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Teaching Sex Ed May 1, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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“Are you comfortable teaching Sex Ed?”  My interview for a long-term sub job as a 6th grade Math and Science teacher was going extremely well when this question stopped me in my tracks.  I really needed the job.  I really needed the money. “No problem,” I said without a moment’s hesitation.

Middle School is a DMZ between elementary school and High School. Nothing prepared me for Middle School, except my own miserable experience in Junior High.  And just referring to it as Junior High dates me. To be honest, I was less intimidated about teaching Sex Ed than teaching math.  The principal informed me that the regular teacher had fallen off a desk while hanging a project up from the ceiling and was out on disability. (Later, I learned there was more to it than that, but that’s between you and me.)

I taught one period of math followed by one period of science with the same students twice a day.  The good part was I got to keep the good students for TWO whole periods.  The bad part was I got to keep the bad students for TWO whole periods.   The class was pretty much equally divided between Asians (mainly Chinese) and Latinos (mostly Mexican).  I had my token white student, who had Asperger Syndrome, and could rattle off the box office take for every Batman movie.  And there was one African American girl named Princess.  Don’t get me wrong.  There were some really wonderful kids, whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to private school.  And there were some really not so wonderful kids, who already had two strikes against them.  Once the hormones kick in, sometimes it’s hard to tell one from the other.

If you’re like Middle Schoolers, you’re already getting restless.  “When is she going to start talking about the good stuff?”  Penis. Vagina.  I just threw those in to keep your interest.

During Period 4,  I taught Intervention Math for students who were more than two years below grade level.  This class included two Gypsy boys, who’d moved to California from Chicago when their father was released from prison.  They had never been to school, spoke Bulgarian, and were still learning their ABC’s.  I had another student, Eddie, who was prime gang recruitment fodder.  Yeah, it was grim.  If things got really bad, I could call Ed, the behavior aide, who wore mirrored wraparound sunglasses, and would escort the “offender” from the classroom.  Round up the usual suspects.

After the first month, two girls told me someone had written something bad about me in a book.  “Does it rhyme with witch?” I asked.  They exchanged looks and seemed disappointed that I wasn’t more shocked.  So, I was less than thrilled at the prospect of teaching these same kids Sex Ed.

Oh, I forgot to mention one small detail.  In the class next door, there was a 6th grader who was pregnant. Yes, the girl (and she was a girl) was 12.  The father was 19 and the girl’s mother planned to raise the child as her own. (Think “She’s my sister!/She’s my daughter!” from Chinatown)  The girl’s belly was already showing, and some of the girls wanted to have a baby shower. Suddenly, teaching Sex Ed seemed way more important than teaching the kids to calculate the radius of a circle.

There didn’t seem to be an actual curriculum for Sex Ed.  There was just talk about The Film.  And about the all important Money Shot, where the animated penis gets an erection.  But, I had yet to see The Film, so I had no idea what to expect.  Another veteran teacher, who’d taught Sex Ed for years, told me she liked to break the ice by writing PENIS and VAGINA in huge letters on the board.  But, I was a sub.  I really needed the money.  I did not plan to write PENIS or VAGINA in huge letters on the board.

There were two Chinese American girls, who sat at the back of the classroom.  Compared to some of the other students, who were 12 going on 21, they were almost childlike and sat two stuffed bears on their desks each day.  I couldn’t help but notice on the day we were to discuss Sex Ed, they’d made blindfolds out of Kleenex and covered the bears’ eyes.

Day 1 -The atmosphere in the classroom crackled with anticipation.  I thought we’d start by talking about where our attitudes and information about sex come from.  We made a list: Parents, friends, TV, movies, music, music videos, religion, and books (including comic books with those busty vixens who ride shotgun to the superheroes).  So far, so good.  I was actually surprised at how easy this was for me.

Finally, it was time for The Film.  We should have just fast-fowarded to the “penis rising” shot as the kids were so eager to see the rumored launch, they weren’t paying attention to anything else.   The star of the show finally made its appearance.  The animation wasn’t top notch and the tip of the penis wasn’t even in the shot.  It was like watching a bulldozer slowly lift a load of …?

After the film, students (some who were still flustered) were to write out questions.  All students received a piece of paper and had to fold it it up, even if it was blank, and drop it into a bag.  That way no one would know who asked the question.  I read the first question, “Do people sweat when they have sex?”  The class let out out a collective groan and looked at the boy with Asperger’s, who they knew had asked THAT question.  “Well, sex is physical, so it is possible you’re going to sweat,”  I answered.  Okay, one down.  I grabbed some more questions.

“Is having sex really like warm apple pie?” “Why do women like to be handcuffed to beds for sex?”  “What’s a dildo?” “Will drinking Mountain Dew prevent you from getting pregnant?”  “What’s rape?” “What makes people gay?”

Holy sh*t!  Some of the questions seemed incredibly vulgar, but I came to realize that these were the only words the kids knew. Some questions were so graphic, I couldn’t read them aloud, but had to paraphrase them, or just toss them in the trash.  When it came to sex, these kids knew Everything and Nothing.  They’d watched sex acts on TV and in movies, but totally out of the context of a loving, committed relationship.

This is what I remember saying:

Because I don’t like apple pie and didn’t see the movie American Pie, that analogy is lost on me.  I do like cherry pie though, so sex could be like cherry pie.

Sex without love is just sex.  It’s like brushing your teeth only you can get pregnant.

I’ve never known any girl who said, “Boy, I wish I’d had sex earlier.”   But I’ve known plenty (including my son’s friend who lost her virginity at 11 when she got drunk at a party) who said, “I sure wish I would have waited so it would have been special.”

If you were a sailor and went off to sea, would you rather your wife keep herself company with a carved replica of “yourself,” or have sex with another guy?

Rape doesn’t have as much to do with sex, as it has to do with violence.  It’s a way for someone to use the act of sex to humiliate another person.

A good recipe for date rape usually includes alcohol.

The bell rang.  But, it was like the students didn’t want to leave.  Sex Ed was two days long, so we had  another day of Q&A.  As the kids filed out the door, I looked over and saw several boys combing through the trash hoping to nab one of the reject questions.   Eddie, the wannabe gang banger, offered to bring one of his condoms the next day, but I told him that wouldn’t be necessary.

Day 2 – The students couldn’t wait to get into class and pick up where we’d left off.

“Handcuffs?” Well, maybe some people find that exciting, but that’s all about make believe (It’s not like I was going to introduce them to S&M), and some people like fantasy more than others.  Just like when you’re a kid and you dress up and pretend you’re someone else.  Remember how you’d pretend to arrest someone and haul them off to jail?  They nodded.  I drew a line on the board.  At one end it said Some People (handcuffs) and at the other end was Most People (masturbation).  Think of it as a Sex Ed graphic organizer.

“Mountain Dew as birth control?”  I recognized the handwriting on that question.  It belonged to a girl who was the top student in the class.  The girl who won the DARE poster contest.  I’d ridden with her in the back of a police car over to the Civic Center when she received the award.   If she thought Mountain Dew might prevent pregnancy, they were all doomed.   “When I was your age, it was Coca-Cola, and that’s just as silly as Mountain Dew,” I said.  “The only way to be 100 percent sure you don’t get pregnant, is not to have sex.”

“What makes people gay?”   What the kids didn’t know (and what I didn’t tell them), was that my own son had come out as gay three weeks earlier, so this was a subject close to my heart.  I told them 10 percent of the population is gay.  Let’s see, that would mean that 3 students in the class could possibly be gay.  But I didn’t go THERE.   Children can be cruel and quick to point fingers.  But, here’s what I did say.

“If one day a year, all of the people who were gay had orange eyes, you’d be amazed at how many people you know have orange eyes. People you know, people you respect, even people you love.   But many of them are afraid to tell you.  They’re afraid that you won’t understand that this is the way they were born.

I was getting ready to pass the bag again when Princess raised her hand. “Can’t we just ask you the questions?” she said, and I realized she was speaking for the whole class.  I nodded.

For the next half hour, students raised their hands and asked me questions that I can’t share with you.  Because what happened was between me and my students.  I answered each question as honestly as I could.   As a parent, I kept in mind what I would want a caring adult to tell my child.

It was almost time for the bell to ring.  There was time for one more question, and this time I got to ask it.  “How many of you would feel comfortable talking to your parents about the stuff we talked about?  The students’ incredulous looks told me what I already knew.  I reminded students that their parents knew a thing or two about sex (after all, THEY were here), and that parents often feel awkward talking about sex too.  As the students flew out the door, I saw the pregnant 6th grader walk past.  I’d like to think that had it been a year earlier…

“Are you comfortable teaching Sex Ed?”   Yes!  I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Photo Credit:  May is Sex Month on YouthCast by Youthcast1 on Flickr.

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