Today I bumped into a former student, the incomparable young B. I met B. last year, when he was just a nubile freshman. B. had liked to let it be known that he had already read everything we were going to read in class “for fun.” He spoke in aphorisms, quoted Pynchon and Nietzsche, and wrote me daily e-mails requesting that I answer his arcane questions about the finer points of deconstruction. I would awaken to find his daily missives addressed to “yo, professor.” He stalked my office hours on a regular basis to seek my advice about philosophy, literature, life and, of course, his glorious future. In short, for a good 15-week span of time, we developed a relationship of sorts.
But that was last year. Today, I catch my first glimpse of his sophomore self. When he sees me, he saunters over and says, “Hey, professor.” I say, “Hey, B., what’s new?” He says, “You know, I’m taking this grad course with Professor N. (He lingers over the word grad). I say, “Wow, that’s great!” (Professor N. is, in fact, a friend of mine, so I actually am quite pleased.) But does he stop there? No. He says, “Professor N. is really cool.” I’m still fine with that. Does he stop there? No. “Professor N.,” he says, looking at me intently, “is who I want to be when I grow up.” That’s just fine, I think. Professor N. is smart, hip, sexy, and gay. I wonder if B. has any idea. Then he narrows his eyes and delivers the zinger: “I took an undergrad class with him, too. He really knows how to handle a class.” Okay, okay. So now I want to turn around and shriek, “So what am I, chopped liver?”
Teaching often leaves one feeling a little like chopped liver. It is like some intense romance which retroactively turns into a one-night stand. But weirder still–it is like a one-night stand you keep having over and over. Students come and go but always stay the same age. I sometimes have the feeling that I have had several similar relationships with generations of their slightly older prototypes over the years. I had met B. in his many previous incarnations. In my graduate student days, he might have been what we liked to call the Heidegger boy. The Heidegger boy would always find a way to fit a discussion of Heidegger into any and every conversation. The Heidegger boy is brilliant, aloof, and a bit cold around the edges. The Heidegger boy has some interpersonal limitations.
But emotional attachment to students takes many archetypical forms: These range from grand, unconsummated courtly passion to raging, unconsummated, stuttering lust. There are more complex forms as well. There is the love one feels for the beautiful young woman who doesn’t know she is brilliant and the love one feels for her twin–the brilliant young woman who doesn’t know she is lovable. There is the earnest frat boy who learns to think. The boy one wanted to date in high school but didn’t. I have always had a particular penchant for young men of 20 whose intellectual excitement translates into a steamy sort of vulnerability. Sometimes one falls in love with a class as a whole, like an adorable Borg whose every part is equally adorable. During these semesters, a random absence from any student feels like an amputation.
Sitting on my desk is a stack of this semester’s students’ first papers. I have promised to read them by tomorrow, but I don’t dare to look at them. I have been teaching long enough to know that the minute I look at those papers, I will enter a new phase of relations with my students and that the current honeymoon will be over. Although I was initially quite enamored of them, I am starting to suspect that they’re humoring me–they don’t really want to be there–but they’re too polite and well-groomed to let me know. I’ll probably know by the end of the week whether we’re headed toward civil cohabitation, guarded distance or, perhaps, some lighter passion.