Discover more from Hugo Schwyzer
When is Public Confrontation a Necessity and a Virtue?
It is rare that videos from medical conferences go viral. (There’s a pun in there, I suppose). Last week, one did: at the annual meeting of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in Baltimore, an angry and as-of-yet-unnamed man barged into a lecture and slapped the speaker, Dr. William Burke. In an ensuing rant, the man accused Dr. Burke of having sexually assaulted his wife seven years earlier. The husband paced and shouted and threatened until he was finally convinced to leave the room by other conference attendees.
Charges were not pressed initially, but Dr. Burke says he is considering doing so. The State University of New York at Stony Brook, where Dr. Burke teaches medicine, has opened an investigation into the man’s allegations. Twitter, meanwhile, has decided that the confronting husband is a hero.
The ACOG Slap: In a culture that protects predators, someone was bound to snap. That’s the title of an article about the incident that ran this week in Bioethics Today. We live in an age where perceived denials of justice are not just explanations for violence, but excuses for it. When a journal devoted to defending and examining ethics decides that there’s no choice but to haul off and whack an unarmed someone for what they did seven years ago, we are in strange times.
The video brings back an old memory.
I am teaching an afternoon ancient history class. We are three weeks into the semester. My lecture this day is on Homer, and I am summarizing the narrative of the Iliad. I’ve just gotten to the point where Andromache begs Hector to not go out to face Achilles. I am about to point out that this is the first time in Western literature where we see the trope of a husband ignoring his wife’s plea not to do something dangerous, and – the door opens. A young man steps halfway in and stops.
He is not a student of mine. He is not in the wrong room. He does not withdraw with a hasty apology. The door closes almost all the way, the heel of his tan Vans holding it open six inches. He fixes me with a baleful glare. I am still a young man, just 31, but this guy is a decade younger. His hair is bleached blonde, the roots showing; he has a t-shirt and green Dickies, a puka shell necklace and those Vans.
I have never seen him before. I know instantly why he is here. I know he knows at least some of what I have done.
Just 26 when I start teaching at Pasadena City College, I am confronted from the start with what seems like an inexhaustible supply of pretty girls with inexplicable crushes on me. I was an awkward nerd in high school. My twenties have been kind to my appearance, and my teaching gifts are – I suppose – real. Still, it seems like a bit of an astounding joke that I could be desirable! Talk about imposter syndrome!
I hesitate at first, and then cross the inevitable line. When nothing bad happens, I cross it again and again and again. To not let as many willing students as I can take me to bed would be to refuse this gift, I tell myself. The key is only sleeping with the ones who make it crystal clear that they want to sleep with me -- or at least, only sleeping with those who have obvious crushes on me. I try for a long time to pretend that those are always the same thing. Deep down, I suspect they aren’t.
I learn how to send signals that encourage the adventurous ones to make the first move. I like to be pursued because it is so very, very flattering. I like to be pursued because it makes it easier to justify what I am doing. I’m just a good-natured guy, happily along for the ride as a young woman lives out a clichéd but compelling college fantasy!
There is yet no rule against consensual relationships between faculty and students.
In the early summer of 1998, I have an emotional breakdown and a suicide attempt. When I get out of the hospital, I decide to try sobriety again. I take a vow of celibacy until the end of the calendar year. I promise myself I will never, ever sleep with a student again. I want to be wanted for me, not because I fit into a prototypical fantasy. I am terrified that without the allure of the classroom, no one will be interested, but it is a risk I will have to take. I don’t want the majority of my female students who have no sexual attraction to me to question my interest in their lives and their work.
While no young woman ever complained of my conduct, more than one, however, had cheated on a partner with me. On this very warm, air-conditioning-failing afternoon, I know with absolute certainty that I am face to face with one of those aggrieved and outraged boyfriends.
I suspect half the students in History 1A know it as well.
If he were going to shoot me he wouldn’t do it in front of everyone, I think. He’d get me in the parking lot.
“Can I help you?” I ask, in as neutral a tone as I can muster. I feel terror and excitement competing in me. Don’t pretend you haven’t half-expected this.
“I want to talk to you about Christine,” the young man says. “Christine Hall.” I know that name. (And yes, I’m obviously using a pseudonym.) Christine and I spent a night together early in the spring semester, long before my June epiphany; she’d taken my modern Europe and women’s history courses. She wanted to transfer to UC San Diego, and to be a therapist. Christine had had a cat, and the smell of the litter box had nearly spoiled an otherwise very pleasant evening in her bedroom.
My default with rude students is a sharp imperiousness. That would be dangerous here. I go for light-but-firm with this young man who knows Christine painfully well.
“This isn’t the time. I have office hours tomorrow morning. Come see me?”
“Come out in the hall. We need to talk now.”
“I’m sorry, I’m teaching. You will have to wait.”
Stupid, stupid, Hugo, that sounded too harsh. I look at his hands, and notice the left is half in the pocket of his cargo pants. Maybe he does have a knife.
The young man hesitates. I see it, suddenly: He didn’t know what he was going to do after he opened the door. It took everything he had to open it.
He may not know what to do, but he still doesn’t budge.
“Oh shit.” That’s sotto voce from one student, and there are a few nervous titters. In 2023, my students would be scared for themselves, but Columbine is still seven months in the future. It is a happier, safer era. The class is riveted, but not terrified. Today, they would film it. In 1998, they just watch.
I know I have wronged this boy, and I fear him, and I am humiliated by him, and I am angry at him, and I know that above all, I must solve this in real time.
If he attacks, you can’t fight back. Protect your face and wait for the students to help.
A few months earlier, we’d held the memorial service for my grandmother at the ranch she loved. Each of her four grandsons made a short speech. When it was my turn, I had said that whenever I was in a difficult situation, I thought about what my grandmother would do if she were in my position. Afterwards, several family members teased me that my grandmother would most certainly not have gotten herself into half the positions into which I’d placed myself. I’d laughed in agreement and said that nevertheless, she could and did still help.
Grandmother suggests I do what a gentleman does best: apologize. She is speaking through me.
I can’t quite look Christine’s boyfriend in the eyes. I look at the bridge of his nose. “I can imagine you’re very angry with me, and frankly, I’m angry with myself too. I know what this is about, and I do want to talk with you. I am serious about that. But I’m sorry, it cannot be now.”
I make a show of looking at my watch. “Let me wrap up this story, and I’ll let class go early. And we can go to my office. Ten minutes.”
I look back at the boy. My students look at him. His jaw works, then the shoulders sag.
“Okay,” he says. “I’ll be outside.”
“And we’ll talk,” I say, my voice so calm it seems pre-recorded.
The boy turns, goes. Thirty pairs of eyes watch the door close.
Fix this with the class. Fix it now.
One of my students looks close to tears. A couple look as if they are about to laugh. Almost everyone looks stunned.
“You guys,” I start. “Wow. That was intense, huh?”
Nods and murmurs of agreement.
“I’m sorry that happened. I have something to apologize to that young man for, and I will. But I want to finish this story.”
You may not believe me, but if you’ve read my writing, you know that I am ruthlessly hard on myself. So let the memory of my own penchant for self-deprecation buy your trust: I felt absolutely in control. Not cocky, just… calm. These words weren’t mine, which is why I felt so certain about the next right thing. Some ancestor was speaking through me.
“Profe Hugo, maybe we should all walk you to your car.”
That’s Edgar, one of my best students. Edgar has a neck tattoo. He is smart and sarcastic and asks great questions, and he knows that I know he’d be useful in a fight.
“No, I’m going to keep my word. But if you want to linger in the hallway…” I give my best grin.
The class laughs. I finish the story. Hector is killed, his body dragged six times around the walls of Troy, behind Achilles’ chariot. I explain why Achilles is no hero, but Hector is. It’s Hector’s profile we see on the helmets of USC football players, I say, and the reason they call themselves the Trojans.
“UCLA folks say it’s because ‘SC was too lazy to finish the Iliad and realize the Trojans lost.”
That line almost always works. In greater Los Angeles, we are all invested in the rivalry between the region’s flagship schools. Students love to argue, and I let the modest pandemonium rise.
“So, I guess it’s time for me to go have a talk with our friend,” I say.
I dismiss the class. My students follow me out into the hall. No angry boyfriend. I walk to my office, six or seven students trouping behind. Christine’s beau with the frosted hair isn’t there, either.
Edgar is one of those still with me, and I understand he is not leaving me alone until I am safely in my car. One woman suggests calling the campus police, but another points out that the young man never made a threat. Left unspoken is that no one needs to ask why the guy wanted to talk. They heard the tremor in his voice as he said “Christine Hall,” and they heard me say I owed him an apology. Besides, I have a deserved reputation that I will never successfully live down.
I am escorted to the parking lot. Christine’s boyfriend does not show that week, or the next. I will never see him again.
I do not share this story because I think it makes me look good. It is true that I am proud of how I handled this anguished student. (Having a theater background helps. Having good instincts helps. Having ancestors who speak through you helps. Perhaps having a couple of former gang members in class who look like they might come to your aid also helps.) I share this story because we are a people who struggle to agree on the time, place, and manner to confront someone who has injured us.
Unlike Dr. Burke, I was never struck, or even explicitly threatened with violence. Had I abused Christine, it might have been different. There is, I think, probably a difference between confronting the professor whom your girlfriend willingly cheated on you with, and confronting the professor who raped your wife. Both may summon rage, but we are more inclined to justify violence in the latter instance.
I’ve often wondered why I never saw that boy again. Perhaps he lost his nerve. Perhaps he was afraid of getting in trouble. Or – and this is what I hope – he decided he had gotten what he came for. However calm I sounded, he must have seen I was shaken to my core. More importantly, perhaps he knew that I was ashamed. Perhaps my fear and my shame -- and my public acknowledgement that he had every right to be angry -- gave him what he needed. I hope so.
There are few things more private than an illicit affair. And yet private sins have public consequences, as I know very well. Perhaps a tense public confrontation is necessary for healing. I do not know what will become of the investigation into Dr. Burke, but if he has done wrong, then I hope that this incident is the catalyst for his own transformation and his overdue amends.
I would teach for another 15 years after that incident. Every single semester, I told the story of Hector and Andromache.
Every single semester, at the pivotal moment, my eyes would go to the door.