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P.O.V: Teachers' Pets

Point Of View with Barbara Sumner Burstyn

Teachers' Pets

There's a special place, somewhere between martyrdom and pariahdom we reserve for people who scratch the veneer of our sexual self-deception. And Amy Gehring is going there.

After a recent sensational 11-day trial in England, Amy Gehring, a 26-year-old Canadian supply teacher was acquitted of indecently assaulting two brothers, aged 14 and 15, at a school on the outskirts of London where she worked as a teacher. While denying the charges of outright sex, Gehring did admit to joining the boys in a drunken sleep-over and to bunking down with another 16-year-old, who refused to complain to police.

Despite the acquittals and the presumption of, if not innocence then mitigating factors (i.e. the boys loved it) Ms Gehring has had her teaching license revoked in her home province of Ontario. The Ontario College of Teachers went so far as to fast track her suspension, even though she was still in England, effectively denying her a chance to defend herself "out of concern for student safety."

But putting aside the obvious fact that a teacher involving herself in the social life of students on any level is a violation of duty, perhaps her instant boost to pariahdom has more to do with the warped way we view sexuality than with any real impropriety.

I blame Britney Spears. Wearing her virginity as if it was a Burkah and she were naked underneath, Spears and her particular brand of sanitised hypersexuality is affecting us all. She's got teenage boys so ramped up and confused they haven't a clue where to draw the line between their wet dreams the real world. And for females - from 40-year-old mothers with the belly rings and exposed over-tanned midriffs to six year olds in frilly bra tops and low cut trousers - she's spread the message of a one-size fits all, distinction free, sterilised sexuality. It's no wonder a naive 26-year-old teacher, who described one of her young lovers as "really sweet and kind" couldn't foresee the potential consequences of her actions or even make a simple judgement call as she played out her fantasy of the sexy older woman and the boys landed the best testosterone fuelled sleep-over of their short lives.

Concomitant to this and pertinent to the extreme reactions Ms Gehring's sleepovers have generated is the durable but misguided notion that males and females have no differences. To suggest otherwise, to even think that the boys might have encouraged and enjoyed their teachers extra-circular activities was according to the Equity Co-ordinator for the Toronto District School Board "hate teaching.”

What politically correct, distinction-free planet has she been hiding on? Of course the boys enjoyed it. In an earlier time, when equality was not the predominant currency, society understood this. We had coming of age ceremonies and rituals to mark that surge in testosterone, we understood it as a natural part of maturation, and in some societies fathers acknowledged it by taking their sons to their mistresses. While no one suggests we return to that practice such rituals did serve a valid function, providing a framework of behaviour, responsibility and expectation that eased boys into adulthood.

But today our rites of passage are as ambiguous as the messages we give our children. We saturate them in violent and highly sexualised popular culture. We expect them to behave increasingly as though they were a special class of adult, with all the technology accoutrements - cell phones and pagers and laptops - of grown-ups, but completely free of the responsibilities of adulthood. And we increasingly present to them, adults who dress and act as if they were teenagers, all the while omitting that fact that we are all adrift in a sea of moral ambiguity.

Until the truth hits, until the Amy Gehrings' of the world act out the fantasies we've condoned by either ignoring or misreading the signposts of dysfunction in our society, until the moment we realise that sex is not a game played by Britney look-alikes, but by real people who get hurt. But instead of using the situation to gain a little insight into where society's heading, we grab the first martyr we can lay our hands on and throw her on the stand and forget that she is no more than bit player in a much wider show.

But perhaps there is a positive spin to this and every other similar situation. Ms Gehring, her students and everyone touched by this sorry saga may begin to realise that a consequence-free world is a Disney construct. And it's probably the best lesson Ms Gehring and her pupils will ever have. Like they say: there are teachers, and then there are educators.


© Barbara Sumner Burstyn

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