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Joseph Horton: From classroom to camaraderie

By Joseph Horton, Columnist
Published January 29, 2013

“I would make fun of that guy over there, that Vanilla Ice-looking guy,” I whisper, “but it’s my longstanding policy not to make fun of people with knuckle tattoos.”

My friend Terry’s throwing the bones — which sounds much better than rolling the dice. He’s focused on the Flamingo craps table — the bones bouncing as if in a dance, the table hushed as if collectively conjuring a spell — and he’s definitely not listening to me. Our other friend Josh however, is. “Joe,” he says, turning to me with a face full of awe that only the star of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze” deserves, “That is Vanilla Ice.”

The magnitude of this revelation is — unlike our mid-level Las Vegas hotel — all-inclusive. The man looks like Robert Matthew Van Winkle simply because he is Robert Matthew Van Winkle. And on our last night in a city that goes to extreme lengths to disprove reality, I’m reminded that some things are real. They exist; they endure; they last.

Terry was my high-school speech teacher. I competed on his team for three years, and over the past decade we have grown to be good friends. Last week, I flew to Las Vegas for the most necessary of rites: the bachelor party. In March, I’ll attend his wedding. At some point I stopped being his student and he stopped being my teacher. We are friends.

The classroom, any classroom, is at its best when both comfortable and challenging. Learning needs rules, but it also needs and builds trust. Students and teachers share a brief but valuable bond, and though this closeness occasionally manifests in troubling ways — despite their uncommonness, we’re now unsurprised to hear of classroom romances or more extreme and unwanted advances — schools take great care to educate faculty on the risks and repercussions of inappropriate relationships. Our Office of Institutional Equity cautions graduate student instructors and faculty that romantic relationships — even if they’re believed to be consensual — are inherently problematic because they begin in an unequal power dynamic between teacher and student.

But what about friendship? I remain in touch with many former teachers, just as I remain in touch with many former students. When did Terry stop being my teacher and become the friend who helped me creep on Vanilla Ice for 20 uninterrupted minutes?

I suppose any answer must return in part to the idea of equality. Friends, for their myriad differences and occasional disagreements, must see each other as equals. They must value, on par with their own, the hopes and fears and gifts and gaffes of the other. Even if total equality is impossible, the pursuit of it is not.

Academia is fond of analytical thinking, and to assess friendship in these terms may seem calculating and distant. Isn’t friendship a natural process, one of the few mysterious wonders left, even in the quantitative world of Facebook “friends” and Twitter followers? Moreover, by actively examining equality, do we push it further away? Maybe. But what is learning? What is curiosity, if not the deliberate and sustained effort to step outside of our known world to better understand ourselves? Perhaps friendships developed between one-time teachers and students are as much about considering our own capacity for friendship as they are expecting friendship in return.

I don’t have a full answer. What I know is this: In my class, we aren’t a group of friends. I hope friendships do form among students in class, but that isn’t my primary goal, nor do I seek out friends, favorites or “stars.” We are, first and foremost, fellow readers and writers abiding by the same contract. Sharing (hopefully) a common aim, with me often — but not always — serving as the guide. After class is over, I don’t write recommendation letters or serve as references for friends; I stand up for talented and thoughtful students.

Not long after we saw him, Mr. Ice raised an issue with Terry’s throwing of the bones. We weren’t delivering the numbers he needed. He told us that he needed different numbers and went to the next table over. Eventually, Terry crapped out and we wondered what tattoos we’d get on our knuckles.

Mine, without question, would be “READ” and “RITE.”

Somebody get me in the next “Turtles” movie.

Joseph Horton can be reached at jbhorton@umich.edu.


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