Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy cathexis day!

Like most teachers, I have a few students every semester who have some kind of obvious crush going on. It's usually women and it's usually low-key; to the extent that I can translate their smiley delightedness into words, it amounts to this: "Omigod! she's so funny! and smart! and NICE! I love her!" I had a lot of those crushes myself in college, and I understand that the students who cathect on us are really just working through their own stuff. They're looking for nerdy aspirational models, figuring out what kinds of relationships to the intellectual life are possible, and generally seeking ways of being in the world.

So yes, I have a couple of those again. They're sweet, they're good students, and they make me feel like I'm good at my job--even though I know that their crushes are only partly about me and less about how successfully I teach.

But I also have a student of the rarer and more troubling kind, the fragile and needy one who responds to any off-hand kindness with waves of love so strong I can feel the breeze in my face. This particular student is going through a rough time in her personal life. She emailed me about it and I replied with a short sympathetic sentence, adjusted a minor deadline, but firmly reasserted a bigger one. After the next class she stayed after to thank me, all love and big, trusting eyes. I took two minutes to say something briskly supportive, make sure she was getting help elsewhere, and then suggest that keeping on top of her work during this rough patch might actually provide her with some useful structure and something to take pride in. Then I went home.

Today she again stayed after class, to thank me for the last time and to tell me that talking with me had made her whole weekend better. And she said some other things, about how much it meant to have someone so understanding, about how her mom kinda got it and kinda didn't, and maybe a few other sentences I'm now forgetting. Mostly I remember the semi-hypnotic power of that utterly open, vulnerable face.

This kind of student freaks me out. I'm torn between feeling genuinely glad that my passing kindness helped (and making a mental note to strive for patience and generosity with all future students, because You Never Know)--and feeling radically uncomfortable, almost repelled by the naked neediness. This student does not appear to be in crisis (it's not this kind of personal drama), so my concern is less about the specifics of her current troubles than about how easily such a person gets hurt, and how unwise it is for her to invest that much emotional energy in me, or in anyone.


J. Otto Pohl said...

I have never heard the term cathect before. But, fortunately I haven't detected any students cathecting on me.

~profgrrrrl~ said...

I had one of those students about 12 years ago. It just kept going. At one point, he came out to me (I was honored) and then asked if we could be apartmentmates the next year (???). All of this because of some praise on an oddball (but nonetheless interesting) project idea and some sympathy about an ill family member.

It really is weird when all you've done is listen a small bit and offer a tiny morsel of kindness