I taught sex eduction for about twenty years, starting about 1984. I started the first year I taught, as a favor to a female teacher who wanted a man’s point of view in her sex ed. class. I got roped in pretty much like Neil in today’s Symphony post. The next year, sex ed. became my class since I was the unofficial science specialist. I always had a female co-teacher. I taught sixth graders, then seventh, then eighth as I moved up the grades as a teacher.
Truthfully, I hated it, but it was probably the most important thing I ever taught, and the thing I’m most proud of. I continued as long as I could, but it is a dangerous subject to teach, especially if you are a man. No matter what you say on that subject, some parents won’t like it. Say something inclusive, and conservative parents will hate it. Say something traditional, and liberal parents will hate it.
There came a time after two decades when we got a useless, cowardly, incompetent principal who couldn’t be depended on to back up his teachers, and that was the end of sex ed.
Having sex education in the schools is not enough. It can be hijacked. I knew a woman who worked for the county as a sex ed. teacher, who was there to be borrowed by small schools. We had her in our school twice. The first time she was quite good. The second time, a few years later, she had been refunded by a grant with specific requirements which she could not violate.
As she was teaching, she stated that pre-marital sex was wrong because it could lead to transmission of STDs. This was in an eighth grade class. One of my students raised her hand and said, “If your companion has an STD, what does it matter if you are married or not? You still get an STD.”
This woman was a competent and conscientious teacher. She knew the answer. She could have defended her point by saying something like, “The more partners you have the greater the chances of transmitting an STD.” She didn’t say that, even though she had correctly handled such questions the first time I worked with her. Instead, she simply repeated what she had said before. It was an awkward moment, since every student in the room knew they were being hosed.
It happens sometimes that teachers are required by contract to speak half-truths. A mortgage and a family to feed are powerful incentives to toe the line.
I wasn’t tied to her contract, so I interrupted, told the student that she was exactly right, and praised her for clear thinking.
Starting the middle of next week and continuing through the middle of the week after, Neil is going to teach sex ed. over in Serial. It is an accurate portrayal of a sixth grade class in the late eighties. I apologize for the fact that it’s ugly; I’m just reporting here. There is no mention of any sex but male-female, but that would no longer be true. It had begun to change by the nineties and I can only imagine how wide ranging conversations must be today.
We were not allowed to talk about contraception, so we never mentioned it. No problem. There was always a question and answer session, with written questions to keep down embarrassment, and somebody always asked, “What is a condom and how do you use one?” I always answered, clearly, accurately and without embarrassment. I also took that opportunity to point out that they sometimes fail.
We always talked about sex abuse, telling the students that they had a right to the privacy of their own bodies, and that they should tell someone they trusted if something seemed wrong to them. No child ever confided in me; I wasn’t the motherly type. I am reasonably sure that some of them confided in my female co-teachers, but I never knew for sure.
Sometimes teachers know, without proof, that abuse is occurring. The signs are there, but the victim says nothing, no matter how much you make yourself available. Abusers are very good at training their victims to silence.
Sometimes you know, but you have no proof, and you can do nothing. That is the worst of all.