The first time is hard to remember. Not because I ever forgot it. But it exists for me only in patches of sound and smell, flashbulbs in the darkness, disjunct pictures burned into a mind shut tight.
The chilly guest room air on my face, the oppressive heat of the electric blanket covering the rest of me. The house’s odor of bread and pipe tobacco. The weight on the edge of the bed that wakes me.
It’s a cold night, he says, if I warm you up you can get to sleep.
My limbs will not obey my mind. My racing, frozen mind.
Shh. It’s all right. The Jamisons on his breath.
This house, where my family gathers on Sundays and holidays. His wife asleep in the next room. The rose bushes I watched him prune with care in the warm afternoon.
My parents are coming to get me tomorrow. I cannot figure out what I did wrong.
It’s all right. I’m teaching you. Don’t you want me to teach you?
It’s impossible to know when the lessons actually begin. But we are ready to learn them.
How to smile in acquiescence, to signal cooperation, as mitigation. How to smile in demand, as punishment, for humiliation. Who gets the chance to insist, and who has the task to fulfill. Expectations of dress and stance and lilt of language that can make or break us, the hundred thousand unwritten, inexplicable, and unbreakable laws of a culture.
As a kid, I was in love with the same epic quests my friends worshipped, Our heros were Dorothy and Frodo, with their thick forests and beasts to be slain and steadfast friends, their swords and gold and poppies and mystic songs. Even as a child, I imagined that I understood what I was learning. It didn’t occur to me that Dorothy’s adventure was an accident while Frodo’s was his brave birthright.
All I knew was that I was in love with the Emerald City, the idea of the wide world. But when the tornado sirens sounded in my shire, I headed straight to the basement.
For me, epic stories led to songs, which led to a career in opera — knights in shining armor, damsels in distress! — but it all might just as well have led somewhere else.
Any serious student joins a long tradition of learning, which is a kind of story, specialized knowledge and its complex contexts handed down by people of experience and talent (hopefully greater than the student’s). I’ve lived this journey as a musician, but I’ve watched it happen for friends pursuing the songs of medicine, law, tech, philosophy, poetry, religion.
To study seriously with a mentor is to have your boundaries threatened, to take the wild step of trusting someone else with ideas that might be different than yours and that you might not understand at first. Even the most brilliant person cannot see themselves with total clarity, and none of us are 100 percent aware of how we sound, how we come across, or what we need to learn or improve, where we’re lazy or reckless. A mentor guides, criticizes, praises, and holds our feet to the fire. Sometimes we kick back, sometimes we submit. Different reactions are helpful in different ways at different times. Great teachers know this.
Even great teachers are immensely challenged by the fragility of this relationship, of the enormous responsibility of caring in an ethical and respectful way for this degree of openness.
Not all teachers are great.
The second time was three days after a Tuesday night with one of my girlfriends in high school. We sat at her house and drank Diet Coke and ate Kraft mac and cheese and she cried and told me about the things her boyfriend said to her, things nobody should have to hear. You should dump him, I told her. He doesn’t deserve you.
I felt smart and grownup. Damsel in distress, friend in shining armor.
On Friday, after the choir concert, a huge group of us seniors went and had pizza, and then there were rides home offered by people with cars. He was one, and he lived in my neighborhood. I got in the car, and sat in silence as he dropped four other friends off first, bypassing my house to do so.
When the last friend got out, he turned to me in the back seat: “Hey, don’t make me a taxi driver, come sit up front.” I did it, which I’d later decide was my mistake.
We rode in silence. In front of my house, he was on me in a second. He pinned both of my arms against the wide seat back, and dug his teeth into the side of my neck, sucking viciously. In my bedroom mirror, I would find that he had drawn blood.
He pulled himself off and used one of my hands to slap me across the face. “Explain that to your boyfriend, whore,” he said, his smiling face inches from mine. He reached across me to open the passenger door, and I got out without a word.
I wore turtlenecks to school for weeks in the warm Arizona winter. His girlfriend never talked to me again.
My own ambitions became a part of what I’d call “confusing” later.
Don’t you want me to teach you?
Yes, I do. Yes, I want the knowledge you have, yes I want the chance at this job, the office, the acclaim. Yes I want to drive the decisions, write the checks, make the choices. Yes.
Yes, I’ll take a chance to speak, to tell you my idea, to say something I learned, to take a stance as though I have experience and confidence. I’ll stand impassive as you cut me down or praise me. I’ll glow with pride when I hear that you liked my work. I’ll tell fellow students or interns or colleagues that you “really believe in them.” Yes.
Yes. I’ll get your coffee, transcribe your notes, stay up late correcting drafts, drive the car. I’ll mow your lawn, clean your office, watch your kids. I’ll make the programs, fix the PowerPoint, change the reservations, order the flowers, send the reminders. Yes.
And on the day you say that shocking thing about my heritage, or let your hand stray to the waist of your graduate assistant, or remark on an absent colleague to the remaining, laughing panel members, behind my acquiescing smile I will search the room with every sense to discern what it is I should do. Because in that moment, I will decide that simple ethics are not enough.
I will wonder: how do I stay in this room, working toward access and stature and freedom?
I will think: it will be freedom, when I get it.
I will ask myself: how can I be in this world but not of it?
That, of course, is impossible.
The third time was after dinner with a colleague at the opera house. We were both married, and working in a city away from our separate homes. I admired him and enjoyed our conversations, happy to think that we had a developing friendship. If you had asked me if I was impressed by his fame, I would have said no, and that would have not been the right answer, but I didn’t want to think of myself as someone who was impressed by fame or money.
When he asked me to come up to his apartment to listen to some recordings, I said sure. Which I’d later decide was my mistake.
In the elevator, I had to fight him off with every ounce of strength. I pulled his hands from between my thighs, batted them away from my breasts, and finally pushed my back into the elevator walls in opposition to his body pressing on mine.
The doors opened at his floor and he stepped between them. “What the fuck did you think this was?” he asked. “Did you think your personality was worth my time?”
The doors, closing.
I’m contemplating the hours I’ve spent considering what I should and should not have done. Strategizing and re-strategizing how to be in rooms. How to speak, how not to speak. What to wear, what not to wear. Giving and taking advice, as though we are in charge of everything that happens to us.
I’m contemplating the many times I joined in the mystic song of my epic quest, the song of the prophets, of Socrates, of Mozart and Wagner and Picasso. How I was so in love with their voices and mine that I could ignore the silences demanded in return. My silence.
What is the freedom I was sure I was working for?
When did I begin to pass on the ancient story of dominance and acquiescence?
When did I accept shame as my own proud birthright?
No one sees themselves with total clarity. Can I begin to see clearly a better way forward?
Dorothy and Frodo.
She finds out that she has everything she needs already. He finds out that he doesn’t. She returns home in gratitude, and he is never okay again. Gendered heros, one accidentally journeying and demurely returning, one bravely and sadly accepting his fate in the service of his people. Both stories resonate with me as I contemplate something my childhood heros have in common.
She saves hers, he’s saved by his. Maybe that’s the best we do. They say that students teach the teachers.
At the very least, we can look and see that we are not alone as we all continue to emerge from this particular forest. Whether we’re redeemed or damaged or both, we can surely begin to learn from each other.
There’s no place like home. There and back again.