The Miseducation of Belle

Rachel, a friend, somewhat recently quit a high-powered career in television to become a teacher. When she announced the decision, we all that it was noble, and highly necessary (If you’ve ever listened to teenagers talk on the train or bus, you know just how bad we need good teachers in the classroom.) Then Rachel announced that she was going to teach… high-schoolers…. in Brownsville (for non-New Yorkers, think of the worst neighborhood in your city. Done? That's Brownsville.) At that point, we thought Rachel had lost her damn mind.

Right before she stated her tenure, she announced that she would blog about her experiences as a high school virgin (teacher) and I told her she shouldn’t just blog, she should write a book, which she has promised to do whenever she has the time. I had a brief experience working in New York City high school many years ago and mostly was appalled by how some –not all—of the kids behaved and worse, what they knew. Listening to Rachel’s stories lately, I know not much has changed.

Rachel teaches varied subjects, but more than that, she teaches the kids practical life lessons and information that they need to know. I ran into her at Andre Harrell’s fashion expo last week and she told me about a recent classroom experience where she decided to test her kids’ knowledge of sex. She’s planning a blog on this (again, when she finds the time) so I won’t give all her story away here. But she told me that in a poll of her students, 80% thought a woman couldn’t get pregnant if she was on top. In another poll (how many hands raised) an entire class of high school children thought you couldn’t get HIV through anal sex. Explains a lot about teenage pregnancy and rising HIV rates, doesn’t it?

I thought back about the information I had about sex when I was that age. I went to a relatively open-minded Christian school where safe-sex was taught by the gym teacher. It was usually the last 10 minutes of the class when we’d finished volleyball or basketball or golf. She would gather us up on the bleachers or the grass depending on where that day’s class was held and talk to us about whatever she thought we needed to know. I remember her talking to us about HIV and she told us that only men could give it to women. Her actual statement: “how the hell is a woman going to give it to a man?” Pause. A shake of the head at what the world was coming to. Then she told us to always use condoms anyway because there was a lot of nasty stuff out there and you could get it from people who looked clean. We nodded and were sent to the locker rooms to shower and change.

Her misinformation stayed with me for a long time (longer than I’d like to admit). And it wasn’t until I was well into my 20s taking my first HIV test and had a nurse asking me all sorts of random questions that I realized my gym teacher had misinformed me. I asked the nurse, “If I got it, I can give it to a man?”

I guess it wasn’t the stupidest question she’d heard that day. She nodded matter-of-factly. “Anybody with it, can give it to anybody else through unprotected sex. You should always use a condom.”

Condoms. Always. Check. I remembered that.

Shortly after the gym teacher had misinformed us, some of the girls had questions about the “nasty stuff” that was out there. It was too cold to do outside activities and the gym was under renovation. So Gym Teacher made a list, tore it into a bunch of pieces of paper, put it in a hat, and told us to pick. We were each assigned a topic that had to do to with sexual health and would study and present it to the class. For the next two weeks, we’d spend our gym periods in the library researching.

I chose STDs. Interesting topic. I compiled a ton of research about everything I could find (I’ve always been a bit of an over-achiever) and took it home to sort through.

My Dad found my research lying on the kitchen table. He was livid. This was not the kind of information that nice girls studied and he forbade me to do a presentation on the topic. He was afraid I would get a stigma as a loose girl for talking about sex in front of my class. I thought his take on the matter was stupid at the time, so I told him I wouldn’t do it, and kept researching anyway with all intents of presenting. I was excited about my topic, thoroughly fascinated at all this information everyone had neglected to mention to me.

The day I was to present, I was third on the list. The first guy got up and did a half-assed rant debunking the myth of “blue balls” (my teacher: ladies, there is no such thing. So if he’s trying to pressure you into sex because his balls will hurt, tell him to get a better line or go to the bathroom and take care of it himself.) The second presenter’s topic was pregnancy prevention. She showed the birthing sequence of The Miracle of Life when a 7lb kid comes raging out of a woman’s body in all of its naturally gory, zoom-in glory. Not quite condoms or birth control, but an effective deterrent nonetheless. (My teacher: ladies, this is what happens when you have unprotected sex. Use a condom.) She rewound the tape (this was the before DVDs took over) and played the scene again. To this day, I am terrified of getting pregnant because of that tape.

We were too thoroughly grossed out to continue that day. My presentation was delayed until the next class, the following Monday. Over the weekend, the weather broke, and we had our first 60 degree day in a long while. On Monday, we played golf. I never got around to presenting (neither did anyone after me) and I pointed it out to my teacher toward the end of the semester. I was afraid I wouldn’t get an A in her class. (The theory in my house: It’s one thing to get a B in Algebra, but you have to be entirely stupid not to get an A in gym.) She told me to forget about it, that she would give me my A because I participated in everything else, and she knew I’d done a lot of research.

Case closed. The grade was all I really cared about anyway. So I kept the knowledge, never shared it with the class (I wonder when they learned about it) and went on with life. That gym class was the last time anybody ever discussed sex- and its consequences-- with me. Everything else, I discovered on my own through either research (I’ve always been good for looking things up) or not too unfortunate trial and error.

I tell you this long-ass story to make this point (in case you didn’t get it): Parents (and Aunts & Uncles), talk to your kids about sex. There’s a lot of misinformation out there.