My worst crushes have always been...
My worst crushes have always been on the short, smart guys. Michael Kitchen in Foyle’s War tops the list, of course. Then there was Bob Newhart and George on Seinfeld (was George smart or just adorable?) But before all of these, there was my college lit professor, Dr. M.
It’s no big secret that I had a crush on Dr. M because we all had a crush on him. The entire college.
“You realize that all the girls are in love with you, right?” one of the female profs once asked him.
He made a little grunt and shook his head as if the principle of gravity were strange and unfathomable. But it was true. The female students giggled over him, and the female teachers understood. The first time I heard the word “man crush,” it was one of my guy friends describing his affection for Dr. M.
All of us walked around trying to talk like him, walked around trying to walk like him. We wrote down phrases he dropped in class in the margins of our notebooks and memorized them, and we spoke them to one another with reverence and glee, as if we’d carried them down from a high mountain. His quotes became epic like lines from Casablanca.
I should also probably tell you that Dr. M collected socks (even Arbor Day socks), wore colored corduroy jeans with embroidered pockets, and made coffee so bad that it could kill a small dog. He looked sort of like Juan Valdez (the coffee man) and sort of like Rhett Butler, loved the Rolling Stones, and despised sloppy criticism. He spent more time in the library than anybody I ever saw.
This is the man who taught me to read with fairness. He taught me the value of knowing where I am in time. He taught me that whatever hard work it took to get what a text actually said was worth the labor. He taught me to respect the work of other writers, and he taught me to respect myself as a thinker. He also made me fall madly in love with old literature.
The first time I heard him speak Middle English, I grabbed the sides of my desk. My knees felt weak, and my arms ached.
“What was THAT? What just happened to us?" I leaned over and whispered to my buddy. It was like hearing Sean Connery speak Elvish from the back of a wild horse. Jiminy cricket, I was going to marry this man.
These were the days before cell phones, so at night when my friends would study at Grandma’s Kitchen truck stop, I would dial Dr. M.'s office to listen to the witty messages he would leave on his answering machine. I had his number memorized, which (okay) I suppose was kind of creepy. But when the message would start, “You have reached the office of Dr. M...” I would say to my friends, “Hey! Hey! Shutup! He’s talking!” and we’d lean around and listen together to what he had left there.
While that was kind of thrilling and kind of weird, it really was not a big deal until that one night when I didn’t hear the recording beep. That was the night my 19-year-old crush went nuclear, the night all the words poured out of my mouth, words describing my love for Dr. M. in a desperate, passionate gush. “Why doesn’t he love me? He’s single! I’m single! So what if there’s a 20-year difference between us! I could make him coffee, and he could read me Middle English. We would be so happy together!” On and on I went until I finally realized that the whole thing had been recorded. He would have recognized my voice, too.
I was dead.
I almost quit college that night. I cried for something like eight hours, then I crept in his office the next morning with a puffy face and sniffled, unable to look him in the eyes. “I’m so sorry about the message...”
But he cut me off there. “The phone system wasn’t working last night. I didn’t get any messages.”
I suppose it was the only lie I ever heard him tell, but it was also one of the greatest kindnesses I’ve ever been given. Chivalry was not dead. This is the sort of man he was.
I told my husband about Dr. M. while we were still dating, feeling a little sheepish about my confession. He didn’t judge me. In fact, he started chuckling.
“What?” I asked.
“I had one of those,” he said.
“I was in love with an English teacher.”
Then he told me about a high school teacher of his, a dear lady who wore long, swishy skirts and librarian glasses. She talked to him about poetry and books, she read to him in Middle English, and his young heart pounded to see that the world was an enchanted place.
I leaned back at the news and belly laughed because I got it, I got it! Of course he would have fallen for that. I was grateful to hear he had. I wanted to swing that dear lady round myself.
We live in a world now where such bizarre things happen. Old men take advantage of vulnerable young girls. Old women take advantage of young men. Everything is so sexualized and perverse, there’s no room anymore for a simple, sweet, childish crush— the admiration of a young person for an authority figure.
As time has passed, I now realize that my youthful affection wasn’t so much a romantic attraction as it was deep respect for a hero. I was right to love Dr. M in a way, because he showed me what the world had been, what it was, and what it was becoming. He taught me how to engage, how to be humble, and how to work hard while chasing what was beautiful.
Unlike so many greedy men in authority positions today, Dr. M. stayed sober in this role of shepherding my heart and mind, not allowing himself to be flattered by the wild affections of a silly, 19-year-old woman who was trying to figure out who she was. He protected me, and he protected all of us. I'm so thankful for his character.
A few months back, my best friend from college wrote and said, “Dr. M’s on Facebook!”
My stomach fluttered a little bit at the news.
“He’s been out west panning for gold,” he said. And I smiled, because that’s exactly what he would be doing. I clicked around and found a picture of him wearing one of those dorky sun hats that protects your neck. A long sleeve shirt with sleeves rolled up. A tin pan full of river rocks. A mustache. A grin. Looking for a nugget of pure goodness, just as he always did.
I looked over all his pictures, but I didn’t send him a friend request. I just took him in from a distance, still feeling a little nervous and a lot thankful at the sight of a man who had changed my life. What a gift to have had a teacher who was safe, who was good, who was a gentleman and a scholar— a man who used his authority and my admiration to launch me out stronger and richer, more ready to help a world in need.