Last night, I dreamed about being in the art room in my high school, where I spent hundreds of happy hours with a beloved and encouraging art teacher and a shifting but close group of fellow students over my teenage years. In the dream, I was alone in the room waiting for someone, assessing the work on the walls and the photographs of students who had graduated before me but were still held in places of honor.
I woke up late and mused on this remnant of dream while in the shower, before fuzzily shifting my thoughts to the workday to come. Rushing on my way out of the house, I checked the weather and my email (rainy, and nothing but a Facebook message notification). Swallowing my vitamins, slipping on my coat, and shoving my umbrella in my bag, I paused in my flurry of motion to click on the email message. It was from my high school best friend Milford, a fellow art student with whom I lived attached at the hip our final year of school. I could see only a link to a local news article, and a short intro from him: “this makes me sad.”
I couldn’t click on the link directly from my email without signing into Facebook, so I charged out the door, but the possibilities were limited. Milford and I keep only in sporadic touch, so either one of our old haunts was being torn down or our teacher, Mr. Bleeker, was dead. I hoped for the former but with the memory of my mundane dream still swirling, I felt a dread foreboding that it was the latter.
Postponing certain knowledge of whatever had made Milford sad, I didn’t sign into Facebook to view the link until mid-morning. And then it got worse.
So this is the day: Our beloved former art teacher has been arrested and charged with both soliciting a minor online and possession of child pornography. Bile in my throat. There is no question it is Mr. Bleeker, thanks to the identifier of our school and the accompanying mugshot. In the picture, he looks scared, hollow and red-eyed. He looks, suddenly, like a person who could possess child pornography. It is Mr. Bleeker, but it is not him; I am looking at him through the eyes of a casual newsreader who wants to see a picture of the pedophile, the sicko. After an instant, I see Mr. Bleeker again, the kind, loving man I used to know who makes the kids under his tutelage feel special, who nurtures their talent and always has time to talk.
I am filled with regret. I have no reason to believe that I was extra-special to Mr. Bleeker, but he was certainly a special teacher to me, the only teacher I ever visited when I was home from college, but only once. I have not seen him in years. And now I am seeing him in the vulnerable, public way of nightmares. I am seeing a picture taken only hours before, and I realize that as I am looking at it, he is sitting in a county jail cell watching his life collapse.
I become aware that if I saw this picture of some other man I didn’t know, he would be instantly and unquestioningly branded “pedophile” in my mind. I would also likely assume that he’d twiddled with a kid or two at the school, based on nothing but his reported position as a teacher – and I’m a bleeding-heart liberal. I’ve studied criminology and media, and however intellectually against a rush-to-judgment I may imagine myself, the reaction to suspicion of pedophilia is instinctive and damning. That means thousands of people will be looking at this pathetic mugshot and making the same judgment I have so unthinkingly made before.
Though it is in the wee hours on the east coast, Milford’s stomach is turning much as mine, and we exchange emails. Milford has heard from his brother that Mr. B was arrested at school and frogmarched out in front of the students. I point out that the news report says otherwise, that he was ambushed at home before school, and while we are relieved that this is the case, it just points to the swirling local rumor-mill that will work itself into a tornado as the week goes on.
Milford and I are aligned in our denial. Milford especially considered Mr. B a mentor, and we compare notes. As a gay teacher, Mr. B would have been a prime target for spurious whispers of sexual impropriety, and neither of us ever heard a hint of such talk. I know many graduates of older vintage, and Milford’s youngest brother attended the same small school recently; we would know.
We dissect what information is available of the allegations. The “minor” in question was a police officer in the Midwest engaged in a sting, and Mr. B allegedly sent pornographic pictures of himself to the child. This, I can rationalize: he could easily have been engaged in some roleplaying with someone he thought to be an adult, and I am hopeful evidence will emerge to indicate this is the case.
The allegations of possession of child pornography are more difficult to reconcile. I write to Milford that the images must be of young-looking adults, or older teenagers. Unsavory, but we live in a world of a thousand “jailbait” magazines and websites. I am unable to believe Mr. B would possess images of actual children being abused, molested, or compromised.
More details emerge. Mr. Bleeker admits to spending time in adult chatrooms, where roleplaying is common, and to exchanging nude pictures. While the admission fits in with my initial theory, I do not want to know this. This is too personal, inappropriate. I cannot imagine having my own most-private life reported so casually and factually. I then can only imagine what the high school students, so new to life, are making of this in lurid lunchroom gossip and exaggeration.
And of course, there’s the nagging detail – while roleplaying mixup is a plausible theory, isn’t this what I would say, were I caught in such a situation? Unless there are records that will indicate this was a regular type of roleplay in the forum, doesn’t it sounds like… an excuse? How can this be proven to be either an honest mistake or a calculated denial? Worse, who will forgive an adult man, much less a teacher, for engaging in schoolchild-seduction roleplay in the first place?
There’s no victim here – no one, shamefully, to scrutinize or doubt. This is both better (better that there is no victim) and worse (a charge of molestation or rape would be horrific, but could be manufactured; easier to doubt than a hard drive).
Milford and I are grim, silent. A press release from the school states that they are shocked, and have no reason to believe that any students were “victimized” by Mr. Bleeker. The word “victimized” brings a fresh wave of nausea – the thought of Mr. B doing anything to harm a student is beyond comprehension – and worse, the carefully-worded statement by the school is designed to thwart liability. The school, obviously, has no other choice; they cannot offer any visible support to Mr. B, but must suspend him immediately and attend to the business of comforting the parents. It is a bleak reality that the institutional family to which he’s dedicated the last 20 years of his career will withdraw from him.
Mr. Bleeker’s teaching career is over. He will be extradited to the Midwest for trial. Even if fully exonerated, this will never go away. Even if pled down to probation rather than jail time, he will be a registered sex offender. With a bitter taste in our mouths, Milford and I and the rest of the students who have adored Mr. B will wait for more information than we really want, ugly information that will either condemn him or only technically acquit him. I don’t want to read anything more incriminating. I want to read that this is a terrible mistake, that he will be awarded a new car and a parade for his troubles, and every administrator will decree his innocence by megaphone. Milford wants to rescue him from jail. We hope that his friends and family will post bond, and swaddle him on the couch and give him the reassurance we cannot, and staunchly defend him.
I write to the Head of Students for Mr. Bleeker’s address, explaining that Mr. B was a friend and inspiration in high school, and that Milford and I would like to send a personal message of support. I also express sympathy to the Head, a sometimes underestimated man, for the nightmare circus he must be wrangling. He responds almost immediately with Mr. Bleeker’s home address, and I thank him for his help. I believe the Head may have sent his own message of support to Mr. B, but that he also knows what his role in the school is and that the seriousness of the accusations will require distancing from his colleague of two decades. I don’t envy him.
So, tomorrow, I will write a letter to Mr. B, and I wonder what exactly to write. How do you offer your support to someone in this circumstance? Any declaration less than an unequivocal statement of certitude (“I don’t believe the accusations”) would be a body blow. I imagine I am Mr. B and I am innocent. I would wonder: How could you think that of me? To not address the allegations is beyond disingenuous, but I see no other way around it.
So sorry to hear of the child pornography allegations. I’m sure they’re not true but if they are… Then what? I don’t believe you would ever have actually touched a child?
No. I can only say how much I appreciated him as a teacher, what profound respect I have for the attention and love he gave me and my friends, and that he has a legacy of students who feel the same way. The sort of letter, in retrospect, I wish I’d written to him and other important mentors long ago.
Does he even remember me and Milford, from ten years back? I believe that he would, but we’ve fallen out of touch and it’s undeniable and rational that the teachers loom larger in the minds of the students than vice versa, due to sheer volume and the intrinsic importance attached to those teenage years. Nonetheless, I hope the letter I will write will mean something to him, if only a sliver of comfort.
This has been so heavy on my mind it’s become physical pain, like a vise squeezing my temples. Unlike if a friend was arrested for drunk driving, for example, this allegation changes the framework through which you view a person. A drunk-driving charge could be a mistake; a drug possession charge could mean that they need help. Neither would necessitate acceptance of a fundamental deficiency, as they can be healed, evidence only of a singular instance of bad judgment.
I’m not willing to condemn Mr. Bleeker yet. It may be that evidence mounts and I have to accept that a man I respected in my youth is a different man than I believed him to be, and I suppose that acceptance would be part of adulthood. But I am still going to protect the memories I have of Mr. B because to me, he was always a good man.