‘Is It Wrong to Be Friends With My Former Teacher?’

Animation: Pedro Nekoi

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

¡Hola, Papi!

I am in my final year of college (British preuniversity college, so the general age range is 16–19) and am dreading the thought of saying good-bye to my favorite teacher. He’s funny, charming, super-easy to talk to, and I love talking about films with him (he has a doctorate in film and is very passionate about how Batman & Robin was unfairly hated because of implicit homophobia of audiences and critics). He’s only ten years older (maybe slightly less?) than me, but if we were classmates, I know we’d be inseparable best friends.

Is it weird to want to stay in touch with him? I don’t know if that would cross some kind of personal or professional boundary, but he’s just the greatest guy, and it really bums me out to think one of the people I feel most understood and seen by could be exiting my life. 

I should also mention that I have stayed in touch with two particularly impactful teachers before, but lost contact with both after their work email addresses were no longer valid. It genuinely breaks my heart that I probably won’t ever see either of them again, and I can’t deal with another important mentor-type figure in my life getting lost in the metaphorical abyss.

Any help would be much appreciated.

Teacher’s Pet

Hey there, TP!

I’m going to say … yes? Absolutely. You can keep in touch with a teacher you really like. In my experience, this was actually quite common. I mean, I guess my high school was sort of “barely a school.” I was driving my yearbook teacher’s car to Subway and picking up a meatball sub for her and using her card to get a sandwich for myself. But everyone has their own story.

You can just tell your teacher that you really enjoyed his class and your discussions, and you’d like to continue them, and then ask what the best way to keep in touch is. Some of my favorite relationships in life have been with teachers, professors, and older co-workers. I worked at a bookstore and was often paired up in my shifts with a woman 40 years my senior, and we were complete and total besties. I’d show up to work and be like, “Wait, where’s Nora?”

Which is to say, you shouldn’t feel awkward about it. When you think about what teachers do, and the roles they play in our lives, it makes complete sense why they can come to feel so special. It’s a chaotic, confusing life, TP! People who guide us and show us the way, people who bring out our potential and equip us with the tools we need to move forward, those people are important. Of course we would want to maintain a connection with them.

All of that is pretty straightforward, at least in my mind. But I also find your reluctance and anxiety here to be really interesting. If it’s all right with you, I’d like to use it as a springboard to delve into a more complicated conversation, one that’s really taken social media by storm in recent years: power dynamics and relationships.

Perhaps it’s a case of “too much time on the internet,” where every day offers a safari of some of the worst opinions and ideas ever cooked up by man. But I’ve noticed a strange fixation on what kind of relationships are appropriate and which ones are inappropriate, as determined by a rigorous series of tests. What is the age gap between them? The wealth gap? Is it an interracial dynamic? And so on and so forth. I have seen relationships, both romantic and platonic, be publicly dissected in this way.

To be clear, there are some things to be wary of when it comes to navigating relationships. You do want to be on the lookout for people who might exploit their position of authority to take advantage of you, and it’s sadly the case that life is riddled with no shortage of creeps who are looking for vulnerable people to prey on. I’m definitely not trying to say otherwise.

However, the fixation on “right and wrong” relationships strikes me as somewhat paranoid and antisocial. My feeling is that it’s probably very comforting to imagine that there are hard-and-fast rules that delineate “healthy relationships” from “toxic relationships.” It can feel reassuring to believe that, by a simple process of math, we can reliably identify good people and bad people, victims and villains, predators and prey, and so on.

But life is a good deal more complicated than that, and in asserting these rigid categories of social conduct, we can come to forget that, in the end, people are people. Yes, power dynamics exist, stemming from age, professional position, and so on. But the reality is, every single relationship will have one. What’s more, the “power” isn’t always so cut-and-dry. There can be situations where one person holds more power than the other, and vice versa. Learning how to work around this fact is part of becoming an adult.

Again, I get why people are so wound up on this topic. Many of us have been hurt, after all. But it makes me sad to think that, in an age where loneliness is incredibly rampant, we are only becoming more suspicious of each other and coming up with even more excuses to have nothing to do with each other.

I learn and find enrichment from both my younger and my older friends. I can’t imagine my life without them. As I get older myself, I’m coming around more and more to the cringe truisms that dominated the media I consumed as a child. We have more in common than we have differences. It’s always worth it to make a connection when you can.

Tell your teacher you’d like to stay in touch! Become pen pals! Exchange Letterboxd reviews! Just don’t use his credit card or drive his car during school hours, I guess. Because that’s sooo bad. You really can’t have fun anymore. It’s basically illegal.

Con mucho amor,

Originally published October 26, 2023.

Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessonshere.

‘Is It Wrong to Be Friends With My Former Teacher?’