Sunday, October 29, 2006

Tom Ellison has it wrong

I had a cute science teacher back when I was 15 who I would have gladly had a thing with had he shown me any interest. Fortunately, he was the kind of teacher who understood you didn’t get involved with your students, so nothing happened.
I’ve rarely appreciated that teacher more than in these sordid days of testimony from disgraced B.C. teacher Tom Ellison.
Unlike my decent teacher, Ellison drew no boundaries. He had sex with his young Vancouver alternative-education students as if he was just another boy among them, with barely a thought to the teacher he was supposed to be.
“I apologize to you guys because you’re my good friends,” the former secondary teacher said in court Wednesday to a dozen stricken female students from those years. “I just crossed the line. I know it was wrong.”
Good friends? Since when was that ever a desirable characteristic in a teacher? Ellison made the ridiculous claim in court this week that it was “extremely common” for secondary teachers to have sex with their students in the 1970s. I can only hope that every middle-aged teacher in the province jumps all over him for that, because it’s a lie. Then and now, teachers knew not to sleep with their students.
Not that anything is going to make a dint on Ellison, who’s 63 now and still as unaware of his terrible breach of trust as he was in the years when he was chasing young girls from room to room and tearing off their underwear. A guy who still refers to these now-grown women as his “good friends” after they’ve charged him with 16 counts of gross indecency and indecent assault - well, that’s a guy who’s never going to get it.
But I was in school in B.C. in the years that Ellison was teaching, and what really bugs me is watching him try to excuse his pathetic behaviour as normal for that period. Sure, there were other teachers like Ellison back then, and still are. But it was never OK.
The case at hand involves young girls attending Vancouver’s Prince of Wales Secondary in the 1970s and ‘80s. Ellison was in his 30s for most of that period, running one of those experimental outdoor school programs that get tested every now and then as a new way of teaching. Ellison’s particular teaching style included dating the students.
He contends it was OK because the law criminalizing acts like teachers dating their students didn’t come into effect until 1988. The reality is that, law or no law, teachers have always been in a position of trust over their students, and fully aware of the need to be the adult in whatever scenes play out with their students. It has never been acceptable for teachers to date their students.
As many of us can attest, the early teen years are a sexual awakening. Today, the girls announce it with their teeny tops and skinny-low pants. In my day, it was ridiculously short skirts and matching underwear. We dressed to experiment with how it felt to be a woman, and to stop traffic with our body-baring style.
Why not? Youth is a beautiful thing. Let the young people feel their oats, because years of dignified behaviour and modest clothing await them as adults. From a girl point of view, I think the phase is all about testing your sexuality - sending out those come-hither vibes and seeing how it feels to pick up something coming back.
Sometimes those girl vibes get directed at a teacher. But what’s supposed to happen is nothing at all, because that young, vulnerable girl practically throwing herself at her teacher is simply off-limits.
From Grade 7 on, I can think of at least one teacher per year who my little-girl self dreamed of falling in love with. Did any of them recognize it? Impossible to say, but I can attest that they never took me up on my offers. They let me be a little girl growing into a young woman, and do my learning with boys my own age.
Things were different in Ellison’s class. Testimony in the case so far reads like one big frat party. Ellison and at least one other teacher from the same alternative program essentially surrounded themselves with swooning teenage girls and nights out on a school yacht. Ellison acknowledged he was “taking a risk” when things turned sexual, but the testimony of witness after tearful witness from those years certainly made it clear that he never let that get in the way.
Thank God for the teachers who know where to draw the line. Being a teenager is hard enough without having a teacher like Tom Ellison taking you up on an offer that you’re too young to make. Every girl who never met him ought to thank their lucky stars.

6 comments:

John said...

I really appreciate your perspective on this story, Jody. I don't think I've ever read such a clear, concise description of how young women view their sexuality. It's something every man needs to read along side the articles about the Ellison verdict, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Not just men need to read it: at the same time tom Ellison did his thing a female teacher in the same school had an affair with one of the female students. Its all wrong.

Andrew said...

Wonderfully well-put, Jody. You have given me a new insight into the female psyche, and I thank you for it! As a substitute teacher in the '80s I behaved correctly toward my students, but I did not have the understanding that you have now provided me. I just did the right thing, because it WAS the right thing. Now I know WHY it was right.

Anonymous said...

Let's be clear.

a) these instances of sexual abuse are not affairs. I hate that word. It implies consent from both parties.

b) the teacher is not "sleeping with" his student - he is abusing her. There is a distinct difference. Though he may not be physically forcing himself on her, this does not make anything consensual.

"From a girl point of view, I think the phase is all about testing your sexuality - sending out those come-hither vibes and seeing how it feels to pick up something coming back.
Sometimes those girl vibes get directed at a teacher. But what’s supposed to happen is nothing at all, because that young, vulnerable girl practically throwing herself at her teacher is simply off-limits. "

I might understand what you're trying to say, but you are phrasing it very poorly. The impression I get is that you think girls who are abused this way dress promiscuously, and thus ask for it to happen. Did you not pay attention to the documentary? The girls that are abused this way are trusting, vulnerable, and manipulated. It had nothing to do with lusting after your teacher. In fact, I don't recall any of them saying that they were trying to make the abuse happen. It just did.

I'm a victim of teacher-student sexual abuse, and I was extremely offended by your flippant article. If you are going to write about such an important topic, please make sure you use the right words and handle it delicately. There are victims out there reading.

Anonymous said...

Having been a student in Quest that had no idea what was going on to my fellow "Questers" I find I have an overwhelming urge to speak out, to think and ponder and ask questions and ask how could this happen right under my own nose and I did not know. But the topic is so loaded, so easy to offend and cause more pain.... so I stay silent. I commend Jody for shining light on this darkness and encouraging further discussion and learning.

Anonymous said...

Note: it was Tom's sail boat, not "a school yacht".

In the documentary one student mentions how the Quest Teachers slut shamed her in a very aggressive, judgmental and mean spirited way that totally lacked compassion and insight.

Some students in Quest were publicly humiliated for wearing makeup or wearing clothing that did not fit in with their "granola/bark eating" ethos. Same goes for expressing an opinion that was quite different than theirs. Public bullying and humiliation vs friendship and acceptance. Powerful forces to stand up to as an adult and certainly overwhelmingly difficult and confusing as a youth, particularly with an adult teacher whose been entrusted to care, teach and watch over this group of teens.