Jane Eyre was Underage

Jane Eyre was Underage

Adapted studio card from the 1943 film of Jane Eyre (starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles) by Ray under a Creative Commons license.

ABOUT LAUREL DOUD

Laurel Doud is a librarian at Fresno City College in California. Her novel, This Body, was published in 1998 by Little, Brown and in paperback by Back Bay Books in 2000. A current fiction manuscript is with editors now.

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“My residency at Blue Mountain Center in the fall of 2002 was cut short when my dad died unexpectedly,” she recalls. “BMC was a most glorious experience that ended sadly. But isn’t that how it goes in life? The good with the bad; the happy with the sad? The yin and yang of life.”

The first time my high school English teacher kissed me—something I had fantasized about for a year—was under a cold December sky on the night of my eighteenth birthday.

Reader, I married him.

For years, I would tell people, “He waited until the day I was legally an adult. He was just being smart.”

It wasn’t until two decades later, after we divorced, and when yet another story about an underage teenager getting involved with her teacher was reported on the nightly news—this time a fifteen-year-old girl running away with her married fifty-year-old teacher—did I feel that fact take on a more calculated tone.

The case of Elizabeth Thomas, the fifteen-year-old student, and Tad Cummins, her forensics teacher with grown daughters, is more extreme than mine was. I did not leave my family. There were no legal issues. My teacher was only nine years older and, while he was divorced, he had no children. But maybe I’m just splitting hairs.

Elizabeth had been involved with her teacher for some time and left with him voluntarily. There are pictures of them sitting in his classroom, the desk between them belying their connection.

I remember when that was me.

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The author’s senior class photo

In the beginning, I thought Mr. Moore was just being nice—as a mentor-mentee kind of thing, though I hungered for something more. I would stalk him in the halls, then casually step in beside him to class. I worked hard on my stories in order to please him. I made up reasons to go see him after class, sitting in that chair, his desk a barrier between us, once sobbing in lovesick frustration and making up some stupid reason for it.

He told me to exercise more, bang a tennis ball against the wall.

I was a Jane Eyre reader from an early age and I had felt Jane’s despair keenly when Mr. Rochester, twenty years her senior, had toyed with her feelings. Like her, I wanted to say to Mr. Moore, “I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit!”

I’ve been thinking about young Elizabeth Thomas, what she thought she knew about life and love before running away. Now that she has been returned and, even though Cummins will stand trial soon, Thomas says she’s a “fully grown woman” who should be able to date her former teacher. Having been there, I can’t help but think I know her.

I knew what I was doing back then. I was the master of my universe. I believed it in the core of my being. I had been told all of my life that I was a smart kid. I was the youngest of four and, while I might have been spoiled (my siblings would probably agree), I wasn’t babied. In fact, just the opposite. My parents were happy to have a self-motivated and self-reliant child to allow to go her own way.

Many of the other girls at school had crushes on Mr. Moore, but I knew, for me, there was more to it. At least on my side.

And when it happened, it was so heady, so exciting, so all encompassing. Mr. Moore—who, amazingly so, was now Grant to me—and I sneaked around right under the noses of his coworkers (my other teachers) and my classmates. He wrote me passes when I went to his house before school, made love, making me late for first period. I tried hard not to stare at him in class, remembering a joke he had made while we were tangled in his bedsheets that morning.

It was the most glorious, delicious secret I could have ever imagined.

“Because I’m Different”

I have two friends, Catherine and Mercedes, who were underage when they became involved with older men. We were all from suburban, traditional families: mom, dad, siblings, a decent home. We all were told by our parents and teachers that we were intelligent and mature. Old souls. But we were also strange and unusual in the high school hierarchy. Or as Jane Eyre put it, “It’s only because I’m different. I’m different from you all and you won’t forgive me.”

In talking to Mercedes and Catherine recently, I realized our language had a universal feel to it, as if we had been in some sort of secret society whose members didn’t know each other but had common initiation rites.

“I knew everything back then,” Mercedes told me. She is still married to her older husband and is somewhat reluctant to talk about that time, as if it had been shameful. As if she should be ashamed. “At sixteen, I was a thousand years older than anyone else in my high school. Superior—in certain ways. To be finally acknowledged by an older man was amazing. He treated me like the grown up I felt I already was. It was a grand romance. It was transformative. But, you know, I think Jane Eyre primed us for it. We were ripe and ready. We were these weird flowers no one else saw, but these men saw us.”

Catherine had been seventeen when her teacher kissed her, definitely underage, but he had waited until the evening she graduated from high school.

“I was unsure of myself. I didn’t know where my place was, but I did know who I was. I felt capable at seventeen, but I couldn’t imagine why Mr. Griffin, a teacher, an elder, was interested in me or found me the least bit attractive. He made me feel worthy though and, more importantly, he made me feel seen. Necessary. Valid. And he read my poetry and liked it. That was the icing on the cake. It was earthshaking to the seventeen-year-old me.”

Wondering about the girl I had been

I remember how it felt when Mr. Moore praised a short story I had written, that rumbling of the ground underneath me igniting a heat in my belly that I would warm my soul against for weeks. Then his role as teacher and friend became increasingly blurred. We should have kept those parts separate and distinct, but what I needed from him got mixed up with his own needs and wants and I didn’t have the experience to have any forethought.

Now, with decades of distance, I wonder about the girl I had been. I know I had been a girl, not a woman and, in some ways, even a child.

I can’t help but speculate about a parallel universe. What would have happened if I had the chance to grow up a bit more? Learned a little more about life on my own? Maybe I could have figured out how to be a better kid before I tried so hard to be an adult.

I suppose everyone can say that about their life, but is there an age of adultness? Is there an age line? I still rankle at that thought, because I have a hard time not insisting I knew what I was getting into to. I don’t want to make excuses for my decisions. They were mine and no one else’s.

In so many ways, I don’t think I’ve ever been as confident and certain about some things as I was then and yet so unsure and insecure about others. All that teenaged angst.

When I think back now, I realize Grant, at twenty-seven, all things considered, was virtually a kid himself. But he wasn’t really, was he? He was my teacher and I was his student. I was his to mold, to “educate” in the ways of life and love. He was my Svengali, my mentor, my guru. But as Grant and I aged, we became peers. At least, I thought so. But the imbalance of power in that teacher/student, mentor/mentee relationship is so formidable and beguiling. Who wouldn’t be seduced by it at both ends? And who wouldn’t miss the adoration when it was gone.

I don’t regret my life with Grant. That would mean I regret my children and that’s an impossible thought. And we never escape getting hurt in this life.

Maybe the line of adulthood is somewhere in there—gaining enough experience to have forethought. But how are you supposed to gain the experience to have forethought without doing something stupid or something you know nothing about?

I wish I had been more like Jane Eyre, though.

“I do not think, sir, you have any right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have; your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience.”

While I honestly believe I am wiser and kinder now, I still love that young woman I once was—lack of experience and all. I am in awe of her: so determined, so courageous, so passionate, so pigheaded. I wish I had more of her gumption.

I hope Elizabeth Thomas will feel the same way in twenty years.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The names in this story have been changed, except Elizabeth Thomas and Tad Cummins.

 

 

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