It was a few years ago, halfway though my first year of teaching adult education classes, that I was talking with a friend and he asked if he ever thought it possible that I might fall in love with one of the students. We had both graduated from the same university here in Edinburgh, with Chris going on to do his PhD elsewhere before moving back up and getting a job in the faculty, while I had finished mine also and had got some work in the Office of Lifelong learning at the same institution. The two of us had quite different philosophical backgrounds (he'd graduated in mainly analytic philosophy; I taught what I'd worked on in my PhD - loosely the continental tradition). As we whiled away the remainder of the evening (as he said he really ought to be getting back to the wife but not quite making a move to return home), he asked if I had a policy of keeping the student/tutor relationship professional, and I said I supposed I did. This came in the wake of a brief discussion of the physical merits of one of his female Masters students, and that maybe he would have been tempted had she shown any interest in him. Of course he knew it would be doubly wrong to cheat on his wife and play around with a student, but it would have only been a casual dalliance; nothing that would have destroyed his marriage. He knew I didn't much approve, but he thought that maybe I should have; since I was surely more given to relativist thinking in my area of philosophy than he was in his. We never did return to that hypothetical conversation, though we would remain close friends, but maybe he didn't need to create that hypothetical scenario, because a real one eventually presented itself.
About two years ago I was visiting my sister, her husband and their kids in a small town in the Highlands of Scotland called Strathpeffer. I'd recently managed to extricate myself from a difficult relationship with someone whom I cared for very much, but her expectations and mine were finally different. She was the same age as me - twenty nine - and after being together for three years I knew she expected that we would move towards getting engaged. I made it clear that I never wanted to get married, and couldn't see myself ever wanting children, and so there begun a complicated split, a slow process that involved affairs, recriminations and tearful reunions. But for the preceding three months we hadn't even seen each other - both of us had been away for much of the summer - and so on this September visit up north I felt the refreshing sense of solitariness that made any loss secondary to the gain of being happy in my own company.
Borrowing my brother-in-law's bike I found myself cycling around the whole area, going as far south as Aviemore, east as Elgin and north as Tain. I'd taken up with me to the Highlands a small tent and a sleeping bag, and because I was ostensibly staying at my sister's place for two weeks, I thought I should occasionally give them peace and camp wild. So I would cycle the sixty miles to Aviemore, stay the night by a loch, and cycle back north the next day. Ditto with Elgin and Tain. I recall saying to myself as I would read for half an hour to the light from my torch that if this wasn't the happiest I had ever been, then maybe it was something better still - a permeating sense of well-being.
One afternoon, back at my sister's house, with the kids shouting and screaming in the garden, my sister preparing the evening dinner in the kitchen for ourselves and also several other guests, and her husband cutting wood at the side of the house, the tumult of domestic activity reminded me why I didn't want marriage and children, or even to feel like I was married with kids for as long as an afternoon, and I got on the bike and decided I would search out the monument of the area's most famous writer. I followed the Strathpeffer road to Dingwall, and about half a mile out of the town centre I read a signpost that showed it was two and a half miles to the monument; what it didn't say was that most of these two and a half miles were uphill, and that was also the one and only signpost for the site, though there were several turn-offs along the way. As I cycled up and down various roads so steep that I was often in first gear, or in twenty first gear on the way down, I began to wonder whether the monument existed, and eventually stopped three youths in school uniform who were walking along the road, going back in the direction of Strathpeffer. They were probably around seventeen, two seemed to be a couple, and the third like he could be gay. They all appeared slightly incongruous: the couple was mismatched, with the boy pimpled and greasy haired, and still very much in the process of becoming a man, while the girl was poised, not quite a woman, but stunningly on the cusp, as if aware of the beauty that awaited her, but happily enjoying the last days of being a girl. Their friend was much better looking than the other boy, but seemed even more lost in his own body: he looked like a dissatisfied Goth caught in the heterosexual, semi-religious Highlands of Scotland. In two or three years, at art college in Edinburgh or Glasgow, he would no doubt be fine, but at the moment, and unlike, the girl, there was no sense that he could anticipate that happiness.
Did I take all this information in at no more than a glance as I asked them if they knew where the writer's monument happened to be? Of course not - I offer the above as a combination of momentary observation, much reflection and also a drip-feeding of information over the next couple of years. At that moment I was covered in sweat from cycling up and down the hills, and was more interested in finding the monument than wondering about the lives of three teenagers. Certainly the girl's cuspish beauty struck me as extraordinary; but it was a beauty I never expected to know anything more about. They gave me the directions I asked for, and I arrived at the monument fifteen minutes later, taking in the broad sweep view that allowed me to see Dingwall to the left and Strathpeffer to the right. Who would have thought that one of the moments where I felt a particularly strong feeling of equilibrium had been preceded by a brief meeting that would play with that sense of calm a couple of years later.
I got back to the cottage at about six thirty, took a long bath and read until the water became tepid. I quickly dressed as I heard the voices of strangers downstairs and assumed the guests had arrived. I craned my head round the banister at the top of the stairs, and saw the overhead elevation of a man who looked around forty five judging by his thinning hair and a slightly protruding stomach.
Over dinner I found out that he was the father of the very girl who only a couple of hours before I had assumed I would not only never see again, but would never hear another word about either. How did I find out? There were seven of us around the dinner table, and the man with the thinning hair and protruding stomach whose name was George, said, after my sister mentioned I had been up at the Neil Gunn monument, that I must have been the cyclist Annie saw earlier. His wife, Barbara, added that when Annie arrived home she mentioned this mad guy who was cycling up and down the hills looking for a writer's monument, and I wondered whether 'Annie' had used an indefinite or definite article towards describing the writer. After all, Neil Gunn was hardly a writer, he was the writer of the region. Her father said they lived in a village up the hill looking over Strathpeffer and believed it was hard enough to get the car up there sometimes, let alone doing it with a bike. He went on to add that I at least had the advantage of being a young man. It was true as I looked around the dinner table at my older sister, who was thirty six, her husband who was the same age, and the four guests, all of whom must have been between about thirty five and fifty, that I was the youngster of the group, but how young did I really look?
This concern with aging first really preoccupied me about five years ago, the year before I started teaching the philosophy courses in lifelong learning. I started to notice that many friends who had left with degrees and gone into employment were beginning to age: a little spread around the stomach, a few grey hairs, a general air of sinking into their bodies. At the same time they were getting proper jobs and proper mortgages, proper girlfriends and wives and earning proper money, I was finishing my PhD, loosely on the subject of the philosophy of youth versus the philosophy of maturity, between young energy and aging wisdom. At first it was a subject that interested me but at one remove: it engaged me greatly but I never felt implicated in it, never thought I was part of the debate and so felt comfortably removed from it. Yet in the final year working on my thesis I realized that I was very interested in appropriate ethical behaviour, and this wasn't transcendentally moral - a general notion of appropriateness - but quite socio-specific. What sort of situations demand what type of behaviour, and at what age can you get away with something, that at a later age you cannot? For example a child can run along a street but can an adult? Perhaps if they are trying to catch a bus, but even here this will seem less an example of adult energy than adult stress: somebody in a hurry, and whose time management skills are a bit lacking. What I would often do was sit in cafes or just walk through the streets and observe behaviour and try to understand its appropriateness. Most behaviour was appropriate even if apparently inappropriate - for example young men from the outlying housing estates would often throw their rubbish on the ground instead of looking for a bin, but it seemed consistent with a group ethos that said, I surmised, that if they were the city's unemployed and socially shunted detritus, then why not add to that sense of rubbish by casually throwing their own wherever they liked? Whatever we can say about this 'behaviour', it wasn't mad - it wasn't especially singular or even without reason, and perhaps my 'mad' cycling up and down steep hills would seem more so.
But perhaps it was out of this notion of appropriate behaviour that I offered my ide fixe to Chris that evening over drinks. I had probably always thought that a student/teacher relationship was somehow unacceptable, but it was only because of my work in the PhD, and that I had recently started teaching where I analysed it so 'precisely'. The idea, I had told Chris that night, was that emotional relationships are rarely un-blighted by inequalities, but nevertheless some relationships were more unequal than others because of the discrepancy at the very beginning of the affair. As I said to Chris that evening: when we see a couple together we assume a general appropriateness, and if we don't immediately see it we project onto it. If the woman is beautiful and the man ugly we might assume higher social status to the man; if there is a height differential with the woman much taller than the man, we may wonder whether he has a mother fixation, or some other neurosis. One of the problems with teaching from the seductive viewpoint, I found myself thinking after teaching that first semester, was that inevitably I was in a position to express myself and be listened to by a fairly captive audience, where the student apart from the odd comment to me, and the occasional glance as I scanned the room, served a relatively anonymous function. I think one of the issues Chris raised when he said one day I might fall in love with a student was what happened if the glance on my part wasn't just occasional, and the expression somehow tempered by embarrassment and confusion.
So, in time, Chris had his example. I didn't see Annie once between that day where I stopped to ask for directions, and the moment she walked into my classroom. On a couple of occasions over the intervening years when I was around at my sister's, my sister invited her parents over, but never Annie. But why should they - because I wanted to know how beautiful their daughter had become? They did however very occasionally drop her name into the conversation, and once, about a year ago, they said that she had got into Edinburgh, to do English, and that she would be starting in a few months' time. Supposedly the last couple of years she had been travelling and teaching English, putting off doing her degree for as long as possible.
Not only was I intrigued whether I would see her in Edinburgh, I was also interested in what her parents had said: that she was in no hurry to study. It seemed to chime with my own attitude to education, when at eighteen I would just sit at home and write stories and essays, believing I had no need of a formal education. I'm not sure if I still didn't feel that way even as I went off and got a degree, and also the PhD. But the qualifications never quite impacted on my suspicion of formal education, and one of the reasons I decided to teach in Lifelong Learning rather than at the university proper, was so that I didn't have mandatory grading of the students' work and to mark essays - none of the courses I taught were offered for credit: none were courses where there would be marking and grading. Thus if I would hear of anyone who was suspicious, sceptical or even disdainful of academic study I usually found myself in sympathy with them.
Was it because of an equal disdain for formal education that not long after Annie started her degree she also signed up for one of my non-credit courses? Of that I didn't know when she first walked into my philosophy and emotion class in January this year, only several months after she started her own degree. What I did know wasn't just that I immediately recognized her, nor that she was one of the youngest people in the class, but that she possessed the rare capacity of illuminating a space. Over the previous two years of teaching I'd had other very attractive students, but usually the beauty was specific - it was in the eyes, in the skin, in the hair, in the walk, in the figure.
Annie's was curiously encompassing: it really did light up the room; it gave it an extra charge. She gave no sign in that first week that she recognized me - though I suspect I had changed less than she had; no matter if whatever change had taken place in her made her more beautiful; in me older and not necessarily any the wiser, though the few grey hairs at least symbolised its possibility. As I asked the students to offer their names and to say why they had chosen to do the course, I realised my voice was slightly short of breath, as though I'd ran a few times round the campus before settling in my seat. It was actually why I had asked them merely to state their name and to say what had drawn them to the class: I felt my voice might have sounded a little tight. Usually I would also add a more specific question that led us from the pleasantries to the content of the course. In the philosophy and emotion classes I asked them if they could think of a film, book, or art work that had a particularly strong effect on them. If someone said a film like Three Colours: Blue, a painting like Van Gogh's The Olive Trees, a book such as Great Expectations, we worked with the sort of emotions extracted, with them saying a little and me usually saying a good deal more. But as I tried to catch the breath I'd never previously lost in the years in which I'd taught, I wanted the students temporarily to do all the talking.
I got my breath back sufficiently by the time I had gone round the sixteen students, but almost lost it again when Annie, about the eighth student asked, offered her name, and said that she was interested in a course that might take the emotions seriously, and not simply as a by-product of analytic reasoning. It was the sort of remark that demanded a comment back by me, but I instead looked at her friend with an encouraging look, and asked her to tell us all her name and why she wanted to do the course.
Throughout the rest of that first evening, I managed to breathe evenly and address the questions the students asked with competence, but I found myself avoiding Annie's gaze, and looking too conspicuously at one or two other students in the process of avoiding it. The classroom space for the first time in more than two years of teaching no longer belonged to me, and I wondered how I was to regain control of the classroom by regaining control of my own nervous system.
It would have been a couple of months after this that I saw Chris again - he had been teaching on Sabbatical in the States - and as we chatted I of course brought up his fulfilled prophecy. I said that in a couple of days' time the course would be finishing, and I explained to him what happened in that first week, and added that all through the following one I wondered how I was going to handle a class in which one of the students was clearly taking up much of my attention, however much I tried not to look at her. What I decided to do at the beginning of the following week's class was to suggest that we all go for drinks after it. This wasn't especially unusual; however, I would usually do so only after five or six classes - never on week two. As it so happened most of the students couldn't make it at such short notice, and that left just Annie, her friend, and one other student who had actually made my life easier than it might have been in those first two weeks - he was a cinephile who would keep linking the philosophical ideas back to certain films he'd seen. I realized that I couldn't focus my mind as ably as usual, and so it proved quite useful to have somebody in the class who clearly could - no matter if he took the class off in tangents. Anyway, so the three of them came to the caf bar with me and we didn't talk for very long - the cinephile had a bus to catch, Annie's friend a boyfriend to meet, and so as they got up Annie and I did also. They went off in their respective directions and I asked Annie which direction she was going in. She suggested whichever one I liked, with a smile that was both winning and suggestive, an ambivalence of age or intent I wasn't quite sure. It seemed to me a smile caught between youthful exuberance and adult assuredness.
As we went back into the very caf we had just come out of, and ordered two decaf coffees moments before they turned the machines off (cold drinks only after ten thirty) I said that I thought I knew who she was. She replied that she remembered who I was as well - the mad cyclist as she had nicknamed me two years before when she told her parents that she'd passed someone going up the hill. The following day, she said, her parents had told her they had dinner with the mad cyclist, and intermittently she would hear news about this maniac whenever I had been staying at my sister's and they had come to dinner.
I asked her how old she had been when I first saw her - and she replied that she had been eighteen, that she was twenty now, and that she'd spent the last year teaching abroad. She asked me how old I was then, and I said I was twenty nine. There were many other things that I wanted to say to her, but very occasionally there are people with whom conversation doesn't quite come unless the spatial circumstances are right. With Chris and a number of other friends cafs had always been comfortable; yet with others we could only really talk whilst walking. With Annie it seemed to require something more intimate still - not something so vulgarly obvious as a bed, perhaps, but at least the intimate space of her flat or mine. She suggested we go back to hers - she shared the flat with another girl, but it was the flat she owned: her parents' investment in their future and also her own. I felt much more comfortable with the idea of going to hers over mine, because while I knew I wanted intimacy; that didn't quite equate with the need for sex.
As I told Chris this as he looked at me quizzically yet not quite cynically, as if he knew me well enough to know that sex wasn't one of my strongest desires except when I was in a sexual situation. He paraphrased a passage from Lawrence's Lady Jane and John Thomas, where Lawrence talks about the gardener's sense of solitude, that he couldn't be having it with all this self-pleasing sex. Chris admitted he never understood that side of Lawrence; he suspected I did. I knew he had cheated on his wife a couple of times, before, and wouldn't have been surprised if he had done so again whilst in the States. Self-pleasing sex he had always liked.
Her flat was in disarray, with the kitchen and the sitting room still in a state of semi-renovation, so we went into her bedroom, which was bigger than my own sitting room, with a settee, an armchair, a desk, a couple of shelves for books, a wardrobe and a large double bed. She put the kettle on that she had in her room, and then sat on the sofa as I sat on the nearby chair. I asked her why she was doing the course, and she said it was a combination of an interest in philosophy (it was her core subject) and intrigue over the tutor: she wondered what the mad cyclist was like as a teacher: her parents had of course said that I had taught some courses at the university.
Much of what I taught was improvised - I would have clips that could cover general points, but the specifics came out of the situation, and I would drive it to where I wanted it to go, but not especially pre-meditatively. As I was sitting in Annie's bedroom I wondered whether I was trying to do the same here. One reason why I wasn't especially keen to jump into bed with Annie wasn't only because I was maybe Lawrentian in my disdain for casual sex, but also because I hadn't yet quite worked out my interest in Annie. Of course I found her beautiful; and I also found her interesting - if she didn't always know to express her thoughts in a distinctive way, she knew pretty quickly when a thought was tired, just as I'm sure she knew the situation that we were in was also something of a clich - the tutor more than ten years older than his student, and perhaps trying to get her into bed.
I tried to say to Chris that evening, in the caf, I genuinely didn't know what to with do Annie. It wasn't even as if I was afraid my fixed idea would be broken - in many ways I felt it already had been when Annie walked into the class and I found my breathing quicken. No, I needed I suppose to think through the micro-structure that I myself had got into, and how I could work it through in such a manner so that I could be respectful in my own fixed idea, to the codes of teaching practise and, most importantly, I believe, in comprehending my own desires.
I said that Annie and I talked through till three in the morning, and said that as she stifled a yawn I took it as an opportunity to leave. I had decided earlier in the evening that I would not make a pass at Annie that night, and left in such a way that while I obviously wasn't rejecting her, I wasn't 'offering myself' to her either. Earlier Annie and I had talked about teaching ethics, and I mentioned them to her less to reject her or to defend my moral position, more as a way in which I could defer an undeniable desire whilst at the same time not rejecting the possibility of some fling, affair or relationship later on. Did Annie think the same, Chris asked. That I couldn't really yet answer, I replied, except to say that we had met up several times since, after the class with other students, and had both talked without, it seems, expectation. Maybe that had been put off until after the course; but all I did know was that I managed to teach it with a sense of equanimity and with a look that could pass round the room without avoiding eye contact with anybody in the class, and that I could speak without feeling a vague and slight shortening of breathe. Had I achieved a combination of ethics and physiology I mused, looking perhaps a little too smugly at Chris?
He looked back no less smugly and said I would have to wait and see what would happen after the final class as he also wondered whether she might eventually turn up in one of his. My smile faded as a feeling of jealousy came over me, and almost at the same time a thought concerning the evening in her flat occurred to me. As we sat talking I told her what her parents had said about Annie and her friends seeing me going up the hill, and whether she had used the definite or indefinite article concerning the writer's monument. 'The definite article', she had replied, as if announcing that she happened to be also. I might have been able to retain control of my thoughts and feelings in the classroom, but not always beyond, and never more so than when Chris looked forward to the possibility of seeing her in his. Chris was after all closer to the definite article than I happened to be, if we take into account his superior professional status. However I think I felt more than a slight distaste at having talked so much to Chris about her, as if demeaning still further how indefinite an article I felt at that moment as I thought briefly of her parents, halfway between her age and mine, and wondered what sort of article they thought I might be. My thoughts drifted further back again; to the various occasions I had met them at my sister's place, unaware that perhaps I was meeting the parents of a girlfriend before the event instead of after it, and this thought made the possibility of going out with Annie not only potentially unethical, but also strangely absurd too.
© Tony McKibbin