Recollections by Richard Bleil
Sitting in my office, my student confessed her love for me.
Of course, this was a number of years ago. In the mid-90’s, she was my student at a very conservative Seventh Day Adventist college. She was a “non-trad” student, and about my age. Although I myself was much younger than the traditional students were still significantly younger than I was (figure at least ten years younger). And there she was, telling me that she loved me, and that she would happily leave her husband and three children to spend the rest of her life with me.
How does one respond to that?
Chances are, somebody who watches too much adult “entertainment” just read this and has “bahm chicka wah wah” going through their mind. But here, in front of me, was a rather attractive woman who was a real person, with real feelings, in real pain. Seriously, what do you do?
Let’s get a few obvious things out of the way. Yes, as my student, to actually act on this would be unethical. I know this now as I knew it then, but there is also a moral issue. Even if she were not my student, it would be immoral to take her away from her husband and children, an entire family that trusts her and relies on her. And it should come to no surprise to any of my regular readers that, no, I did not take advantage of the situation.
I was at that college from 1995 to 1999, so at most I would have been between about 31 and 36. I would not and could not have had an affair with a student, but on top of that, I never wanted to be the cause for a relationship, any relationship, to fall apart. Through the years, I’ve been friends with and attracted to many women who were already in a relationship, and I’ve been that “friend” they could turn to in times of trouble more times than I would care to count going all the way back to high school. In today’s society, it seems like everybody is in a relationship, and I have been told that the “norm” is to be in a relationship until something better comes along. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it puts men like me who don’t want to break up couples in a rather tenuous position. I was always the guy giving advice that maybe he needs another chance, or maybe you could try this to improve your relationship, all the while wishing that she would just notice me.
But here is an even deeper situation than that. She was actually married and had three real children. And, let’s be honest here, I certainly couldn’t ask her to come back in a few days after I’ve had the chance to seek help on how to let her down gently. I was in a situation where I had to think on my feet, maintain my professional veneer, tell her that she and I could never be, and try to convince her that she needed to go back to her family.
I’ve been in a similar situation more than a few times, I guess. The reality is that I’m really not me. Students who have confessed an attraction to me don’t really know the real me. As a professor, while I try to be friendly and approachable, I also put on an act of sorts. I try to come across as decisive, confident, and intelligent. I won’t let my students see the real me, the self-doubt, the vulnerability. So, when a student is attracted to me, she (or he as has also happened) is attracted to a false image.
In this case, I listened very carefully, fully aware of how difficult it was for her to be open and honest with me. Attraction is not an easy thing to confess; I’ve done that multiple times, too, and it’s always a feeling of intense vulnerability, and very frightening. I made sure that I gave her the chance to be able to finish everything that it is that she wanted to say and was careful to listen to every word. I took just a moment to reflect on her words. I assured her that I heard what she had said and complimented her courage for coming to me and for her courage in being as open and honest as she was. I told her that I was very flattered that she felt that way to me, and tried to explain what I wrote above, that the real me is not the person she sees in class every day. And I explained that her feelings were not just between her and me, but also affected her husband and three children. I told her that any decision we made would have a profound impact on their lives, and as such, I encouraged her to return to her husband and family and seek ways to improve the marriage and family life.
I turned her away.
I guess I wouldn’t be writing about this today if it wasn’t still on my mind. Not so much if I made the correct decision or not, but more if I could have handled it better. The epilogue to the story is that I failed in my attempts to get her to return to her family. She disappeared after that semester ended. Exactly one year later, I received an email from her that read, where she told me that she left her family anyway and was living in a nunnery. “You are still the last thought on my mind every night,” she said, “and the first every morning.”
Despite my desire to do otherwise, I clearly caused her and her family great pain. It’s a burden I’ve lived with ever since.