Monday, October 22, 2012

Forty-Eight: Sentimental Education

A friend told me once that when she first went to university she was given a warning. There was a meeting for all the new girls in the residence halls where they were told about women's services available at the university, and then told all about the risks they ran at university and how to deal with them. Some of the warnings were standard enough--- depression, eating disorders, drinking, personal safety. But there was one part that my friend always remembered.

There was a long set of warnings about what to do if faculty made advances to them. The presenters were from the campus women's rights organisation, and they performed a series of skits about what to do. My friend remembered one in particular. The gist of it was that if some male faculty member gave you poetry he'd written for you and told you that you had "a great ass", then you should immediately "call the dean! call his wife!" and tell them what was going on. My friend said that she didn't know whether to laugh or jeer. She'd come from a small town in the Quebec countryside to a major university, and having a distinguished older professor find her desirable was something very much on her agenda. She was perplexed, too, at how specific the skit was. Were English and Lit faculty supposed to be so lecherous that they got special mention? What if you were a girl in the engineering program? Would an engineering professor be likely to write poetry for you? She thought, too, that the skits were too pat, too polished. Years later, she told me, she found a Tumblr where the same warning was repeated, with the same language. She wondered where the skits had originated, and whether women's groups at universities all over North America were using them every September.

She laughed, too, and told me that the best part of having been warned about that in her freshman autumn was that in actual fact, one of her instructors really did bring her poetry (though she was never quite clear whether he'd written it specifically for her or was just showing her poetry he'd already written) and made a point of telling her she had excellent legs. She loved the sheer irony of it all, and only regretted that he never took it farther than lighting her cigarette and flirting. She was, she told me, more than willing to sneak off to hotel rooms or a locked office or even his house...if only he'd asked. She told her best friend that all that was needed would've been for him to take her jaw gently in his hand and kiss her.  A fiercely intelligent older man with greying hair and a literary reputation was exactly what she'd been planning for since high school.  I could only light her cigarette and apologize that my hair hadn't yet gone grey.

My friend told me that her taste in older men was something that marked her as part of a secret tribe. There were other girls at her university who managed to have affairs with faculty, and she did envy them--- but it was all more clandestine than being gay would've been back in the Fifties. She remembered being told that no girl of her age could actually be attracted to older lovers. She was, she was told, really only falling for what they knew, for the books and ideas and lives that they represented. All she could do was stare. But, she'd say, isn't that exactly the point? To learn from a lover, to find someone who could evoke passion about the things she wanted to learn? The bedroom is the best classroom, she wrote me once: a place for opening herself to experience and knowledge, a place for shared conversations late at night. Her dream since high school had been sitting cross-legged on a older lover's bed and reading the books he'd written or having him stand behind her and kiss her bare shoulders while she scanned his bookshelves. The line is there in a letter she sent me once: trading youth and erotic energy for knowledge--- isn't that the perfect exchange?

My friend had known since high school what she wanted, and what stories she wanted to be part of. Someone else told me once that when she'd walk into a classroom and hear her professor talking about Neruda or Rilke she'd feel vaguely cheated that she wasn't getting what she called a "sentimental education", that the poetry she was studying didn't come with a seminar where one had affairs with poets. I envy her using "sentimental education" as a term. And I envy what my Quebec friend said about coming to Montreal and university, about coming there to find experience and find affairs that could open up the world to her.

My own university experience would've been different. I'm male and heterosexual, and my choice of mentors was very different.  I did spend my undergraduate years seeking a sentimental education, though. I wanted to seek out experience and worldliness, and I was in love with ideas and with being part of the stories told in novels and films. I still am, of course. I had different things to trade for it, but I'd have offered up youth and beauty if I'd had them.

I've been someone who offered up knowledge to Young Companions. You know that. Knowledge and, I hope, intellectual passion. And, yes, intellectual and physical passion went together--- a pairing that's as powerful and brilliant as anything out there. Yes--- it's an exchange, and it's one that's never anything to be ashamed of. Not for either partner.

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