Every year, as a school we designate time for lessons on human growth and development. In sixth grade, this is a lot of lessons. We have 5 lessons (1 hour each) on male and female bodies/puberty, pregnancy, STDs, and refusal skills. We also have 3 other lessons on social and emotional health: community resources, child abuse, and technology use. It takes 2 weeks to go through these lessons, and it can be awkward. I think some teachers don’t like it because it requires reading from a script (not a fan, either), but I don’t mind the topics at all. I think it’s important for kids to get information from someone they trust (me vs. google) and I want to answer their questions. They’re curious, and it’s a good time to address concerns. I don’t want them going into puberty blindly.
Still, I have to tell you – it’s pretty hard at times to keep a straight face. This was never something I really considered as a student preparing to be in the classroom. The first real memory I have of “sex ed” was sixth grade in middle school. We moved around to different classrooms and watched ancient videos on periods and baby development.
Here are some of the things that have happened to me while teaching “sex ed” that I find ironic, hilarious, nausea inducing, and just bizarre. If you’re needing a laugh, I bet something here will make you chuckle.
If something sexually awkward has to come up, it will come up during FLE week. I guarantee it. My windows face the courtyard where there are some trees and picnic tables and plants. It was the end of the day during science class. One student, we’ll call him Bill, has his face pressed up against the window instead of looking at his work. Bill points and calls out, “Look! Look!” It was really no surprise to me that kids flocked to the window. “Oh my God!” I hear. Giggles ensue. A few kids walk away. I see some cheeks get bright red. By this point, of course I’ve meandered over, and I see squirrels in the tree – Mating. “They’re having sex!” Bill yells. What do I say? Yes? “Thank you for sharing,” I say, instead, and close the blinds. You might be thinking, “Are you sure they were mating? Wasn’t he just stirring up trouble?” Oh yeah, they were definitely mating. It was close enough to tell. Everyone dissipates and heads back to their desk, but Bill is still trying to watch. Unfortunately for him (but happily for me) others got over it quickly. I grew up in 5 acres of woods and never saw squirrels having sex (that I noticed) and I’ve seen approximately 3 other squirrels over the 5 years I’ve been in this room. But if squirrels are going to mate, I guarantee you it’s going to happen up close and personal during FLE week the day we discuss sexual intercourse.
I wish there were some magic way to let my body know that I’m going to have to discuss in detail how menstruation works and tell it to chill out – hold off on my period, or have it early for all I care. There’s something particularly gross about discussing how blood and tissue comes out of vaginas on a monthly basis while knowing that’s literally happening to my body right now. There’s also nothing like reading a script that says, “Most women don’t even feel their period” while I’m popping ibuprofen for cramps. I also have the urge to scream, “Liar!” when I read, “Only a couple teaspoons of blood come out” and “Exercise often makes people feel better.” It’s difficult enough as a teacher on your period when you realize you didn’t use your break to change your tampon and you’re panicking you’ll bleed through, but during FLE week? When everyone is reminded of the fact that periods are a thing? Yeah, that’s worse.
I happen to have the baggage that my periods were awful when I was in high school, and I mean awful. I passed out in the hallway. I threw up. I cried. I stayed home from school because the pain was unbearable. My mom told me that my descriptions of cramps sounded like labor pains. I knew it was torture for her to watch me in pain, and there were times when nothing worked – not 4 Advil, 2 Tylenol, every homeopathic medicine I could get my hands on, and ice cream. Nothing. Don’t worry too much; I did go to doctors and things got better, but when it comes to periods, I have baggage. So I never hesitate to tell my students that if they’re in a lot of pain, go to the doctor. If you’re struggling, go to the doctor. And if you have cramps and you don’t want to exercise, that’s fine. You’re allowed to be uncomfortable and in pain and you don’t have to do yoga this morning. I go off the script because no one should feel like they’re supposed to be the happy girl in the video still eating her carrots saying, “Just keep eating right, and everything is great!” You know what? Periods suck. And the little diagram with some extra red around the uterus is not something I want to see when I have mine, but I power through it anyway – even if it does make my stomach queasy. Still, it’s not as bad as reading the opening directions to a standardized state test and realizing my period just started. I’m not even exaggerating when I say I was wearing a lovely summer outfit – a partially white skirt. Yeah, that happened.
The diagram included in our curriculum that demonstrates a pad on a woman’s body is not quite accurate. The silhouette of a naked woman has a white pad floating in front of her thigh. The pad does not even look like it’s stuck anywhere. It’s just approximately near her nether regions. I explain that in fact the pad does not float next to you but goes inside your underwear. Oh, and you’re wearing clothes. I also explain tampons (which are part of the script too). I never expected so many questions about tampons, but tampons (and twins) take the cake in terms of questions.
- What if it gets stuck inside?
- What do you do with the string?
- What if the string gets stuck in there?
- What if the doctor can’t remove it?
- How does it stay in there?
- Why doesn’t it just fall out?
- Where does it go? What if it just gets sucked up in there?
- How do you get it out?
- What if you DIE?
I have answered all of these questions multiple times. They are rephrased, and I answer them again. I also show what tampons and pads look like. I don’t demonstrate on myself, obviously, but I do show how it comes out of the applicator and what is inside the body vs. outside the body. You want to see faces that look confused, disgusted, and amazed all at the same time? Do a tampon demonstration to young girls. Their faces are a wonder to behold. Want to see someone play with a tampon? Pass them out to girls to see what they’re like. There’s something incredibly bizarre about watching someone swing a bunch of cotton around by the string or open and close an applicator 7 times or squish their finger on a pad. I was torn between laughter and disgust.
As a young woman who is not married, there is often an element of curiosity about my own sexuality. Without fail, after boys have their lesson on the female body, they re-enter my classroom and can’t meet my gaze. I completely lose eye contact until they are able to move on in a couple days. I suddenly feel exposed, as if this new reality has hit them, and I’m not just their teacher; I’m a woman. That is not something I was prepared for, and some years feel more drastic than others, but it’s a palpable response.
From the girls, I have been asked:
- Have you had sex?
- Does sex hurt?
- Do you bleed?
- When do you know it’s the right time to have sex with someone?
The more personal, opinion based questions don’t really bother me. I get that they want to know. I don’t answer these questions in the first person ever. There are times that it’s just too direct, and I explain that I can’t answer personal questions. Also, my opinion is just one opinion, so I direct them to their parents as opposed to sharing my own beliefs. I don’t get upset, though, because the questions are by far the best part of teaching FLE.
Tell me more!
Here are some questions I’ve received over the years:
- How do seahorses have sex?
- Um, I just teach about human sexual intercourse.
- Where does the skin around the baby come from?
- The skin is an organ and grows like all the other organs…I further explain how cells can turn into special types of cells – which is pretty freaking amazing.
- When a man is having sex does his penis know to go to the pear, spaghetti, or grape?
- For reference, we use metaphors for the shapes of reproductive organs. The pear – upside down – is the uterus. The spaghetti is the fallopian tube (about the same size). The grape is an ovary (also about the same size). My response? It’s not that big. It’s not going all the way up there. (point to diagram of vagina again)
- So if I have a sleepover, can I get an STI from them?
- I don’t know what kind of sleepovers you’re having…But seriously, we’re talking about being naked and in very close quarters with someone.
- Why are boys so dirty?
- Well, actually girls can also give STIs to boys. It goes both ways. (They are shocked).
- How many multiples can you have? How do twins work? Triplets? What happens if….[imagine any scenario that discusses the egg and make it 10x weirder]? How do siamese/conjoined twins happen?
- I reread the lesson on twins approximately 10,000 times.
- Why would you even want to have sex?
- Well, apart from wanting to have children, it is considered pleasurable. (Cue chorus of “ewwwwww”)
- Do people adopt because they didn’t want to have sex?
- Actually many people who adopt try to have children many, many times. (Cue widened eyes)
- What is circumcision again?
- The diagram that shows this on the screen has the difference of a line – this tiny, tiny little pencil line towards the tip. That’s it, so it is unsurprising that they do not understand this. My teammate came up with the brilliant idea of pulling her sweater sleeve over her hand and then back up to her wrist. Uncircumcised? The sweater is on the hand. Circumcised? Sweater gone.
- Can boys ever control themselves?
- Why, yes, they can. I know we discuss wet dreams and involuntary erections, but they figure it out.
- So my parents have had sex twice? (because there are two children)
- At least, yes. (What do you mean at least?!)
- Is there ANY way to have a baby without having sex?
- Well…that’s complicated.
I take a lot of these questions as compliments. Clearly, they feel safe with me and can ask me anything!
I’ll leave you with one comment that has always stuck with me. One girl, after we defined sexual intercourse and discussed some consequences of sex, proclaimed loudly, “I am NEVER letting anything in there.” My response? I laughed. I usually hold it together when kids ask questions, but this statement and the complete disgust and resolve on her face was absolutely hilarious. I did manage to bite it back a bit and say, “That is your right.” Totally valid announcement, but I couldn’t help but laugh at the complete horror knowing, just maybe, she might change her mind, but you do you, girl. It is your right to say no.