On Sexual Education
I have been informed today that I am going to teach Sex Ed to the fifth graders.
I shouldn’t say I was ‘informed’- technically, I was asked to do it, and technically I could’ve had said no.
But the reality is, I’m still new at the school, less than 60 days in, and taking over a job from someone who was well liked. It’s an awkward situation, and I’m finding I really have to bust ass to get accepted into the fold here. There is a word for this- I was “volun-told”.
You remember Sex Ed. It was that time where things were implied, where the class was divided into boys and girls. The girls went with the popular elementary teacher, the nurturing one, the one that is embarrassingly honest and forthright about her feelings, the one kids would go to if they had real problems, because she was an emotional rock they could tether too. The boys went with the gym coach, the same one that called you ‘girlies’ went you were running too slow during gym laps. I don’t really know what happened with the girls, but the boys were sat on a cold gym floor and shown slides of line drawings of genitalia, of penises and vaginas, of the internal plumbing of ovaries and vas deferens and all the odd canals- all of this alluding to, but never saying, that somehow babies and sex and some sort of illicit adult activity was involved.
They called me down to the organizational meeting where the fifth grade teacher, the elementary Asst. Principal, the kindergarten/P.E. teacher, and- duh- the gym coach were all seated. I can’t say I know much about the gym coach- he seems nicer than I remember my own coaches to have been, but that isn’t saying much. He is a little red-faced and paunchy, which is an odd characteristic that all gym teachers seem to share. I don’t know why physical education jobs are given to people who couldn’t run a mile if chased by a tank, but there you go. Its true, things really don’t change.
Before I can explain how this meeting felt, I need to make a relevant point; being a school teacher is weird enough as is. Every time you bring the fact up at a social gathering, people will start recalling their own school days, and the pictures they paint are clearly in soft-focus. A hazy memory is implied, and it’s difficult to listen to, as you are still, for all intents and purposes, in high school, and the distance and nostalgia they attribute to these visceral images is not one you get to enjoy. We, as teachers, all full well remember what it was ‘like’ in high school, because we just got to leave a few hours ago, and have to go back in just a few more hours.
This meeting, though, was different. I DID feel that odd nostalgia- although ‘nostalgia’ implies a pleasant sensation, whereas I just had a flood of awkward emotion, sweaty palms and other unmentionable physical reactions to the subject matter- and it made it peculiar to sit in a room with a closed door discussing the education of sex for small children. I am embarrassed to admit that I spent a good part of the meeting breaking out into 12-year old snickers. I couldn’t help it. The fifth grade teacher, a middle-aged mother who clearly loves children, was putting forth most of the ideas, being rather blunt and unembarrassed, as someone who spends every minute of every day with kids is wont to do. She’s coaching me as to how I should talk to the boys, suggesting I say things like,
“Well, you may start feeling different about girls as well, and perhaps you are noticing their boobs more now, and that’s OK.”
Man, It was difficult enough to suppress a huge 12-years old guffaw at this point, but she had to choose to day to be wearing a rather low- cut blouse, and it felt as if someone had filled my eyeballs half-up with liquid mercury, such was the gravity of my line of sight swinging directly to her cleavage. I was sitting directly across from her, so I just had to muscle through it, but it wasn’t easy, and I’m not entirely sure I succeeded, but at least I didn’t linger long enough to warrant comment or blushing. Not that I could embarrass this woman. I meant me blushing.
I really wonder if they chose the right person to do this.
I’ll admit, I did entertain a small hope that they would rethink their decision to ask me to do this and pass it along to the gym teacher- present at the meeting, of course- but there was some measure of just dumb fart-joke, penis penis penis vagina residual juvenile humor that I have not yet been able to expunge from my personality. I figured I’d give it a shot. I can’t believe I have to talk to 10-year olds about wet dreams.
And so I am about to check out the DVD’s given to me, the ones I must show on the metaphorical cold gym floor. I hope they don’t suck.
OK, they sucked. They sucked BAAD. Really, they were exactly as I remembered them to be, and frankly, given the mid-eighties feather hair-dos with they kind of heat insulation usually reserved for ear-muffs, they probably are exactly as I remembered them. This just got a lot more daunting.
I mean, I guess the whole thing about deodorant really is important- the current7th grade certainly has a few reliably pungent members, so much so that you can tell who taught them last by the almost physically tangible ‘7th Grade Funk’that remains after they leave a room. But really, the focus on hygiene just seems like a filler, a way to avoid saying the words “wet dream” in front of a bunch of snickering 10 year olds.T he whole film was soooooo ham-fisted and predictable. Even the name was predictable, if a little confusing. I don’t know who thought of “Always Changing About You”, as a title, but it sounded exactly correct for a film of this ilk- a vague allusion towards content while still being grammatically perplexing. Is ‘Change’ always around you, or are you “all about Changing?” I don’t get it. I prefer something more descriptive and less vague, like “You’re Changing, and That Sometimes Feels Kinda Fucked-Up, but Don’t Worry, It’s Supposed To.” Or something like that. I can’t even finish watching the video.
I finished watching the video. Good lord, it even has some of that “Saved By the Bell” type of soundtrack. And it does, in fact, have a line drawing showing a cross section of the human penis and vagina, ovaries, testicle, all the business. It even shows a stop action drawing- and by this I mean cheap animation- of an erection and ejaculation, little teardrop shaped globs of sperm moving up the urethra with the animation quality of a flipbook, and splashing in all directions upon egress from the penis, like broken sprinkler head. I’m going to giggle, I know it.
The Parent Meeting.
I was asked, as a part and parcel of the whole Sex Ed thing, to attend a parent meeting. I think the idea was that they could check out the curriculum, view the video, and be generally assured that we aren’t totally incompetent. I represent the boy’s half- I’m supposed to be calm and reassuring, the sort of educator that can say ‘erection’ as naturally as ‘radial tires’.
So, yes, we showed the film to the parents. In it kids are talking about increased sebum production, odor, hygiene, and all sort of topics during their class presentations. At other times, they cut to kid-parent conversations, having perfectly natural unembarrassed dialogues about periods, the efficacy of winged maxi-pads, etc. If you haven’t guessed yet, the video was sponsored by an unnamed feminine hygiene product company.
We are pausing the movie at points telling them that this is what we intend to focus on, they’re in fifth grade blah blah blah, hygiene hygiene hygiene. We are avoiding direct allusions to sex, babies, anything they might deem awkward. We are describing how we will give every kid a ‘puberty’ kit, pads and deodorant for the girls, plain old deodorant for the boys. I’m gleaning that hygiene is clearly a focal point of 5th grade Sex Ed.
Here’s the problem: Frankly, I stink. Mind you, this is at around seven o’clock in the evening, and I’ve been at school for nearly 11 hours, but it’s the damn California hippie no aluminum deodorant that has me humming- it has no harmful chemicals, inorganic ingredients, uses locally grown hops to stave off competing bacteria, etc, but the fact is the shit really doesn’t work that well. It’s fine for about 6 hours or so, but I’ve been ripening for a good 11 at this point and the whole time I’m clamping my armpits shut like someone taped my upper arms to my torso. I can’t imagine I’d inspire a whole lot of confidence in the parents smelling like a used sock on the locker room floor. I hope this doesn’t foreshadow some dire circumstances.
We- all the teachers- are sitting in the computing lab. We have just finished some sort of training that I’m not entirely sure about, and we are bantering back and forth. The conversation turns toward all the school events happening soon. Sex Ed is brought up. I am suddenly receiving all sorts of interest, even though I’m not saying anything. I don’t have to- everyone knows I was roped into it. This is called ‘hazing’.
Dave, the middle/high school director that had to do this last year, is having great fun at my expense, although he has the right, as he gave the ‘talk’ last year. He steadfastly refused to do it this time around, and he’s dropping bits of dialogue from last year’s meeting, much to the amusement of my colleagues.
Kid: “ So …I woke up with all this sticky stuff all over my pyjamas. What is up with that?”
Dave: “Umm, it’s called a wet dream. It’s perfectly normal.”
Kid: “ So what’s it called, you know, when your penis fills with blood?”
Dave: “It’s, umm, called an erection. It is perfectly normal.”
Kid: “MAN, I get like 20 or 30 of those a day!”
Dave: “Um. Yes. Uh, that may not be perfectly normal. But you may not be perfectly normal, and that is perfectly normal. Next question.”
I know they chose the wrong person to do this.
The Day of:
10:37 AM, Day 1 of Sex Ed.
And so it's the day of Sex Ed, the day where we show The Video, and it's really a train wreck. The first meeting, ole Larry the gym teacher- whom I now love like a brother, such is our shared trauma- asked if our upper school classes would be taken care of.
"Oh yes!", they promised.
"Not even an issue.", said they, assuaging our fears.
"Consider it done.", they pledged.
They didn't do it.
The kids are arriving at 2:00. They will be late. We will struggle with the projector. We will show the video with the line drawings of the penises and the erections and all the little globs of sperm traveling up the urethra. It will go until 2:30.
At this point Larry will leave, as he has a golf match. Well, he coaches the golf team, so it's more legitimate than it sounds, but still, I wish I played golf so I had the excuse. They didn't take care of his duties like they promised, and so I will be left with a bunch of 5th graders, alone, with something I only just found about today: the Transparencies.
I don't know what the Transparencies are or what they show. On some level I really wish they had mentioned the Transparencies earlier, but on another, I guess it's just as well that I don't know. I just know it's something awful, though, and I will be left alone to have to make sense out of them.
Just like a real brother, I want to f**king kill Larry right now.
I get to show up late tomorrow- they 'forgot' to get me a sub, and so I must teach me life science class- but I'm guessing all the most embarrassing stuff will happen today. All I really wanted was Larry’s presence- just to look on approvingly as I give all the speeches. Alas, it may not be so.
2:00 PM: The Talk.
They arrive. They are seated. The fifth grade teacher outlines the game plan to me. She is earnest, she is trying to exhibit full confidence in Larry and I, and she’s faking it pretty well, but I do detect a hint of concern, one that may not be unwarranted. I’m trying to act casual, but I’m not sure how well I’m faking it. She hands me the Transparencies in a plain beige folder. I don’t look at them.
I start giving the introductory speech, hey, here we all are, let’s get right into it shall we? Larry looks on approvingly. This is his role much of the time.
Now, I remember puberty talks being awkward and hesitant, and I’ve got this idea in my head that it really shouldn’t be that way, we should say what we have to say, be forthright, say it all out loud, break the ice, the tension, tear down that forth wall right away. This is what leads me to say,
“OK, well were going to have to say it sooner or later, so here we go.”
“PENIS PENIS PENIS.”
As you may have foreseen, it worked really well. That is to say, we sure broke the ice. To say the kids were amused would be an understatement. They started HOWLING, slapping their hands on the desk, rolling over into fits of laughter, now shouting PENIS PENIS PENIS at the top of their lungs.
Larry looks at me and stage whispers,
“Wow. Things went downhill really quickly, huh?”
He is not looking on Approvingly, as I really need him to do right now.
Despite all this, once the kids settle down, it has the intended effect, as least for me. We show the video, we talk about what we need to talk about, we bring up wet dreams and the importance of washing your junk. We talk about why wet dreams aren’t like wetting the bed- I seem to recall some vagueness about the topic myself at their age, and weirdly enough, it isn’t that weird. We are actually doing OK.
Possibly it isn’t entirely as freakish as I thought it would be because most of these kids haven’t hit puberty yet. It’s still just factual- they aren’t, on the by and large, experiencing any of the peculiar hormonal episodes that usually accompany these sorts of talks. In fact, they are rather unembarrassingly asking some questions that they must have gleaned from somewhere else.
“Mr. Bean,” starts one kid- notably the younger brother of the 20-30 erections a day kid,
“My brother says girls’ attitudes change when they hit puberty and they get mean.”
At my core, I really don’t know how to answer this, and Larry deftly swoops in.
“Well,” he starts, “Girls are going through a lot of emotional changes, like you guys, but they’re probably a bit different in the way they react to them. We, as males, have to be sensitive to that.”
Go Larry. I did not expect him to pull that out at all.
We carry on, do OK as far as I can tell, and it isn’t until we’re finished, watching some educational video to pass the rest of the time, when I realize I totally forgot the Transparencies. They are just sitting on my desk like an IRS audit. They have to be opened, I know, I just don’t want to do it now. Well, we do have two more days of this. It’ll happen sometime.
It’s the day the boys are supposed to learn about the girls. I’m blessedly not required for the first half of class- I have 7th grade to teach- and so the fifth grade teacher and Larry are taking care of the first part. I’m supposed to leave the transparencies on the overhead projector, and just for fun I leave the penis diagram cast on the screen so the kids will have something to talk about when they get there.
I spy in a few times, as I’m right next door, and the fifth grade teacher has really got them going. She’s throwing a ball around the room, and if they catch it, they get to answer a question. It’s brilliant, this Tom Sawyer approach, and the kids are all ape-shit about wanting to answer a question and get the ball. How come this doesn’t work in my high school classes?
I duck out, finish class, and join them. They’ve moved away from the pituitary gland and all the relatively benign stuff, and are full on taking about the Parts, and their names. This woman has not an ounce of shame, and more power to her, because she’s got them saying everything.
“Say ‘cervix’ ,” she’ll command.
“Cervix,” they’ll reply.
She does defer to us on all things male, and at one point, sort of alludes to the scrotum being the same thing as the testicles. I interject- we should be anatomically accurate here- and explain that it’s the sac that holds the testicles. I may even have made some comparison about marbles and the bag they come in, which may have been a good analogy circa 1909, but sort of fails here. Still, though, I’m getting the hang of what fifth graders will understand, and bring up something that will cross the age gap- shrinkage.
It works- we naturally roll into a discussion of why the testicles need to be kept at a lower temperature, and how the scrotum modulates that by alternately bring them closer and farther away from the body- the heat source- hence the shrinkage in cold water. Even typing this, I realize I’m becoming the embarrassingly honest male version of the Sex Ed teacher. It should feel a little creepy, but in fact, feels fine. They are actually understanding this stuff, and don’t seem too scarred by the discussion
We’re on a roll, and the fifth grade teacher deftly switches to female anatomy by way of the Transparency, rather abruptly for my taste. One minute were just getting comfortable with saying ‘ejaculation’, and the next, there it is, on the screen in black line anatomical correctness, the female organs, hovering above us like the disembodied head of a praying mantis, ovaries on what look like alien eyestalks, and conspicuous labels with words like ‘fallopian tubes’, ‘cervix’, and the dreaded ‘Vagina’.
“Who can say Vagina?” She asks, “Teddy, say ‘Vagina’.”
“Vagina!” extorts Teddy.
“You can say that really well!” she compliments.
“It’s like saying Spaghetti!” offers Teddy.
She goes on for a bit, and asks me if I have an overhead pen. I’m scrambling through my desk drawer- the one you were only allowed in if you were the teacher’s pet, although that I think holds true more for women than men, because mine is essentially a school supply junkyard. I finally dig up a black marker and hand it to her, and there is just a touch of derision in her face, as if the pen were encased in a rubber chicken. For some reason rooted back in my elementary school days, I really want to please this lady, and so I’m scrambling around for a different color. All I can find is red. Her face lights up.
“Perfect!” she says, and immediately starts coloring in an ad hoc menstrual lining on the uterus.
“This is the menstrual lining. Everyone say ‘menstruating’”, she commands.
“Menstruating”, they chorus.
She goes on for a bit, ad libbing her speech as well, and I’m just watching, wide-eyed and a little disconnected, although I’m shaken a bit out of my own private thoughts when she starts talking about boobs.
“Just like you have a penis that grows, girls have breasts that grow.”
I thought that was going to be the show-stopper, but no. She actually throws down The Line.
“You may start feeling different about girls during puberty, and perhaps you are noticing their boobs more now, and that’s OK.”
I spy out the two kids who I thought may just barely be in the early throes of puberty, to see if they had the same response as I did to this statement. Sure enough, they were wearing that universal male expression of trying very hard to look as if they are not looking at boobs. I felt immediately vindicated and, a beat later, a little mortified that I shared this impulse with 10 year-olds. What can I say? Boys will be boys, even when we’re supposed to be men.
I’m not sure what happened. I got the email from the 5th grade teacher, saying today’s session would be short, half an hour, could we do it in your room again? I read it, understood it, but I don’t know, I somehow managed to forget it was happening. This is what they call ‘denial’.
So when she showed up with all the boys in tow, I was a little taken aback. Fortunately, this lady had a plan. They were to sit down with scraps of paper, and on each one write down something they learned. When they were finished, after a 15-minute time limit, and we would go from group to group and they would read one of their scraps of paper. If they mentioned something no one else came up with, they got a point. If they didn’t, everybody would have to tear up their scraps and move to the next group. It was like a game, you see. The 5th grade teacher would leave, and do the same activity with the girls. Notably, Larry hadn’t shown up yet.
So, needless to say, the first 15 minutes went great. They wrote, I checked my email and graded papers. They did ask if they could write things they learned about girl puberty and I said this was fine. So far, so good. Time for the game.
They really wanted to give the groups names, and I said sure, that sounds like a fine idea.
It was not a fine idea.
They were as follows:
Team 1: The PLA, standing for The Puberty Learner’s Association. I thought this was cute.
Team 2: Somewhat inexplicably, The Pizza Men. I dunno, I guess 5th graders like pizza.
Team 3: The Puberty Association Underdogs. They like to copy each other.
Team 4: Dr. Puberty. Again, cute.
It was all fine and good, but Team 3 was in mired in some sort of intense debate. I asked what was up. They asked if they could use the word ‘Penis’ in their title.
It seems obvious that I should have said no. I’m not quite sure what was going on in my head, but it something to the tune of, ‘well , sure, I mean we have to say the word all the time anyway, and let’s just be honest and open, and if that was what they wanted to use, how could it hurt?’
This is how Team 3 came to be called “The Penis Bandits.”
And Team 5? Once they heard this, they, of course, had to trump this and called themselves “P.P.P” which stood for, you guessed it…
Penis Penis Penis.
I brought this upon myself.
On to the game.
Now, humans are a competitive breed, even the youngest of us. Brother of 20-30 Times a Day’s group has employed a strategy that is called a ‘squirrel’ in debate circles- that of an obscure argument, or in this case, a set of facts. They’re basically going with the girl puberty stuff, like “girls have a vagina.” They are trying to score points by being brave enough to say things that no other group will say, and it’s working for them. They are racking up the points.
And they all are doing well. Despite the fact that I’m praying no other teachers are hearing the cries of “Penis Bandits ROCK!” emanating from my classroom, I’m rather impressed with how much stuff they remember- they even get the scrotum notion correct.
In college, when we found ourselves milling around the living room, beers cracked and our bellies laid out for fresh air, my roommate would don the occasion a ‘sausage party.’ It’s a crass title, to be sure, but women do the same thing. They drink wine and call it Girls’ Night, but it really just amounts to being free to saying whatever you want and need to without the social pressure of being genderifically correct.
It occurs to me that this, in essence, is what is happening - I’m kind of walking them through their first sausage party. In a profession where men are an oddity- especially elementary school- we are suspect strictly on the basis of our gender. Many people would ask “What kind of man”- save a pervert or a pedophile, as is the unspoken undercurrent for male educators- “would want to do women’s work?” I would argue that it’s not women’s work- kids need male role models as well- but it is often considered so. It is never said, but it’s always there, and it is a leverage point often used to manipulate us- don’t think that elementary teachers are all sugar and spice and everything nice. Sometimes they are just plain Bitches. But it’s fun, really, helping these kids out, and when all the changes come to play in what I remember to be a difficult- and at its worst, miserable- time of life, I hope they remember the weird guy who let them call their team the Penis Bandits, and that it wasn’t actually too mortifying of an experience. And mostly I hope that all the lumps of puberty, when the come barreling down the hormone chute, at least don’t come as a surprise. I am feeling kind of protective of my charges, and dare I say it, a little…..paternal?
What are these changes that are happening to me?