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I bet the title leaped out at you. Made you a tad uncomfortable, but made you want to read more.

That word stopped and surprised me in a student’s manuscript last week. I was reading it aloud for the first time to my class, the week after my classroom observation/evaluation by a university department chair. The assignment: a personal New York experience. The author: a very talented student whom I’ll call Bob.

Bob’s experience occurred when he was sixteen. He and his buddies had made elaborate plans to steal drugs belonging to one of their mothers at a time she was not supposed to be home. Only just as Bob got himself through the apartment window, there was Mom…a few feet away, wondering what the boys were doing. The son, already inside, claimed he had forgotten his homework. Bob got an erection.

There were a few sentences about his erection and shock, and then a few paragraphs on getting caught and the consequences. All in all, it was a compelling essay. I read it without pausing, commenting, giggling, or turning even the slightest shade of red. That is part of my job.

Then I led a discussion about the writing. Everyone found the piece engaging. Everyone always finds Bob’s work engaging. He’s a natural storyteller. After several people commented and it seemed as if we were done, one woman—Jill, I’ll call her–said, “The erection threw me.”

“Uh huh,” I said. “And did it stop you because the author used that word? Or because he lingered with it and it slowed down the story?” A bigger part of my job is discussing how my students can improve their writing and what they might add or tighten.

“Can you have an erection like that?” Jill asked, her eyes on me. Just me.

There are several male students in that class. From mid-twenties to late forties. One is very vocal. I turned to him.

“It’s very possible,” he said. “In threatening or nerve-wracking situations that make you really nervous. It’s happened to me many times, once when…

“Thank you,” I said, picking up the next manuscript, ready—more than ready—to move on.

Jill was not. “You mean you can have one without being…you know…”

A quieter student, who weighs his words carefully, chimed in, “The author said he was sixteen. Sixteen-year- old boys have them all the time.”

“Look what we’re all learning in night school this evening,” I said.

At home later, my husband claimed he could not remember the last time that everhappened to him.

“Do you remember the last time you got caught going head first through a window to steal your friend’s mother’s drugs?” I asked.

The next day in the university library, where I often write and do research, I googled “Non-sexual erections.” I kept getting ads for Viagra and information on premature you-know-what.

Finally, I found a page on which it said that non-sexual erections can happen when a man is nervous, scared, angry, or under stress. I tried printing out the page. Nothing happened. I asked the librarian, whom I’ve known for decades and who knows I am technically inept, to check my computer, the printer, and the topic. “Do you think the university printer is rejecting this subject?” I asked.

He looked at my screen, smiled a little smile, and then pressed ‘Print.’ Nothing happened. “Something’s wrong with the library printer. Let’s send it to the one at my desk,” he said. He sent it for me. I followed him to his desk and waited with him for my page. He went on,“You know you’re not supposed to use the library printer for anything that’s not connected to your class.”

“This is connected to my class,” I said. “We’re getting into new areas.”

Fortunately, we hadn’t gotten into this new area the week before when the department chair sat in my classroom taking copious notes.

In thirty two years of teaching at this university, I’ve helped thousands of students write very personal stories about things they’ve never written about before.

Last week was the first time this topic ever (heh, heh) came up.

No photos or art work.


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