Sunday, 21 September 2008

Pootergeek's* Bane

A letter in yesterday's Guardian Magazine:

Bill Vellutini, Nigella Lawson's English teacher, considered her "very attractive" at school. This is wildly inappropriate, at best.

I note the words 'wildly' and 'inappropriate' and 'at best'. Golly, I thought in my prime Boris Johnson mode, what would it take to be a little worse than 'at best'?

I seriously wonder what she, the writer of the letter, considers so inappropriate about noticing this, even wildly so. At best.

Is it that Lawson was younger than Vellutini was? I'm not sure what Nigella Lawson looked like when he taught her English, but it is not impossible, given her current appearance, that she might have been attractive at the time she was doing her A levels too.

Is it that he was a teacher and that therefore he was under obligation not to notice?

And if he did notice that she was 'very attractive', is it that he should not have said and should not ever say? (Perhaps he didn't say then, not even in private, not to anyone, we cannot know.)

Is it that he says so now? His language seems to be restrained, even neutral. I detect no significant drool factor in it.

Is she claiming ("wildly") that the fact that he notices that she was 'very attractive' between the ages of sixteen and eighteen is a projection of his filthy, wolfish, lust on the innocent blank-slate Nigella? That he is practically a paedophile?


Over the years I have taught a great many very attractive girls, both in school and in higher education. Against all the odds attractive girls seem to appear in life. It now seems to me that a great many of my female students were and continue to be very attractive. No doubt I will continue to teach attractive students. Some of them might even have thought me attractive one time or another. The issue is not that one notices but what one does.

Now this is the great trick the letter writer misses: the trick is not to do anything about it. It takes a little practice. One gets used to it. It is not altogether unpleasant. You have your responsibility as a teacher, they have theirs as students. That's your contract.

It is not part of your contract that you should develop cataracts, that you should cut out your eyes and tongue, that you should cauterize your senses and parts of your brain. If these things should be required they should be written into the contract from the start.

Ah, the letter writer might argue, but this is the invisible contract. The implied contract.

Apart from noting with Groucho Marx that an unwritten contract is not worth the paper it's written on, I might suggest that the true invisible and civilised social contract is that we do notice each other's appearance. In ordinary life paying a little formal attention to such things may even be perfectly proper. The true invisible contract is to be alert enough to know what the other party might like us to notice or not notice in direct communication. Because there is indirect communication too of all sorts. No literature without it. No human life either.

As to teaching, we have cautionary examples. Paolo and Francesca in Dante show what comes of reading together. Abelard and Heloise shows us the dire results of transgressive pedagogy:

Wishing to become acquainted with Heloise, Abelard persuaded Fulbert to allow him to teach Heloise. Using the pretext that his own house was a "handicap" to his studies, Abelard further moved in to the house of Heloise and her uncle. She was supposedly a great beauty, one of the most well-educated women of her time; so, perhaps it's not surprising that Abelard and she became lovers. Also, she was more than 20 years younger than Abelard... And, of course, Fulbert discovered their love, as Abelard would later write: "Oh, how great was the uncle's grief when he learned the truth, and how bitter was the sorrow of the lovers when we were forced to part!"

And we know how that ends. One becomes a nun, the other is castrated.

Ah! Now I see what the letter writing is driving at! That must be the solution!

I am assuming Mr Vellutini did not venture beyond a very post facto use of the term "very attractive". Maybe the letter writer is not so much wanting to castrate him - not entirely, only a little, only mentally - as to accuse him of being a cad. At any rate, I hope so.

* See sidebar for Pootergeek. Nigella is occasionally conjured there.


Andrew Shields said...

For me, the trick was to learn to understand that the teacher-student relationship can be highly charged, but that the charge in such a relationship can be realized differently than the charge of romance.

Further, it OUGHT to be realized differently, both because of the various contracts you discuss and because the payoff of the "pedagogical" charge is so great. Not only because it can last longer than the "romantic" charge can, but because you can have a whole bunch of such relationships and not be considered polygamous or adulterous! :-)

George S said...

I have known some - indeed know some - who have married their students and lived happily ever after till now at least.

Yes, the pay-off.

It is the nature of lines to be, on the whole, thin. The trick is to see them even on a foggy night. That's the bit that comes with practice, I think.

Shuggy said...

the trick is not to do anything about it.

This is the money quote. How can anyone not understand this? The trick is to understand that your senior pupils - whom nature decrees you may occasionally find attractive, as you say - fancy you not despite you're their teacher but because of it. Anyone who doesn't get this is too stupid to be a teacher; anyone who does get it but doesn't care is too bad to be a teacher - end of story. I suspect it's the former who make up the bulk of the pupil-shagging fraternity.

George S said...

Ah well, stupidity. Never rule out stupidity. Stupid Cupid. Didn't the kid wear a blindfold?

People may not start out stupid. Stupidity can suddenly overtake them. They go round in a stupor.

It's the context that makes it dangerous stupidity. Romance is generally more dangerous than lust, I suspect. Lust has channels. Romance is fixed on its target.

In the meantime there's always legislation, paranoia and hatred. And, on the other side, what they used to call cupidity as combined with romance.

And of course there is sense and responsibility.