversations about Thoreau and Fuller, Hawthorne and Melville, than conflict could erode. But it felt strange to be friends with someone blind to the ways words and touch, from a person in a position of authority, could feel like a transgression.
I’d been a teen in the 70’s. I remembered too clearly what it was like to be groped by the boys in the halls of high school, to have teachers, coaches, principals and fathers of the kids you babysat lean in too close, make crude jokes, leer and slap you on the rear when you walked by. That wasn’t “expressing how they felt.” That was abuse. And I was glad the culture was shifting. I was glad they didn’t have a free pass to do that anymore.
Sasha stopped coming to office hours. She switched majors to biology. She was friendly and respectful. But I could understand how she might expect me to turn from Denny after what he did. I could have shunned him. But I didn’t. I felt that it was important to give him support while he changed. Learning new behavior is hard work–examining one’s thoughts and attitudes is even harder. Denny’s not defined by this. It’s part of him, and a part he needs to change. But it’s not all of him. I wasn’t going to stop being his friend. But that didn’t keep me from feeling awkward, either.
I guess all of that colored this past year. There were a few cases of plagiarism, too, in some of my comp classes. Those are never fun to deal with. And it felt like we were fighting the perpetual battles of curriculum. I could make nearly any selection of readings work–but learning happened best when the readings were relevant to students, personally, culturally, historically. I was tired of the battle of getting our selections approved by the curriculum committee. It all felt old, and I was tired of it. I was weary.
All of that contributed to my procrastination in signing my contract. And all of that was left behind when I stepped on the ferry.
It’s the start of summer, and just for a few weeks, I want to live under the illusion that I am totally free.