This post first appeared in March, 2006.
There is, also, a reciprocal phenomenon that few of us talk about: the crush on the student. Let me first explain what I mean by crush, here, because it’s almost explicitly not sexual. Lord knows that my sex life was awkward enough at that age–I certainly wouldn’t want to revisit it with a 15 years older body. But there are students with whom I become temporarily fascinated. Just as students find that there can be something intoxicating about the presence, the experience, the passion of someone at the front of the classroom, there is something similarly invigorating about the potential, the excitement, the newness of a really compelling student. I regularly develop these crushes. They’ve never grown into anything more than an occasional email correspondence after the student has gone, but the crushes do go both ways, and they more we try to divorce them from taboo sexuality (which seems to have little to do with it at all), the more we can address what they are, which is excitement about the very act of teaching and learning, personified in teachers and students who seem to embody those ideals.
An excellent idea for a follow-up post!
Like Ryan, I scrupulously avoid sexualizing my students. (Frankly, at this point in my life, that’s not difficult to do.) But like Ryan, I get an occasional crush on a young (or not so young) student. Not only are these crushes not sexual or romantic, they also aren’t primarily about my ego, either.
I mentioned this topic to a colleague yesterday (I’d sent her the first post on student crushes), and she laughed at me. "Hugo, you just like the students who soak up your every word. You get crushes on your proteges as extensions of yourself. You’re such a narcissist!" I was hurt, and I told her so. Lord knows, I am relentless in my self-criticism — but after reflecting for some time on what she said, I’m convinced my colleague got it wrong.
What I mean by a crush on a student is this: every once in a while, no more than once or twice a year, I will have a young man or a young woman in one of my classes whose life and ideas and personal growth become powerfully interesting to me. I can’t always tell who it’s going to be, mind you! It’s not automatically the "best and the brightest", and it certainly (I can’t stress this enough these days) has damn all to do with physical attractiveness. It can happen equally often with men or women. But suddenly, often out of the blue, I will find myself caring desperately about that one particular student’s development. I daydream about that student, and look forward eagerly to their office visits and to their emailed questions and the stories they tell about their lives.
I know lots of my students read this blog, so let me be clear about something: you are all precious to me. I rejoice when you do well, I agonize when you don’t (and I wonder what I can do to help you do better.) I think about you more than you realize, and even though you surely imagine that you are just a sea of faces and names to me, please know that you are far more than that. I take seriously my obligation to teach all of you, to challenge you, to stimulate you. And I worry, more often than you know, that I am failing you.
But my overall concern for all my students doesn’t mean that one or two don’t get under my skin. And I think Ryan is right when he says that these "crushes" are all about recognizing potential. With such students, there’s a sudden realization of just what kind of extraordinary human being this person is on the verge of becoming. And with that realization, there comes an intense curiosity to see how it will all develop. With some students more than others, I become emotionally invested in their success, not because their success reflects pleasantly on me as a teacher, but because they have stolen my heart. When I become not merely a teacher, but also a mentor (as I do with quite a few of my students), I feel incredibly privileged and excited. I’ve stayed in touch with many of these "mentees" (again, folks, of both sexes) for years and years. Some of these crushes last a long, long time.
When I graduated from high school in 1985, my favorite English teacher (Mr. R) wrote something in my yearbook that I still treasure. It was a simple poem with a straightforward rhyme scheme, and
here’s how it finished here’s the whole thing:
Of all the kids that I have taught
for lo these thirty years
a couple I consider naught
and others bore to tears
And some I shall remember
long after they depart;
and one or two a very few
have filched this fellow’s heart
But though I really love them all
and have a spot for each,
you ought to know before you go,
you’re why I love to teach.
Mr. R was in his late fifties; I was barely 18. I loved him, and I felt loved by him. He signed lots of yearbooks that final day in class, and I confess I found ways to sneak peeks at my classmates’, just to make sure that he hadn’t written the same thing in each one. He wrote nice things to all his students, but I was the only one (or so I tell myself) who got those lines. I can’t tell you how much they’ve meant to me over the years, and the thought that he cared especially for Hugo still touches me today.
Did Mr. R have a crush on me? Given the sexual and romantic connotation of that word, I suspect he wouldn’t have said so. But in the broader sense, I believe he did — and it was mutual. I wanted to be near him (I ate lunch in his room more times than I can count). I lived for his approval, and he seemed so genuinely interested in me. I recognize Mr. R in myself with certain "kids" today. I’m not ashamed to say I "crush" on some of them, especially given the literal meaning of the word. To have a crush, in one sense, means to give the object of your crush the power to break your heart. I’ve had my heart broken more than once by a student. I’ve been to a funeral or two, and taken a call or two from county jail. I’ve watched bipolar students go off their meds and tumble into pits of despair. And some of these students I’ve loved more than others, and their setbacks have, in a very real emotional sense, crushed me; their triumphs, on the other hand, have sent my spirits soaring.
Every once in a while, I think about stealing Mr. R’s poem and giving it to a special student who has "filched this fellow’s heart." I haven’t done it yet. But I think about it.