Monday, March 10, 2008

Classroom Misbehavior

Some authors treat the subject of affairs between boys and their teachers as romance; others see it for what it is--the stealing of innocence
March 9, 2008

By Sonja Bolle

The hot teacher, star of the high school boy's fantasy life. In our sex-obsessed society, there are few taboos left, but this fantasy is certainly one of them. Female teachers who have sex with their underage students grab headlines almost as much as priests who molest children, and as the media go, so goes book publishing. The past year has seen at least three novels about boys having affairs with their teachers.

It's interesting that cases of male teachers having sex with female students aren't nearly as sensational. Oh, yes, it's illegal and sometimes punished -- legal treatment of statutory rape cases is amazingly inconsistent, as is the age of consent from state to state -- but it doesn't seem to offend society's sense of propriety quite as much.

Even a young-adult novel from last year, R.A. Nelson's "Teach Me" (Razorbill: $8.99 paper), about a girl's affair with her male teacher, was much more ambiguous in its sympathies than the woman-boy books. After all, as long as the male is older and in the position of power, it's still within some bounds, even if the circumstances are . . . questionable. But an older woman with a younger man is looked at with revulsion even when they're consenting adults. We are more repelled by relationships that offend our idea of societal order than we are concerned with the individuals harmed by such a relationship. How much of the horror over the scandal in the Catholic Church is an expression of homophobia, and how much is outrage on behalf of children?

If our choices make us who we are (yes, that's a " Harry Potter" quote), this is especially true of novelists. The novels under consideration are all telling the same general story. It's amazing how little variety there is in the elements, just as official reports succinctly describe the modus operandi of sexual predators. Anyone looking for easy explanations for what some have called "an epidemic" of this sort of sexual abuse will find them in these books: The absence of parents in teens' lives, the increased possibility of secrecy in e-mail as well as cellphone communication. But the choices each novelist makes in telling the story make the reading experiences vary widely.

"Prey" by Lurlene McDaniel (Delacorte Press: $10.99, ages 14 and up) begins and ends with author statements that underline her concern with the problem of student sexual abuse, but the form of her story is uncannily like a romance novel's. McDaniel is a prolific young-adult author who writes inspirational stories, often about serious illness (she began writing for teens when her son was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes). Her choice to tell the story from the teacher's point of view as well as the boy's gives the book a tension that often sweeps the reader into the breathlessness of the situation. There are moments when it seems just plain unfair that the silly rules of society make everything so hard for these lovers. Although the author clearly means to express disapproval of the relationship, the hints that the teacher was abused as a child elicit sympathy, as does her longing for a "sweet" companion: "The adoring glances he threw my way all afternoon. Not like the lecherous stares of grown men. I hate the way they look at me, as if they want to tear my clothes off."

Where McDaniel's lovers are almost too generic to carry her point, Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson gives her young man in "Gone" (Roaring Brook Press: $16.95, ages 14 and up) such a complex back story that the attentions of his teacher seem the least of his problems and, indeed, often seem the only comfort he has in life. (One of Johnson's earlier novels "A Fast and Brutal Wing" centers on a fantastically unusual brother-sister relationship, which also leaves the reader with a great deal to sort out and ponder.) This boy was so damaged by his alcoholic parents that he is left able to respond only to an intense need, which he cannot recognize as inappropriate or lacking in true affection. It seems entirely accidental that it's a teacher who fills the void in his life. When the older woman turns out to be an unreliable drug addict and abandons him, the reader feels this is only the first of many uncomprehended pains this boy will suffer.

The book that grapples most honestly with and comes to the most persuasive conclusions about the issue is Barry Lyga's "Boy Toy" (Houghton Mifflin: $16.95, ages 16 and up). Note that this book has the highest age category officially assigned in young-adult literature, age 16 and up; it is not more graphic than the other novels, but the story goes more deeply into the complex feelings the boy experiences. As a novel to give a teenage boy that will thrill him and give him a clearer view of the murky world of sex, "Boy Toy" ranks up there with Melvin Burgess' much more humorous "Doing It" (which also includes a segment about a boy seduced by a widely desired teacher, only to discover what a prison such an affair quickly becomes).

The structure of Lyga's book gives him broad scope. He is interested not just in the details of the affair but in the effects on the boy's life. He begins his novel with the dramatic incident that exposes the relationship: For Josh's 13th birthday, his friends arrange a party, at which the girl who has long been his best friend tries to get romantic. A game of spin-the-bottle is involved. When Josh finds himself herded unwillingly into a dark closet for what the girl thinks will be a little sexual experimenting, he responds in the way his secret older lover has trained him to act. Josh discovers only too late -- when he is charged with assault -- that not every female desires the same aggressive treatment.

From here, the story jumps forward to Josh at 18, in his last year at school, still alienated from his classmates and shaken by the news that the teacher who molested him is being released from prison. In flashbacks, we learn first how the affair began, then the aftermath of the affair's discovery. Lyga never gives a hint of the teacher's thoughts, focusing all his attention on the boy's point of view: his consuming desire, his pride at being treated like an adult, his shame at giving away the secret he was supposed to keep.

Lyga's details are transfixing in their clarity. Without preaching, he conveys that Josh has lost an innocence no boy should lose. Late at night, when Josh recognizes the noises coming from his parents' room as sex sounds, what flashes through his mind is, "I do it better."

Josh's best friend captures the essence of his dilemma when he tries to get his friend to go on a date:

" 'J, I realize you're, like, a social retard and all, but trust me -- this is how it works, man. A girl looks your way, you look her way, then you find out through each other's friends what it all means. You'd know this [stuff] if you weren't practically a -- ' he stops, gulps, and trails off weakly. 'You know. . . . '

" 'Practically a what?'

" 'A virgin.' To his credit, he looks me straight in the eye when he says it.

"I laugh because, let's face it, I'm no virgin."

Josh's experience has ruined him for teen sexual discoveries. One day, no doubt, scientists will find that the brain has to go through stages of sexual experimentation to develop normally, just as studies have shown that crawling develops pathways in the brain and should precede walking.

What happens to a boy when his sexual initiation occurs in an unequal relationship, with an adult who has power over him? How does he carry on in other relationships? "Boy Toy" does what any good novel does: examines the hard truths of human experience.

Sonja Bolle's Word Play column appears monthly.

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