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Promising Young Man: What I Fear is the Real Reason I Got my Teaching Job
April 4, 1994. 9:30PM.
As I dismiss my students at the end of my Monday night class, Maggie steps into the room, a grin on her face.
I am a first-year adjunct instructor at Pasadena City College. I am 26 years old. Maggie is an administrator in her mid-50s. I teach two night classes a week at PCC, and Maggie sometimes stops in just to see how I’m getting along.
She’s taken me to coffee before class twice, and dinner once. Maggie gives lots of advice, sharing stories about her 30-year classroom career. Maggie is divorced. Her one son is in grad school. She’s the closest thing I have to a mentor.
A few students wait by the door; part of a small group that walks me to my car every Monday night. Maggie glances at them, then leans close to me.
“I have the questions for Friday. If you tell anyone I told you, I’ll deny it.” She locks her pale blue eyes onto mine. I nod.
Maggie recites, rapidly and clearly, four questions. She repeats them each once. “Got it?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say; my face is flushing. “Thank you so much.”
Maggie’s eyes sparkle. She touches the sleeve of my blazer. “We’ve got this,” she says, then looks at the group of young women standing by the door. “Go easy on your groupies,” she snorts — and strides away, her heels clicking on the marble floors.
Four days from now, I have an interview for a full-time, tenure track teaching position. Maggie is chair of the hiring committee. She’s already told me that the college got 85 applications, and they’ve narrowed it down to 10 finalists for interviews. I’m one of the few without a PhD (I won’t finish that until 1999), and almost certainly the youngest and least experienced of the candidates.
I have three things working for me. One, I have my ability to put on a good show, the result of years of drama classes. Two, I have some good student evaluations from the previous fall, my first semester ever of college teaching.
Three, I have Maggie, who carries tremendous clout in the college. Maggie happened to walk by the class while I was giving one of my very first lectures, and she stopped to listen. A few days later, she stopped me in the hallway to rave about what she’d heard, and to say she hoped I’d apply for the full-time position about to open. I was flattered and thrilled — I didn’t know that a tenure-track job was even possible, given my age and lack of experience. Maggie’s confidence in me throws open a door I was sure would stay shut for years.
“She wants to fuck you,” Max says one day as we sit together in the faculty lounge. Max is also an adjunct, a sociologist in his 40s, and astonishingly foul-mouthed. Every week Max asks me how many students I’m banging. When I tell him none, which at this point is the truth, Max is scornful. “You’re not gonna be young forever,” he says. “I see how the girls look at you. You’re a fool if you don’t get some sweet tail while it’s easy.”
I tell Max that my father made that mistake, and I will not repeat it. I sound very sure of myself. Inside, I am already keenly aware that it is only a matter of time before I pretend that I am powerless in the face of temptation.
I think Maggie might be attracted to me. I’m not certain, because I’m not nearly as good at reading older women as I am at reading younger ones. Could she really be sexually drawn to me? She’s only a year or two younger than my mother. It seems implausible, but maybe that’s because I don’t want to believe it.
She’s just trying to help, I tell myself. She knows I have the makings of a great teacher; she’s doing this for the college as much as for me. Maybe someone helped her out when she was young, and she’s paying it back. Whatever it is, I would so much rather be helped because I’m promising than because of sexual interest.
(It will be many years before I start to wonder whether the very notion of being “promising” is entirely wrapped in race and class privilege. When I grasp that appalling truth nugget, I will have still another reason to doubt the validity of any of my achievements.)
Friday, April 8, 1994.
I put on my one suit, and let my girlfriend tie the tie she’s bought me for good luck. I drive to campus, rehearsing answers to questions I have no right to know.
I turn on the radio to distract myself, and hear that Kurt Cobain has been found dead. I’m not a fan, but it seems a bad omen; the doomed Nirvana singer is just my age. I turn the radio off, smoke a Marlboro Red, rinse my mouth with Diet Coke.
I bounce into the interview room, a “hail fellow, well met” expression on both my face and in my firm handshake. There are six people on the committee — three faculty, three administrators.
Maggie is in charge.
I stand to give a short teaching demonstration (on the causes of the French Revolution), then sit for the interview. I am sweating, flushed. I need to pee desperately. I do not look at Maggie, but move my gaze around the table to each of the other five, making eye contact with the feigned certainty that comes all too naturally. They smile, and the questions begin.
The questions are as Maggie said they would be, in the exact order. I’m scared for a moment my mind will go blank, but it doesn’t. The words come, just as I want them to, as if I’m not even speaking but rather channeling someone else, someone more confident, more experienced, and more gently self-deprecating.
Everyone looks at me. Except for Maggie, who stares at her lap. I’m fucking it all up, I think, and panic rises — but then another question, and another, and that strange, self-assured Hugo-who-isn’t-Hugo answers and answers. Goddamn, I’m a cocky SOB, I think to myself.
The interview is over. I rise, and Maggie — in her capacity as chair — rises too, to walk me to the door. She makes eye contact for the first time all day, grips my hand tightly. Her palm is as hot and wet as mine. “We’ll be in touch,” she says.
Five days later, the VP of Human Resources calls to offer me the job. I call my girlfriend first, my mother second, and Maggie third. Maggie laughs with pleasure when she hears my voice; “We picked you that afternoon,” she reports; “it was torture not being able to call you until HR finished their paperwork.” She hesitates. “I had to push some people to get past your age and a few other things, but they came around.”
I thank her profusely.
“You’re worth taking a risk for,” she says. “Now go make me proud.”
I promise her I won’t let her down.
It will be years — long after Maggie takes early retirement — before I fully understand how badly Maggie’s “help” had hurt my own confidence. Her pep talks meant the world, but feeding me the questions was either a sign that she didn’t believe I could get the job on my own, or that she wanted to see herself as the partial author of my success. Either way, my accomplishment was diminished.
Maggie was not responsible for my decision to take Max up on his suggestion. Given my history and given my nature, the chances are good I’d have slept with my students sooner or later, regardless of the circumstances of my hiring.
Yet in my mind, I was in some sense illegitimately a faculty member, the beneficiary of illicit and unmerited intervention. To the degree that I was astonishingly reckless in my personal conduct throughout most of my teaching career, it was partly tied to this sense of myself as a talented — but ultimately undeserving — spoiled prince.
I have a short-lived affair with a student named Claire. Claire is 32 and I am 29; she had dropped out of college when she was 19, worked as a waitress, and raised a daughter before deciding she was hungry to learn. Claire is a marvelous student; she will go on to Occidental College, then law school, and then a thriving career in intellectual property litigation.
(Claire is the first and only woman I’ve ever slept with who is more than nine months my senior. I have a lifelong pattern, and she is the one exception.)
Before Claire transfers from PCC, I write her a glowing recommendation, and give her a copy. She reads it and smiles, and then her face falls. “I wish I could believe all this was true,” she says.
I tell her that of course it was; our sexual relationship had nothing to do with my admiration for her intellectual abilities.
“That’s so easy for you to say. You probably even believe it. But you have to understand why I can’t trust your praise.”
Claire is angry, partly at herself, more so at me.
I nod, apologize, and think of Maggie, who is still my supervisor. “I understand,” I tell Claire.
Claire shakes her head. She wants to believe me. She can’t. But I do understand, really and truly, all too well.
All names and identifying information have been changed, and the real Maggie is no longer alive.