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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

THE NAKED TRUTH

[This "The Right Thing" column originally appeared on June 13, 2004. As we head into a new school year, I thought it appropriate to post it again here.]

It was to be the highlight of the beginning oil-painting class offered by a local art league in Indianapolis -- a painting session featuring a live nude model.

So imagine Bill Gulde's surprise when he walked into the studio, 10 minutes late for the class, and there -- about to drop her robe and strike a pose -- was an 18-year-old student from the high school where Gulde has taught history for the past 17 years.

Yikes! There's no rule in the high school teacher handbook covering such a delicate situation, so Gulde had to make a quick decision about the right thing to do. He assumed he had two options: take a deep breath and stay for the session or make a mad dash for the exit.

"I'm very liberal in my outlook," says Gulde, who is 39. "At first I thought, 'I can deal with this."'

So he took out his easel. But as he sat down and prepared his supplies, he grew increasingly uncomfortable. While the model had never been in one of his classes, he says, "I know this girl. She's a student. I see her every day."

And suddenly he decided he needed to get out of there.

But when the instructor learned why Gulde was leaving, he urged him not to go. As the model sat ready to disrobe, the instructor canvassed the rest of the class and found that several other budding artists were uncomfortable as well -- because the girl was so young.

So the instructor asked the model to wear a form-fitting outfit rather than appear nude. She happily complied, and the class got on with its renderings. (Lest you think any great artistic enterprise was undercut here, at one point the instructor commented to Gulde that he seemed to be having trouble painting the model's arm. "That's her torso," Gulde responded.)

Seldom are the only solutions to ethical dilemmas those that are thrust at us in stark black and white. In Gulde's case, he could have stayed, in spite of his extreme discomfort, because he knew he wasn't doing anything wrong. Or he could have left, avoided the issue, and missed out on the exercise he'd most been looking forward to in class.

But a third option might have been the best: He could have asked for someone else's take on the situation. As it turned out, the instructor offered help without being asked. He found a solution that satisfied the class while alleviating the discomfort raised both by the model's age and the notion that Gulde might someday find himself having to teach a history lesson to someone he'd seen naked (a situation most high school teachers presumably try to avoid).

In the end, Gulde and his classmates seemed satisfied about getting to work with a nude-like model, and an ethical crisis was averted.

And Gulde says that when he saw the student the next day, she enthusiastically waved her arm at him and "was delightful." At least, he thinks it was her arm.

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