Care and Feeding

My Daughter’s Teacher Has a Reputation for Being “Creepy”

Two girls sitting at desks whisper to each other in front of a man standing with his back turned at a blackboard
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by szefei/iStock/Getty Images Plus and chameleonseye/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

A few days ago, I overheard my daughter hanging out with her friends after school discussing their “creepy” math teacher. The girls are in eighth grade, and they were giggling over stories that were pretty concerning to me: The teacher purposely calls on more “developed” girls, looks at girls’ chests in class, and pays more attention to “pretty girls” in his role as the faculty adviser of a school club.

Advertisement

I did my best to sound casual when I brought this up with my daughter after her friends had gone home, but she was embarrassed and immediately tried to backpedal. I assured her that she wasn’t in trouble, told her I wasn’t necessarily going to take any action, I was just trying to understand what was going on. She said, “Mom, it’s nothing, he’s just creepy, but a lot of guys are like that,” and refused to engage further. I’m at a loss. Should I report him to the school, even with essentially no evidence of wrongdoing? Should I reach out to the teacher myself? Or should I reach out to the parents of the other girls and see if they’ve heard anything? I remember a lot of adults ignoring my friends and me when we were that age and talked about “creepy” teachers, only for those teachers to later be found guilty of inappropriate behavior. At the same time, I don’t want to ruin this man’s reputation/livelihood if nothing provable has actually happened. What should I do?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—Creeped Out by the “Creepy” Teacher

Dear CObtCT,

Your daughter is right about one thing: A lot of guys are like that. But that doesn’t mean that it’s OK, it doesn’t mean that she and her friends have to tolerate it, and it breaks my goddamn heart that these eighth grade girls have learned to accept creepy guys as a fact of life. Screw that. Their teacher does not get to behave this way. It’s gross, it’s wrong, and it needs to stop.

That it seems (emphasis on “seems”) he has not put his hands on any of these girls—which is what I assume you mean by “provable” and “actually happened”—is not the point. As you experienced yourself (as so many of us have experienced ourselves!), creepy behavior can be just the tip of the iceberg. And this kind of creepiness, even if it hasn’t progressed—even if it doesn’t progress—to what you are calling “inappropriate behavior” is already inappropriate.

Advertisement

So, first off, don’t let that one conversation with your daughter be the only one you have with her about this. I know she’ll be embarrassed, I know she’ll try to wriggle out of it, but keep trying, keep bringing it up, and stop talking about it in terms of wanting to “understand what’s going on.” You know what’s going on—or at least some of what’s going on. And I will say this again: Even if turns out to be the only thing that’s going on, your daughter needs to know that it’s wrong and is not something to be endured. Nor is it funny. This man is exhibiting predatory behavior, and you need to have the first of many clear, frank conversations about boundaries. You need to make sure she knows you support her, and that she discloses to you or another trusted adult any behavior at all that feels off and inappropriate.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

I don’t think you should reach out to the teacher, who will deny that he’s done any of this. I do think you should talk to the parents of the other girls and I think you should contact the school. If you want to do the former before you do the latter, fine. But if none of the other parents has heard anything of this sort, don’t dismiss what you heard. You may just have gotten “lucky” in happening to overhear the kids talking. There is an excellent chance—I would say roughly a 99 percent chance—that none of these girls has spoken directly to their parents about this. But if all of you use this opportunity to open up conversations with your children about what they have a right to expect from their teachers—and from all the boys and men they encounter in their lives—you will be doing right by them, no matter how much they dislike these conversations. Depending on what the school’s administration is like, you may be more successful in persuading the school to take this seriously if multiple parents come together to raise this issue, but even if you have to do it on your own, I absolutely think the school needs to be informed. If you wait for something “provable,” it may be too late to make a difference. There is no way to know how the school will respond to your complaint—or if it will respond at all. But you’re not the one ruining his reputation or putting his livelihood in jeopardy—he is.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Michelle Each Week

From this week’s letter, My Husband Says I’m “Not Normal” for How I Approach Sports With Our Son: My husband and I come to games with very different expectations.”

Advertisement

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have struggled to figure out how to live with my new husband’s smoking. We are both in our early 60s. When he proposed, he vowed that he was quitting smoking—something he was doing for me but also because he was having some scary coughing fits. He did great for five months, but right before the wedding he started smoking again (he says because of the stress of the wedding preparations). Now he is smoking a pack a day again, if not more. I hate the smell and the smell gets in the house. I hate what it does to my husband’s health. I work in hospice and have seen the results of COPD and lung cancer. I have told him all of this. But there is one major reason I hate his smoking which I have not shared with him, and which is hard to talk about to anyone.

Advertisement

So here I am, and here it is: I have been a caregiver to others since I was 8 years old and responsible for taking care of my younger siblings. I have spent my entire adulthood caring for aging/dying family members. I care for others as a part of my job. I had been looking forward to a time in my life when I have to take care only of myself. If/when my husband gets sick and confined to the house, tethered to oxygen tanks, I don’t want to stop living my life again. I don’t want to be tied to caring for him. I know this might sound selfish, but I have done more than my fair share of putting others first. I want to put myself first in this last stage of my life. When we talk about his smoking—when I tell him how much I hate it—he gets defensive. He says I knew who I was marrying. But I’m not sure I would have said yes to marriage if I didn’t think he was going to quit smoking. He is a great guy with lots of wonderful qualities. I want to make this work. I appreciate any input you might be able to give me.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—Conflicted in Texas

Dear Conflicted,

I sympathize with everything you’ve said, including your wish not to be a caretaker for your husband after a life spent caring for others. And I’m sorry your new husband is being so defensive—he did make a promise, after all. But quitting smoking is hard. (I did it myself over 30 years ago, and it was one of the hardest things I have ever done. And when I was in the midst of it, and feeling wracked and desperate, an acquaintance—a well-known poet—who was a recovering alcoholic and heroin addict and ex-smoker told me that of the three addictions, smoking had been the hardest to kick. I don’t know if that’s generally true, but it was for him and should give you some insight into how hard it might be for your husband to keep that promise.)

Advertisement

That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t keep trying, of course. Especially if he wants you to stick around. I will tell you that the one thing that worked for me was when the person I was in love with and planned to marry told me point-blank that he would leave me if I didn’t quit (I knew he meant it, too). I can’t guarantee that this will work for your husband—I know for a fact it wouldn’t work for everybody (and the main reason it worked for me was that I had been trying and failing to quit for a long time; I very badly needed something big to help me do that at last—and I will say too that although that relationship didn’t work out for other reasons, to this day I am grateful to that man for getting me to quit cigarettes).

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

But here’s the thing, Conflicted. Whether your husband quits smoking or not, there is a pretty good chance you are going to end up his caretaker. Women tend to outlive their husbands, and when you get married at your age—which is also my age, by the way—the possibility that you will be caring for a sick husband at the last stage of your life cannot be discounted. While it’s true that if he continues to smoke, there’s an excellent chance that this will happen sooner rather than later (not to mention that you will continue to have to endure the foul smell and your continuing displeasure over the broken promise), marriage means, among other things, the commitment to take care of the person one marries if they fall ill. That’s one reason some women our age or older, once widowed or divorced, make the choice not to marry again. It’s a brutal reality. I think you need to reflect on that before you make a decision. (I can’t help wishing you had thought more about it before you said yes to his proposal.) If you love him and you want to “make this work,” think hard about what that will mean in the long term. And while you’re at it, share all of these thoughts with him. Keeping your deepest fears a secret is as sure a way to doom a marriage as is a broken promise.

Advertisement

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

• If you missed Friday’s column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter is in the fourth grade and is almost 10. Over the past few years she’s had crushes that her pediatrician has assured me are normal for kids as young as 7 or 8. However, during the past year, she’s announced more than once at the dinner table (of all places) that she’s a lesbian and has a crush on a female friend. We’ve sort of handled this with a “you’re too young to date” attitude, telling her we love her no matter what, and moving on. She’s never had a very large circle of friends and her feelings have seemed to be directed at her current “best friend” at that specific time. In other words, she starts hanging out with one friend more than she had before, then announces she has a crush on her. Also, of late, when she writes stories or creates an avatar in a game, she designates those characters as bisexual, which is her newest way of describing herself.

Advertisement
Advertisement

I love my daughter and will love and support her no matter who she is or who she loves. What I don’t want is for her to announce something about herself to her peers that isn’t true. We live in a large metro area, but we are still in a conservative part of the country. I don’t honestly know if someone who has yet to undergo puberty even has the hormones to be truly attracted to one sex over another—let alone the mental and emotional capacity to understand what they’re feeling. And my daughter is immature for her age, so I wonder if she’s confusing closeness with attraction.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Another dimension of all this is that her dad (we’re divorced) is sort of a bigot. He considers gender fluidity and transness to be a mental disease. He insists he has no problem with the LGBTQ community but also says disgusting things about it. He also uses racial slurs. Basically, he’s a jerk. He handles these pronouncements of our daughter’s by refusing to acknowledge them or getting angry about them. This makes me want to respond to her by saying, “You be you,” just to counter his toxic response. But that seems like a bad idea. On the one hand, I don’t want her in a situation where she has declared her sexuality to everyone she knows, only to find herself in middle school or high school feeling otherwise and yet already being stigmatized for something she said in fourth grade. On the other: I don’t want her to lump me in with her dad. What are your thoughts? Am I taking this way too seriously?

Advertisement

—Concerned Mom

Dear Concerned,

You are not taking this “way too seriously.” A child does not have to have reached puberty to feel attraction. As your pediatrician has already told you, young children get crushes (I remember my first one so well! And I was only in kindergarten!). And many people who are gay know that about themselves when they are younger than your daughter is (just as many people who are straight know that when they are younger than your daughter).

Advertisement

I don’t know if your not-yet-10-year-old is declaring herself bi because she’s noticed that she has crushes on both boys and girls, or because she thinks it will be more palatable to you than her previously revealed identity as a lesbian. (A quick aside here: I don’t know why parents reach for the phrase “I will love you no matter what” when their children come out to them; the “no matter what” implies that something unpleasant has been revealed. I wish that every parent would replace that assurance with “I love you” and leave it there.) I also don’t know whether her sexual identity will evolve over time. Nor do you. (Nor does she, for that matter.) Nor do I know if she is “confusing” attraction and closeness in the way that you mean, or trying on an idea about herself as she tries to explain the world to herself—and as she tries to understand her own feelings.

Advertisement

But I can say with a great deal of confidence that believing our children when they tell us something about themselves is always a good idea. And also that your ex-husband is not “sort of” a bigot—he is one. Talk frankly to your daughter about that. Help her develop the tools to stand up to him and advocate for herself. And do not urge her to keep her thoughts about herself a secret. If she feels comfortable telling her friends that she’s gay or bi, that’s her decision to make (yes, even at 10). Telling children they are not who they believe themselves to be and/or telling children not to tell others who they believe themselves to be will damage their mental health, their sense of self, and their relationships with their parents.

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

My 14-year-old daughter dresses like she’s going to a nightclub—halter tops, tube tops, short shorts, high heels, bare midriffs. I want to encourage her sense of style and help her to be positive about her body, but this is not OK, and we can’t stop fighting about it. What should I do?

Advertisement