Nathan Kohn has been teaching Aquatic Science at St. Genevieve College for 15 years. It’s not a perfect situation, but he’s resigned to being a gay man in a straight culture, a Jew among Catholics and single in a world of couples. Until the stunningly attractive Isaac Wolf appears in his classroom. Isaac is a few years older than his fellow students, brilliant, self-composed and Jewish. Wouldn’t Nathan’s mother be pleased? Except, of course, relationships between faculty and students are forbidden, especially those not sanctioned by the Church.
Isaac has his own secrets, which Nathan finds out when he visits the racy new club downtown where boys can be bought in the back room. Behind the beaded curtain, the man on his knees turns out to be Isaac. What happens in the club stays there, right? Except Nathan’s mind isn’t the only thing Isaac blows, and Nathan can’t stop thinking about that night. But what kind of future can there be for a college professor and a rent boy?
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The first day of class is always rough. I teach a yearlong survey course on ecological sampling techniques that’s required for students in the natural resources program. It’s a capstone for the program, involving eight hours of instruction every week. Some take it their junior year, but mostly I have seniors who think they already know everything and who’ve heard about me or been on ratemyprofessors.com, and are looking forward to the class without enthusiasm.
It’s not that I’m a bad teacher. I’m not. But I do expect students to work hard and know their stuff. After all, my course is the last chance they have to learn techniques they’ll need for a career in natural resource management. Not that they’re likely to get an actual job once they graduate, not without a bit of pull and a lot of luck. Cuts in federal and state programs have left jobs few and far between. But students are a passionate, foolish lot, and you can’t tell them that saving the planet is a terrible financial bet.
I hate that first day, when a couple dozen terrified faces peer up at me. The bright ones especially tremble, certain that I’ll be the death of their grade point and murder their chances of going on for a graduate degree. The worst of it is, I’m not such a bad guy, really, and by the end of the year, most students will admit that. But I do demand a lot. I see our fragile planet’s future in their sweaty palms, and it scares me to death.
I wrote on the board, The first rule of ecology is that small shifts beget big change.
Under that I added, Everything is connected.
Isaac sat in the back row, third seat from the window. Of course I noticed him. How could I not with sunlight streaming through the window, forming a golden finger that landed like a caress on his chiseled cheek? Most of the others I recognized, having passed them in the hallway from time to time as they stumbled through their first years here. Many of my colleagues develop chummy relationships with the students, watching them develop through four and sometimes five years of the expensive education their parents are providing. I, on the other hand, only meet them once, and my course is sufficiently physically and intellectually grueling that I’m sure they’re grateful there isn’t more. But I do take note of them as they pass my office in small, chatty clusters or single, preoccupied strolls.
And I certainly would have noticed Isaac with his dark curls and elegant stride, so different from the beefy men and outdoorsy women who normally people my world. The Department of Natural Resources at Saint Genevieve’s, a small Catholic college in the suburbs of Chicago, has a surprisingly good history of placing students in the few jobs available to undergraduates and an astonishingly high rate of acceptance for graduate programs in the field. I like to think it’s because of my course, but I’ve never been accused of modesty. Our students clomp around campus in ragged jeans and thick plaid wool shirts. Among these dandelions, Isaac, with his tight dark jeans, long-sleeved tees, and strong Jewish profile, stuck out like a lily. My first thought on seeing him was, wouldn’t my mama be proud if I brought home such a nice Jewish boy? My second was, are you out of your frigging mind?
I’m neither out nor in at work. I’m simply single, a perpetual bachelor academic. I’ve let it be known that my previous relationships did not work out, mostly because of work. This is, of course, true, and my colleagues understand. Their own marriages and entanglements suffer from the seventy-hour workload we shoulder in order to teach and research the subjects about which we are most passionate. It probably wouldn’t surprise most of them, and I wouldn’t lose my job if I let it be known that the person who moved out a few years ago was named Bill. Jenny Karn, our marvelous microbiologist, brings Leslie with her to all department functions. But I do know, very well, the passage in the morals clause I signed, the one that relates to schtupping students. It’s grounds for dismissal, no matter their gender.
And so I looked at everyone but Isaac Wolf as I lectured that fine September morning. But I can’t remember anyone else who was there.