Key High School scandal merits more than a leer

May 27, 2001|By Michael Olesker

AMONG MY gender, it's been a big week for retroactive sexual strutting.

We hear the news out of Francis Scott Key High School, in little Union Bridge, in Carroll County, and wonder what they're putting in the drinking water out there.

Two young female teachers are caught having sexual relations with groups of male students. In public discourse, the male students are called "victims." The female teachers are called names we do not like to print in family newspapers. A front-page newspaper headline declares one teacher "accused of intimacy," a phrase lush with irony.

Those of my gender, recalling our sex glands making their long-ago social debut, recalling adolescent combat in the erogenous zone, recalling those parched days and nights in the sexual Sahara of our youth, offer each other playful little pokes in the ribs and inquire: "Is this a bad thing?"

"Who are they calling `victims'?" we ask each other when we think no females are lurking nearby. We assure each other that, in our own high school era, we would have killed for teachers like that. Or killed for any females like that, such do we recall the constancy of our longings.

The women see what is going on, and grant us our little boys-will-be-boys moment, and then poke their heads into our conversations to offer cautionary overtures: "Wait, you don't understand, there's more at stake here than hormones on a harmless little toot."

Twice in four days, young female teachers at the same school are arrested on sexual charges. State police, shaking their heads, declare this "pure coincidence," that the women did not know each other and did not know each other's sexual activities.

The gentlemanly, white-haired Carroll County schools superintendent, Charles I. Ecker, calls the two stories "shocking." Ecker has been around. He grew up on farms, became Howard County executive, ran for governor, took over Carroll County's schools imagining a graceful autumn for a distinguished career. His face is now a scribble of sadness and confusion. Our manly little pokes in the ribs begin to feel foolish and inappropriate.

One of the teachers is 21 years old, barely out of adolescence herself. She is a student-teacher finishing her studies at Western Maryland College. She is accused of inviting seven boys to her mother's Westminster home for a party several weeks ago. There was alcohol and sex.

The other teacher is 24 years old, a cheerleading coach. She is accused of inviting eight boys to her home, where they had sexual relations.

In both cases, the boys were in the middle teens, not much younger than the teachers. Among the legal charges against the women: child sexual abuse.

And here is where we begin to parse the language a little more carefully.

There is, in fact, more at stake here than hormones on a rampage, or young people not so distant in age doing what feels like fun. In the social contract, teachers are supposed to stand for something. They are not only authority figures, and parental figures, but figures of protection. They are supposed to offer standards of living to those around them.

We hand over our children to them each morning, imagining they will be safe from the world's coarser temptations. The teachers will guide them safely. It is what they do.

Thus, in our hearts, we are stunned not only by reports of the stripping away of clothing, but the stripping away of previous assurance: These people can be trusted. That was always a given. And, even if we imagine ourselves pretty sophisticated folks, there is something undeniably wrong at the core: Teachers know better than to drink and have sex with their students.

This is true, it is undeniable, and yet ...

These boys were 15 to 18 years old. Somewhere along the way, they must have realized: Students are not supposed to have parties with their teachers. They aren't supposed to drink with their teachers. They aren't supposed to have sex with them. They have responsibilities too.

If they were victims, they seem to have been pretty willing victims. If we blame their teachers, then surely some of the blame belongs to the boys. Yes, they are young. Yes, their sexual glands are making their grand debuts.

But this is the beginning of adult distinction: what feels good vs. what feels right. They are the future version of their masculine elders, deciding whether to poke each other in the ribs, and do their little post-coital strut for their buddies, and playfully ask: "Was that wrong?"

Or to understand: Sex involves responsibility, and trust, and when we use "intimacy" in a newspaper headline, it is supposed to stand for something more than irony.

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