High explosives in a sexual minefield

9th February 2007 at 00:00
When children complain of unjust punishment at school, I quote the Dick Cheney answer to bad press. He said he had been praised when he had not deserved it and rebuked when it was unwarranted, so it all evened out in the end. Actually, there is a third category - of being rightfully accused - but let's leave Iraq out of this.

I tried the teachers-move-in-mysterious-ways approach on my 15-year-old son recently. He is old enough to experience a new perspective on his former teachers. Distance allows a privileged familiarity.

Having chanced across a teacher from his junior school, my son cheerily emailed him. How was he doing? Maybe they would meet up one day? Bet the new intake were an inferior bunch?

The teacher replied in the same friendly way, so then my son emailed another - female - teacher. His message was once again chatty and familiar.

He ended it LOL (lots of love). This teacher swiftly complained to my son's school about "inappropriate behaviour" - that catch-all contemporary solecism.

Why is the familiarity of a teenage boy permissible with a male teacher but not with a female? Well, you only have to see the teachers' movie Notes on a Scandal.

Libby Purves wrote thoughtfully on these pages recently about the film, based on the novel by Zo Heller. She mused upon the light it shed on a teacher's vocation and harsh disillusionment.

I was more interested in the sex. The affair between an art teacher (Cate Blanchett) and her 15-year-old pupil (Andrew Simpson) is depicted with shocking realism. I wonder whether an intercourse scene would have got past the censors had the sexes been reversed.

Blanchett's character, Sheba, is infatuated by her pupil, Steven, and exhilarated by his apparent enthusiasm for art. Pure teaching turns out to be dangerously close to love. Many will feel a generational revulsion. I watched the love scenes with disapproval and disbelief. He is a child!

On the other hand, I have never worked in a room full of heaving teenage testosterone while my self-esteem was uncertain.JThe point is that 15-year-old boys can look like men. But, as Sheba finds, they cannot be surrogate husbands, or even lovers - because they are children.

This misunderstanding among female teachers is rare, while the misreading of female teachers by teenage boys is fairly common. Many female teachers feel they cannot afford the risk, so the relationship is cautious and formal.

Another of my sons fell foul of a female teacher when he was about 13. She could not bear his restlessness and shouted at him to sit still until she was hoarse. Later, he joined the Army because of the sheer manliness of the culture.

The feminisation of education is a rehearsed theme. The effect is to deny boys masculine expression. It can also have the opposite effect. Boys blunder like primates into a sexual minefield. Either way, the case for more male teachers becomes unanswerable.

Teacher-pupil relationships, Magazine, pages 14-15, 29

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