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Oldie, 3/8/09: In the Church of the (Presumably) Gay Science Teacher

A gulf separates the average teenage girl from her mother. One of the major differences in their viewpoints is their respective attitudes toward gay men.

Mothers (as a general rule) see no point in their daughters' attraction toward gay men because they aren't likely to be good husband or father-of-grandchildren material.

The daughters, on the other hand, are often drawn toward gay men because they usually aren't macho, threatening, or domineering. They are quite often fun, and at the very least, they present a "complicated" aura that appeals to a girl's romantic sense of mystery. The younger the girl, the less likely she is to even understand the concept of homosexuality. If it isn't spelled out, and if the girl's environment treats the whole thing as terribly taboo, it's easier for the girl to build a fantasy around the gentleman in question.

From my own experience, this is especially true when the man is a teacher.

In high school, my two closest friends were Chris and Pam, who couldn't stand each other and had little in common other than shared classes and being friends with me.

In 10th grade, we shared an additional bond: We all had raging crushes on our biology teacher, Mr. Schleben (not his real name by any stretch).

Mr. Schleben was something of a brooding, Byronic type. He had grown up in the Midwest, but was now living in New York. He had "planned to become a priest, but had a weak heart due to rheumatic fever as a child and wasn't considered healthy enough."

This was the mythos surrounding Mr. Schleben. Another story was that a student years before had challenged him about the reputed heart ailment and labeled him an "invalid." Mr. Schleben reportedly responded by dropping to the floor and doing 50 pushups.

All in all, Mr. Schleben impressed us romantic young women as having a "tragic past," up to and including the One True Love Who Had Died in a Plane Crash. He was unmarried; lived in Manhattan during the week, but apparently had a "real" home in the Connecticut countryside. In the school, he was a loner. He didn't associate with the faculty cliques and didn't even put in appearance on Meet Your Faculty Night. He had only two close friends among the other teachers, and they car-pooled together. These three teachers (one female, two male) were the ones who always managed to elude the yearbook photographers and ended up having their images represented by a cartoon character or a blank space with "camera shy" in the center.

Mr. Schleben liked hall duty. He would drag a student desk into the corridor and sit quietly with a book or some notes. Pam and I would duck out of the cafeteria during lunch with a forged hall pass (forged by me) and go in search of Mr. Schleben. We would kneel at his feet like disciples, asking him questions about anything and everything. Mr. Schleben had plenty of opinions. He had nicknames for all the teachers and other students. We thought he was the most brilliant man who ever lived, and any statement he uttered was fodder for a weekend's worth of giggling analysis. We shared the minutiae of our confused little teenage lives, hoping to gain his interest, and perhaps his guidance.

In our public school, Mr. Schleben quoted Bible verses freely, not in a dogmatic sense, but in the context of our class. "If your right eye offend thee, pluck it out" was his way of warning us not to cheat during exams. "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle," he would tell us, than it would be to pass his class without studying. I was not a Bible reader during high school, and was nearly awestruck, years later, the first time I cracked a Bible and encountered these passages. It gave me a renewed connection – not to God, but to Mr. Schleben!

While solidly schooled in the classics, Mr. Schleben was utterly unimpressed with any facet of popular culture more recent than 1955 or so. Therefore, when Stewie, our "class clown" greeted Mr. Schleben one day with the question, "Hey, Mr. Schleben, do you like the Stones?" he was answered with "No, I don't like the Stones, and I don't like the Snots, and I don't like the Screwballs." It is, perhaps, telling that I can still quote this immortal rejoinder 35 years later, with a fond smile as I recall it.

The passage of time has helped me to accept that Mr. Schleben was not, in reality, the most brilliant man in the universe, but I will maintain that he was a damn good biology teacher. He was passionate on the subject and very, very knowledgeable. This guy would open the textbook, pick up some colored chalk, and draw full-color, freehand diagrams of grasshoppers, fish, flowers and blood cells on the board. And then he would turn around and instruct us to duplicate the pictures in our notebooks.

I am sure there are adults scattered around the country who still have their biology notebooks from Mr. Schleben's class. He required us to have those old-fashioned marble-bound notebooks – "You can't rip out pages without destroying the binding, so I suggest you write cautiously or be prepared to buy a new notebook and rewrite all of your notes from scratch – and rest assured, I will check the entire notebook four or more times this term." There was something about Mr. Schleben that made any sort of carelessness or casualness not an option. He projected the standards of an era already fading in the mid-1970s: Slow, methodical attention to detail, and learning that would last a lifetime. Which it did. Many of us caught his enthusiasm for the mysteries of life, growth and survival to the point that medical careers were considered, if not pursued. When I read news stories about diabetes, I remember that it was in Mr. Schleben's class that I first learned the function of the pancreas and the Islets of Langerhans. Mr. Schleben took five points off the grade of anyone who didn't correctly spell "islets" with an "s." He spoke in a voice that was low, slow, and musical – he often used rhymes, songs and jokes to help us retain the material. He used broad physical comedy to keep our attention. He walked around the room mumbling to himself in French and German; though it was quite easy to repeat the words we heard him say, none of the language teachers could translate them when we asked what they meant. He mocked our New York accents and made us scream with laughter at ourselves.

For probably three-quarters of the students in the class, Mr. Schleben was a respected teacher who had taught their older siblings. If you were assigned to his class, it was like getting a bonus for your academic record. You were among the elite.

But for a smaller percentage of us (girls), Mr. Schleben was that and much more. He was the object of our deepest psychosexual fantasies.

We dreamed about being on a weekend field trip in Manhattan and having him appear from nowhere and rescue us from would-be rapists. We spun scenarios of running away from our dreary suburban homes and "somehow, by accident" stumbling onto the grounds of what we imagined was his palatial estate in Connecticut, where he would find us huddled under the shrubbery in a rainstorm, gallantly carry us into his mansion and give us his velvet dressing gown to wear as we warmed by the blazing fire. And sometimes we simply imagined getting banged silly by him atop a lab table while the rest of the school was occupied at a pep rally. Mr. Schleben's birthday was in late October, making him a Scorpio. We learned that Scorpios are seen as the sexual kingpins of the Zodiac – anyone born under this sign is imbued with arcane knowledge of the Kama Sutra, and seduction is their native talent. We speculated, with each other and on our own, what sort of qualities it would take to ignite that spark and make him want to seduce us.

I have talked about how Pam and I hung on his every word. We spent the entire second semester plotting, much like Eisenhower and Patton must have planned the invasion of Normandy, how we would sneak up on him as he prepared to leave on the last day of school and plant kisses on his cheek so that he'd have something to remember us by for the summer. We actually did this, by the way, two school years in a row. Lots of girls liked to kiss Mr. Schleben's cheeks. He just had that kind of a face. We wanted to run our fingers through his hair, too, but sensed that this would offend him, so we restrained ourselves.

Chris, on the other hand, was a bird of a different feather. Her fantasies were of the more raunchy sort, and her dealings with him as a student showed her ambivalence. She didn't like having a crush. It made her feel weak and vulnerable, so she set herself up, fairly early in the semester, as an adversary. Chris had less naiveté and more street smarts than did Pam or I. She had a running list of which teachers she thought were gay and was quite vociferous in her disapproval of women who pursued them.

All these years later, the few of us who have kept in touch after high school will quite often bring up the subject of Mr. Schleben fairly early in our reminiscences. The conversation usually goes something like this:

"Remember Mr. Schleben?"
"OMG, yes, he was the most incredible science teacher!"
"I know – they don't make them like that anymore."
"He was brilliant."
"I loved him."
"Wasn't he gay?"
"Y'know, I think he probably was. There was nothing obvious, and how could we have known when we were that age? But looking back…."

So the gaydar sharpened and worked retroactively. This makes it all the more interesting to recall our behavior.

Chris probably couldn't sort out her feelings toward Mr. Schleben. Perhaps she thought he was gay but couldn't reconcile this with her interest in him. So she did her best to negate Mr. Schleben's effectiveness as a teacher. She disrupted his class, failed tests, and refused to copy his diagrams or keep up her notebook. However, she did pay very close attention to anatomy – his.

Mr. Schleben had this one pair of hound's-tooth trousers. Perhaps it was the material, or perhaps he went "commando" when he wore them, but despite the fact that he always wore a putty-colored lab coat that went all the way down to his knees, sometimes the lab coat flapped open just a bit and the glimpse it afforded could cause one to forget all about the autonomic nervous system, the process of transpiration, or the difference between a ureter and a urethra.

Yes, he certainly did appear more than amply endowed, based on the "moose knuckles" that caught our attention. Our scholarly discourses in the cafeteria went something like this:

"Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod, I'm gonna die!!!!"
"Gotta calm down, I'll never make it through Social Studies!"
"I can't believe he wore those pants AGAIN – I just barely got over the last time!"

Pam and I were the first to feast our eyes. Chris' turn came later in the day. We warned her. We tried to warn her. She shook her head and refused to believe us. She thought it must be our eyes playing tricks on us; she told us to grow up.

That afternoon, we heard a ruckus in the corridor. It was the sound made by students dismissed early from class who are avidly discussing something really juicy that took place in that class. It didn't take Pam or me long to hear about "some crazy girl" who had fallen off her lab stool in Mr. Schleben's biology class, and rolled around on the floor gasping "It's so big! It's so big!"

Yes, this really, truly happened. I am not making it up.

Chris ultimately failed Bio; after that incident, she was banned from the class for at least a couple of days. After that, she and Mr. Schleben had an unspoken agreement to simply ignore each other and just get through the rest of the school year. She did, however, go on to become a licensed practical nurse. And it should be noted: No parents were called in for a conference; no police reports were filed, and nothing appeared in the newspaper. Back then, it took something absolutely earth-shaking for administrators to get involved. Nowadays, the whole class would have ended up on Jerry Springer.

Time did its work, and we all graduated from high school and went on to other objects of lust. We lost track of what our favorite teachers were up to. I don't know when Mr. Schleben retired – he was about 45 during the time we were in his class, and I think he may have moved to the Pacific Northwest sometime in the 1990s. One of the teachers he carpooled with left NY and went down south; the other retired and then died of a stroke at the age of 80. My last encounter of any sort with Mr. Schleben was a second-hand conversation, in which he heard that I was cohabiting with my fiancĂ© and expressed his disappointment in me. Nearly a decade later, and it still cut me to hear that I had failed to win the approval of Mr. Schleben. When Doug and I actually got married, I went out of my way to tell the people who still kept in touch with him. I didn't want him thinking badly of me. Interestingly, my parents didn't approve of our living together either, but it was only Mr. Schleben's reaction that had any effect on me.

So, was he gay? I don't know, but he did once mention having visited a "pub" in Manhattan, that later was described in some magazine as "the quintessential" New York gay bar. I think our speculations about his sexual orientation are a way of coming to terms with our own psychosexual development in our teen years. We all heard the same dismissals from our mothers – the "wisdom" that told us what to look out for, so as to avoid having our time wasted and our hearts broken.

We went through stages, I think. We crushed unabashedly on the guy; then, later, we viewed him as a poser of sorts, and looked for the hidden flaws that would demote him from icon-hood. Then we realized that whatever his private life, he made a difference where it counted. He got our attention and offered us an alternative to mediocrity. He was an honorable man who never let on that he knew about the hormonal storms raging within us. He didn't acknowledge it, or run from it. He just did his job.

He did it very well. I can think of worse objects of hero-worship. And my scorn and contempt have no limits for those who would bar gay individuals from teaching. By all means, ban the Mark Foleys of the world from jobs that would enable them to prey on the young and innocent. But not our beloved and honorable J.R. Schleben. 


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