Man, you dodged a bullet. Judge Baugh made hopefully the worst decision of his judicial career, and you are a free man again. As much as I wish I could, I can’t put you in jail again. I suppose some (wo)men of faith or philosophy would advise that the guilt of what you’ve done is the ultimate punishment, that the fact that you’re free is immaterial. But I’m not sure – guilt generally involves giving a damn about other people, and you’ve amply demonstrated that’s not your forte. You didn’t give a damn about Cherice Moralez, or your family, or your friends, or your colleagues who now labor under additional suspicion every time they try to connect with their students. Besides, you have probably read and reread the Washington Post opinion arguing that teachers like yourself needn’t necessarily do jail time at all! So I don’t think guilt is going to do it.
But I bet you have a pretty finely developed sense of self-pity. You got Judge Baugh to pity you and decide you’d suffered enough. You even seem to have him convinced that a 14 year old girl ruined your life, not the other way around. But if you realize what you’ve deprived yourself of, and that you have no one to blame but yourself, that will be punishment enough.
First, let there be no doubt that you did this to yourself. You and I both know 14-year old girls. We both know that they are inhabiting a gray area of maturity, where one minute they are children and the next they are adults, and back again. We, meaning male educators (though I am loathe to share any kind of categorical connection to you) understand that young women discovering their sexuality often explore it inappropriately and sometimes quite publicly. Sometimes they do this in a way that is distracting or even overwhelming…to teenage boys. But you are not a 14 year old boy – you’re a grown man, and grown men, especially those who have been around enough 14-year-old girls, know that they are not adults. Moreover, we know, and I’m sure you knew, that even when they choose to act like adults or are forced to take on adult responsibilities, they still deserve their last couple years of childhood before they forced to be adults all the time. That is what, initially, you robbed Cherice Moralez of. And if you didn’t do it forcibly, as Judge Baugh noted, you did it through a betrayal of trust and of your position, which is in some ways a transgression on a deeper level.
Like I said, though, I don’t expect this guilt to eat you up. You didn’t give a damn then, why should you now? Because you ought to know what you missed out on, what you robbed yourself of.
I’ve had the good fortune of working with a number of young women, Cherice’s age and a bit older, who were often in very difficult places in their lives. If you’ve taken developmental psychology, which as a teacher I think you must have, you know that a girl is most in need of a father figure when she is in her adolescence (a boy’s need peaks as a toddler). I’m not an expert, but I imagine girls benefit from having a stable male figure in their lives at the point when their male peers are, while perhaps well intentioned, often hopelessly incapable of carrying on a normal relationship with a girl and simultaneously maintaining a tenuous hold on their own developing sexuality. For girls who, for whatever reason, do not perceive their fathers as these kinds of figures (whether that perception seems warranted or no), there is absolutely a role, an incomparably rewarding one, for male educators to play as men these girls can trust, confide in, and depend upon as they navigate the transition into womanhood.
And that’s what you missed out on, or, more accurately, the opportunity of a lifetime that you rejected. If you had a connection with Cherice Moralez that you caused or allowed to develop into sex, you could have made that connection, merely by being a responsible adult, into a far more fulfilling relationship. You’ll never see her graduate from high school; you’ll never get to recommend her for jobs or receive proud messages about her grades or her college classes. You’ll never feel the satisfaction that comes from having been there for a student when they really needed someone (and it sounds like Cherice Moralez absolutely needed someone, anyone, that is, but you), and seeing them get past that point of their lives to succeed on their own. You’ll never experience the feeling of watching her become an adult; you’ll never have that teacher-student relationship transform into a friendship of mutual admiration and respect. And you wouldn’t have had that even if she were alive today – you took that opportunity from yourself, and from her, as soon as you decided to indulge your own selfish sexual desires instead of doing what was right by another person you were, at least in part, responsible for.
This if, of course, nothing like the offense you committed against Cherice Moralez or against her mother and the community at large. But I think that, given your pattern of behavior, what you have done to yourself will hit you a little harder than what you’ve done to others. I can tell you right now that if you understood even a fraction of the relationship you denied yourself and Cherice Moralez when you decided to have sex with her, the knowledge of happiness and fulfillment you willfully refused would be more of a punishment than Judge Baugh could have handed down.
Ronald Reagan once noted that Marines never have to ask themselves if they’ve made a difference in the world. I’ve never been a Marine, so I don’t know if that’s true. But I’ve been a teacher, and I’ve been a teacher who had the privilege of helping many students, especially female students, through some very difficult times, and I can tell you that I have at least partially answered that question for myself. I can only hope that the knowledge of the opportunity to make a difference you threw away will spur you to make something productive out of the reprieve you have so undeservedly been given. It will, of course, never be enough, but you owe it to yourself, your community, and to Cherice Moralez to try.