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I’ve spent the past 20 years waiting. Waiting to get over him, waiting to feel that he took advantage of me, waiting to hate him. None of those things has happened yet, though I might be getting closer in each regard.
It’s a story you’ve probably heard before: a teenage girl falls for her married teacher. Maybe you’ve also heard the story of how he falls for her, too. They have a short-lived affair, then go their separate ways. But what happens later?
It started off innocently enough. I was an awkward 15-year-old, not an outcast but certainly not one of the popular girls. I had a few friends, no sense of style, and terribly low self-esteem. I was smart but didn't apply myself as much as I should have, yet I almost always developed an easy rapport with my teachers.
While wandering the halls during a free period one day, I saw that Mr. Martin, my sophomore English teacher, was alone in his classroom and I decided to drop in for a chat. We wound up talking for three hours about movies, sports, books and music.
I soon found myself in his classroom almost every day. We talked for hours each week, and although I realized I was developing a crush on him, I knew nothing would ever happen. He was married with three children, after all, and I was 15.
Occasionally he’d give me rides home from school. Eventually I wound up babysitting for his children, and since I was too young for a license, he would pick me up and take me home.
Every once in a while, he’d tap my leg while we talked on these drives. I told myself it was no different than when my girlfriends and I would touch each other for emphasis sometimes. I wanted to believe it was more than that, but I knew this man couldn’t possibly be interested in me, so I shrugged it off.
Greg (as he said I could call him) and I started to consider each other friends, although we couldn’t really hang out with each other outside of school. That was OK, though. We enjoyed each other’s company almost every afternoon, and I did my best to ignore my growing feelings for him.
At some point our conversations started to cross a line. We still talked about books and music, but Greg would also mention ex-girlfriends and told me about women he slept with while backpacking through Europe. Our discussions were peppered with innuendo, which I told myself was completely normal among friends.
After all, my other friends and I had conversations heavy with innuendo, so why should it be any different with Greg?
Toward the end of that school year, we went to an art exhibit together outside of school, just the two of us. He ordered himself a beer, and when I jokingly asked for a sip, he handed it over.
Anytime I started to suspect that he might have an interest in me, I quickly dismissed the possibility. I had braces and acne and nothing he could possibly want. Even so, the sexual tension between us grew although neither of us addressed it directly.
Over the summer I sent him some postcards from my vacation and even called him once or twice. I knew my feelings for him weren't healthy and hoped that a summer away would clear my mind and heart. It didn't work.
The next school year Greg was no longer my teacher but we continued to talk almost daily at school, and I continued to babysit for his children. I also continued to fall for him.
I'm the one who made the first move. I made a joke about being in love with him, he made a joke back, and then we talked seriously.
I admitted I had feelings for him, and he admitted that he also had feelings for me. He was quick to add, though, that we could never act on those feelings. He said we both had too much to lose. He had his career and his family, and I had my emotional well being.
He said that he would never allow anything to happen because I would wind up hating him for it. I swore that I wouldn’t; I knew he was wrong about that. How could I hate him for giving me what I wanted so badly? But he insisted that someday I would feel that he took advantage of me, and he didn’t want to hurt me.
The next few months were awkward as we both pretended that conversation had never occurred. We continued to talk almost every day, though. I still babysat, and he still gave me rides home, complete with occasional pats on the leg.
Eventually the innuendo returned, too, although now it made me uncomfortable—not because I felt it was inappropriate, but because it felt unfair that he would tease me with something he knew I wanted but couldn’t have.
Some of his comments were shockingly bold. Once, after I described my strapless prom dress, he said he was glad he wasn't chaperoning the dance because he'd be too tempted to come over and nibble on my shoulders. Once he asked me if I liked to run my fingers through my lover’s chest hair after we made love. I just laughed nervously. At that point I had never even French-kissed a boy.
Then one night, shortly before I was scheduled to move out of state, we went to another event together. This time he bought me my own beer, and we smoked pot that he had brought. We had sex that night, and again a few days later. I was a willing and eager participant. The only reason it didn't continue was because I moved.
We talked about it, and he said he hadn’t planned on anything happening that night. He said a lot of sexual tension had built up and it was clear neither of us could contain it anymore. He said he was frustrated that I was moving and didn’t want me to go, although he knew there was nothing I could do about it.
I was devastated to leave him despite knowing we could never have a future together. Even without his saying it, I knew he’d never leave his wife. He never made any promises and I never expected anything. Still, those first few months away from him were terrible.
Eventually my heart started to heal. Over the next couple years, we wrote a few letters but largely lost touch until just before I graduated from college.
At that point I wrote to him again, this time with a clarity I thought had come from years of distance. I told him that I missed his friendship, and I told him that I hadn’t realized it at the time but that I had been in love with him during high school—it had been more than just a crush. He said that maybe he had fallen in love, too.
I took that as proof that our relationship had meant something to him. It wasn't just a case of some middle-age pervert seducing a teenage girl. Instead, we had truly connected on a deep, emotional level.
Most people would argue that a 17-year-old can't consent to a 35-year-old man, especially not one in a position of authority. They would say she was brainwashed or misled or unduly influenced. They would say he had groomed her, this strange, inexperienced, insecure girl from a broken home. They would say she was the perfect target. They would say he couldn't have possibly had feelings for her other than the sordid and lecherous.
Until recently, I would have said they were wrong. I would agree that it sounds farfetched, but we were one of those rare cases where something so implausible could actually work. I'd say that he did not take advantage of me, that he did not pursue me any more than I pursued him.
It has been 20 years since Greg and I had our affair. I've been an adult for a long time now. I've had other relationships, I'm married, I have kids of my own. I don't look back and hate him. In fact, I still harbor feelings for him despite not having seen him in many years.
But lately I have found myself questioning what happened, and that scares me. I’m just now starting to realize that he acted in a way that might have been detrimental to me.
For all these years, I've owned my actions. I've known that I was responsible for pursuing and sleeping with another woman's husband. I knew it was wrong, but I acted selfishly and on impulse. I take full responsibility for that.
But what if it’s not that clearcut? Legally, it’s a bit of a gray area. At 17 I was over the age of consent in that state, but as a teacher he was bound by other regulations. At 17, I thought I was capable of consenting, and I still do, but what if Greg subtly used his position to influence my feelings and decisions?
If I look at it that way—that I was victimized or taken advantage of by a person in a position of authority—I can be partially absolved from the responsibility of having had an affair with a married man. But that would also mean that my entire frame of reference has been askew for 20 years.
It would mean that he didn't truly care about me. It would mean we weren't really friends. It would mean that he used me. It would mean I wasn't as mature and grown-up as I thought I was. It would mean I was duped. It would mean my entire coming-of-age tale was a lie. It would mean that for 20 years I’ve grasped to a reality that wasn’t there.
I no longer know how to feel about what happened. I want to believe Greg and I had a legitimate connection, but I also realize I might have been living in denial all these years.
I don’t want to wind up hating him, but I also don’t want to continue living with guilt if it isn’t mine to bear. Although I hope to find some clarity, I also know I won’t be happy with either answer, because either way, I lose.