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The Woman Behind the Headlines

I never had brothers, so I didn’t know much about adolescent boys when I started teaching high-school English at an all-male school. But I learned pretty quickly: Adolescent boys think about sex. All the time.

I was one of the first female teachers in the upper school in the 175 years of its esteemed existence. So by virtue of the fact that I was the only 30-year-old female who wore skirts and dresses and had long hair, English class became something of an exotic experience for my students.

For the most part they were cute, deferential, sometimes a little bumbling and I soon came to like most of my students with their acne and their raging hormones.

But only a few months into the year I discovered that while I was down in the cafeteria for lunch, students or a student kept going into my classroom and writing, in Wite-Out inside my desk, “Women Suck.” I’d come back from lunch and find crudely drawn images of phalluses and anuses on my blackboard. This went on and on.

“Boys will be boys” was pretty much the administration’s attitude. So I started locking the classroom door when I went downstairs for lunch. And I started looking at my students a little differently. I thought my students liked me. Why would one of them—or more—be harassing me?

But what was happening to me was mild compared to the note that the school bookstore manager got.

Lisa was a pretty, young woman who, though she always dressed professionally and had a real no-nonsense attitude, had a bottom that could have been featured in a Buns of Steel infomercial. No matter what she wore—the dullest pair of black polyester pants, the simplest skirt—it looked great on her. I’m not even sure she realized it.

But the boys did. The boys talked about Lisa. The bookstore manager was hot. Bookstore sales were brisk.

And then Lisa got the note. It was a long and detailed rape threat, with an explicit drawing accompanying it. It was nasty business. The dean of students got involved. We talked it over at a staff meeting. But the note was anonymous. There was nothing to do, it was decided, unless one of the boys got caught doing something they shouldn’t be doing.

I raised a question about Lisa’s right to work in a safe environment. I mentioned, once again, what had been happening in my classroom during the lunch hour.

I worked with good people, and I’m not faulting them. But the response was pretty much a general collective shrug. The dean of students vowed to find the author of the letter sent to Lisa. Suspension would follow. But the bottom line was pretty much this: These are boys. They’re horny and they’re harmless.

Beth Geisel. Maybe now that she has accepted a plea and everybody involved has had their say, the media circus surrounding her will die down.

The District Attorney office had its say with its ultra-crass press invitation to “something they would not want to miss.”

The bloggers have had their say, much of it snide, most of it sexist, all of it hurtful. (“My god . . . why can’t my wife be Beth Geisel? My advice to her hubby . . . quit the bank and keep the hot wife. Jobs are a dime a dozen . . . but babes like this . . . whew!”)

The outraged morning-radio jocks and their callers have had their say, self- righteously painting Geisel as a predator who got a sweet deal because of her good looks and a legal bias favoring women.

And if the circus does die down—and I hope it does—what will be left for Beth Geisel?

Her lawyer has done what he could, but it’s not his job to help her re-create her life.

Beth Geisel, the woman, has gotten lost in the mess of opinions, judgments and jokes at her expense.

The most merciful thing that has been said about her is that she has a serious problem with alcohol. That’s been as far as anyone has gone in public to express any sense of there being a person behind the pin-up girl.

If, as her lawyer has said, she was victimized by opportunist adolescent boys, she was certainly doubly victimized by a thrill-seeking media and a dirt-seeking public.

No one seems to be asking; Who is Beth Geisel? What caused her to do what she did?

Maybe booze-fueled desire, plus the knowledge that doing your sexy teacher is every boy’s fantasy were strong motivators. But I’ll bet my yearly salary that these were not the primary ones. Because while doing your sexy teacher might be a common fantasy for adolescent boys, doing ham- handed, inexperienced, horny adolescent boys—whose post-coital respect and confidentiality are hardly guaranteed—doesn’t rank high on even the most wide-ranging lists of women’s fantasies.

I think Beth Geisel had sex with those boys for all the sad and classic reasons: She wanted to be touched, she wanted to feel wanted, she wanted—well, I hate to say something so damn corny—love.

If that’s true then she went looking for love in all the wrong places. And while she clearly violated New York state law, is there no moral law that was violated when her callow lovers took turns going at her while she was drunk and barely conscious—and then bragged about it?

Because these boys are victims, are they also exempt from having to account for their own sleazy behaviors? Last I knew there was never a circumstance when it was considered ethically excusable to have tandem sex with a drunk woman.

And so this sad, troubled woman faces a new life and a much diminished life, abandoned by her community, ridiculed by the public, punished by the law.

Beth Geisel needs to be cared for, not caricatured. The woman behind the dark glasses and the provocative headlines has been neglected enough.

—Jo Page 

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