Lisa Johnson


The Teacher's Body

Richard held my ankles while the tattoo guy pushed a thick needle through the ridge of my eyebrow. The pain paled in comparison to my navel piercing two years earlier, when I nearly blacked out at the counter of the Varsity afterwards. Still, my flesh throbbed underneath the new silver ring as I walked with Richard back to Ellis Hall where we shared an office in the English department. I thanked him for going with me, and he smiled, saying it was a charge, sort of primal and ritualistic. At home, I kept going in the bathroom to look at it, checking the red puffy area radiating from the new hole and just kind of digging my new look. I felt hard--like a convict or a juvenile delinquent. A line from Toni Morrison's Sula came to me as I stared into the mirror: "If I can do this to myself, what do you think I'll do to you?" The line is spoken by Sula after lopping off a chunk of her finger to scare away a group of evil-looking boys approaching her.

Strange--I taught freshman composition at the time at Ohio University, which granted me all this authority before I was ready, but instead of dressing professionally and keeping a clean corporate face to try to "pass" as a teacher, I went the other way. I called my own authority into question, called the whole idea of authority into question, in the way I dressed, spoke, and, now, the way I adorned my body in the watered down legacy of punk culture known as "alternative."

The line between "Us" and "Them" didn't hold in my classroom; having just graduated three months before, I identified more closely with students than with the Teacher I was supposed to be. Teachers represent dominant cultural values, but I didn't; was there room for me inside the Teacher's body? Or would I burst through her abdominal cavity like that monster in Alien?

A student named John said my eyebrow ring distracted him from learning; I told him his discipline as a student was his responsibility, not mine. But where does my body end, and the Teacher's begin?

Most university professors dress conservatively, with blazers straightening the curves of their hips and breasts, long skirts and high collars covering their skin. When asked what it feels like to see a teacher out of context (at the gym or a night club), students reiterate the unspoken contract wherein everyone agrees to pretend as if the teacher has no body, no personal life, no bare skin or boyfriends. "[E]ven seeing a bare shoulder of a teacher," one student writes, creates psychic discord as the rigid boundaries of the classroom gap open like a shirt with one button missing. "I was seeing parts of her that, as a student, I was not supposed to see," he continues, acknowledging the uncomfortable link between public roles (student, teacher) and private ones (man, woman); does the classroom follow the teacher into The Lazy Donkey on Saturday night, or can she wear a short skirt, drink too many margaritas, and laugh too loud like everyone else? What parts of the Teacher are students "not supposed to see"?

What is it that the teacher must suppress in order to remain professional? Is it playfulness? Womanliness? The devil? Or just her cleavage? Expressions of sexuality top the list of what must remain concealed in the classroom. Somehow, sexuality is treated as a negation of seriousness, intellectual work, and pedagogic authority, as if speaking of sex or sexiness in class is a slippery slope sure to end in a sexual harassment charge or a big disruptive orgy on the second floor of the Humanities building.

Earlier this semester, I brought images of my own erotic body to be analyzed by students in the context of the Teacher's body as cultural script. A female student sorts through this contradiction, writing, "Even though she looks young and takes kinky pictures she is very intelligent." Other students echo this formulation, musing on my admissions of "bad" acts in my personal life and deciding I am brave, if a little dirty. The point of such personal revelations, though, is not to resist authority by bringing "bad" (i.e. sexual, personal) things into the classroom.

The point is that in revealing these parts of my body and life history--my abdomen, the mole at the center of my sternum, the faux topless shot in my senior portraits; the divorce, the depression, the topless dancing--I am challenging the very category of "bad." Personal lives and private parts do not necessarily belong in the dark or behind closed doors or whatever euphemism one might use to sugar-coat the policing of minds and bodies into tidy, artificial compartments. Beyond the recognition "that teachers are people too" lies a more disturbing conclusion. Teachers are supposed "to be revered as respectable figures," observes another student, "someone that stands up for everything that is good." Rather than presenting my erotic body (in photography and in dangerously-nippled person) as an inversion of "teachers are good people" into "teachers can also be bad," I see these personal revelations and public performances of the female body as a direct challenge to existing standards of "good" and "bad," which, I argue, function to maintain order among teachers and students, and the corporate workforce at large, severing the human self from its flesh and separating each of us from one another.

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