Bernadetta is speaking to me through the door of her dorm room.
This is our ritual.
Every Sunday, I stop by and check in on her. Today, I’ve found a needlepoint she left behind on a bench during one of the few times she felt comfortable enough to go outside. I’m bringing it to her, and also a little pick-me-up gift of some gemstone beads. Her father abused her, she told me during one of these weekly check-ins. That’s why she’s so quiet in class. She likes to stay in the back, and startles easily. Bernie likely has PTSD. She’s one of my favorite students, and I care a lot about her. That’s why when I take my walk around campus, I stop by and see her first. She’s learning to ride a horse now, and to obliterate threats with her bow before most even see them.
I didn’t expect Fire Emblem: Three Houses to thrust me deep into my own feelings about the role of professors in their students’ lives. But far away from home, teetering on the brink of war, at a private liberal arts school cum religious military academy, I find myself adopting the mantle of my own college professors.
“In loco parentis is a loose edict and every educator has to figure out what it means to them,” as my adviser and department chair told me once. “Some of us came to understand the parentis part was much more literal, like Charlotte.”
Taking stock of my approach to Fire Emblem, I guess that’s the case for me, as well.
I went in to Fire Emblem expecting to have mostly the same approach as everyone else I knew. Decide on my favorite queer from the scant few same-sex romance options, and ship the hell out of them with my mostly silent mercenary-turned-academic avatar. Things didn’t go that way, because despite the irrepressible flirtations of these bundles of anime hormones, Three Houses does something unexpected.
It calls out its own problematic premise.
No matter which house players choose, the students will initially comment on how wild it is that you appear to be their same age (Byleth is canonically slightly older). Almost immediately, the massive implications your position as professor has regarding expectations of behavior and propriety are introduced. And for a moment, I found this remarkably refreshing. A game marketed around its relationships as much as its strategic combat openly acknowledging the common issue of age gap ships, and the power dynamics of student/professor relationships?
Games don’t often like to mention their problematic relationship issues. The politics of horny are less of a marketable bullet point than the politics of gunning down brown people or their monstrous stand-ins. No one, as I recall, ever pulls Commander Shepard aside in Mass Effect to talk about how maybe it’s inappropriate to bang the subordinates in her direct chain of command, in the middle of an interstellar invasion no less. But Fire Emblem does. So, I backed up into my beliefs, and decided that Byleth wasn’t going to date one of her students.
No matter how much they flirted, I would hold my boundaries firm. And what I found was that I actually enjoyed my time in a game predicated on relationships far more than I ever did before (yes, that time in Dragon Age 2 when I had a threesome with a lusty, brown pirate I wifed and her old elf gigolo friend). I adopted the mantle of my own professors, and became champions of my own students.
I was a disaster in undergrad. Teeming with the narcissistic arrogance that comes from years of scholastic achievement with minimal effort, coupled with all the insecurities of “a smart child” who was routinely punished by educators for being unchallenged in school and “failing to live up to my potential” as a result. Like most of the students in Three Houses, I was severely traumatized going into college. Finding compassionate support and structure from the handful of professors I gravitated toward was a respite I’d always needed. As much time as I spent in class receiving instruction on the shape and function of the Elizabethan theater, easily double that was spent falling apart in Dr. Sharp’s office over everything from a failing grade on my first big-girl critical response, to the dissolution of a romantic relationship.
Playing Fire Emblem, I have come to love my students. Sure, I have favorites. But I care deeply about all of them. I want them to succeed, to provide as much succor for them as possible. Even if I know Edelgard is on an unredeemable path towards full-on fascism, there’s hope I can coax her back from the brink of a Maestro Delphine disaster. And if there’s one thing I learned from my own professors and experience in college, it’s that the best thing you can do for students is to listen and take them seriously.
Listening is why I love the much-maligned Lost Items system. It’s not a mechanic I devote a great deal of time to, I don’t lug around a specific knapsack full of my students’ crap to dump at each one’s feet, asking them what shit is theirs. I don’t have to do that, because I took an active interest in them as people. College students are desperate for anyone to seriously listen, and god, will they tell you everything about them. I know their traumas, their coping mechanisms, aspirations, and deepest fears. Even when I’m not certain about an item, I can make a well-informed guess as to the owner because of how well I know my students, even without reading their spreadsheets or consulting a Lost Items guide. What seems like a gimmicky way to push relationship ranks (and it is) has become a way to demonstrate interpersonal understanding. The next time I run into my sleepy, scattered-but-brilliant future academic, I’ll say, “Hey, Linhardt, I found your book about crests. You left it in the garden where you were taking a nap under a tree.” And maybe he’ll tell me about who he’s crushing on.
Okay, so maybe it’s a little weird taking an active interest in who students are developing affections for. But, if we’re honest, it’s not nearly as creepy as how Fire Emblem can’t think of a better setup than Byleth spying on her students’ intimate conversations. And taking an active interest in a student’s life sometimes means getting to know who they’re dating, and maybe, just maybe, rooting for them a little.
No one rooted for my partner and I to get together more than Dr. Charlotte Morse.
Dr. Morse is a flurry of a small Chaucerian who’d stammer out Smith college fight songs from the ‘20s (she did not go to Smith, and certainly not in the 1920s), and ask for cigarettes (perpetually my last, given freely). Even though I never took one of her courses, and she had only seen my partner and I together a handful of times, Dr. Morse would always stop me and ask, “How’s Sarah? Have you seen her? She wasn’t in class. She’s brilliant, you know? You couldn’t do better. She could.” Before disappearing down a stairwell in a poof of diaphanous scarf and softly graying hair.
While I don’t have an interest in my Byleth dating any of her students, I can’t help but think that maybe, some time after graduation, my colleague Manuela could use the sweetness and light of Dorothea in her life—who clearly has a thing for older women. They were both in the same opera company after all. Or how Linhardt and Bernadetta would be a cute couple. They seem good for each other, even if I’d rather see Bernie get together with the fearless foreign exchange student, Petra. Caspar, my darling pocket-sized trans masc with an interest in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, ska, and corn dogs (don’t @ me) needs a Felix in his life. Hubert.
I don’t know what or who Hubert needs.
I’m working on it.
Maybe I’ll invite him to tea after class and we’ll talk about what he wants to do after graduating.
I feel genuine worry for my pupils. Their lives have been filled with such secreted pain, despite, or more often, because of their station. I see it in their classroom performance, know they add every failed exam to their burden, and I want them to succeed. It’s why I carefully set them up for success on the field and engineer mealtimes where they can spend time with classmates I think might have a positive influence on their lives. Friends they can grow to rely on and be there for. When they express a novel interest, I try to shape their curriculum towards that goal.
Even if Fire Emblem: Three Houses resists including a sense of real queer life for my students, I can invest in them and tease it out where possible. I might not have an interest in dating these characters, but I am absolutely interested in making the most of their time with me at Garreg Mach.
You see, I know how this ends. Our time as teacher and students will be all too brief. The best I can do is help them develop the relationships and wisdom to weather adulthood, and hopefully, find some love and light of their own in the end.