A fellow parent at the school bus stop had me worried. He told me that he was ridiculed when he was in sixth grade because he didn’t know much about sex and that he never got over the humiliation. Pat had imparted the basics to our then ten year old, Spencer, earlier that year on a vision quest type of camping trip that Spencer thought was perfect except for that conversation Daddy insisted on having. A conversation that, he contended, they could have easily had at home, leaving the camping experience unsullied by words like “erection” and “insert”. Words and concepts that embarrassed him deeply.
Walking home from the bus stop that morning, I thought about how sensitive Spencer was and about how much he still didn’t know. Such ignorance would make him vulnerable to the same teasing that haunted my bus stop friend. Spencer had a sharp mind but the heart of an innocent who still rotated which stuffed animal he slept with so that none of their feelings got hurt.
What was an interfering, over-protective, over-identifying with her son’s every wince, parent like me supposed to do? Hand him dry tracts from the doctor’s office and quiz him later? Press him into more mortifying conversations with Daddy and Mommy about blowjobs and wet dreams? Write him a detailed letter? Come on, I told myself, I might be over-protective but I was also worldly and hip. There had to be a worldly and hip solution.
As it turns out, there was. My lefty-you-can-even-be-an-atheist-and-feel-connected-to-each-other-and-the-universe Unitarian Church was offering a ten-week everything-is-natural-and-we-should-love-our-bodies sexuality course to fifth graders. Feeling very progressive, I signed Spencer up at the Education table at church. Grasping the enrollment materials to my chest, I felt not only hip, but excited about sharing this journey with Spencer. I imagined soulful talks about his feelings for girls – or boys, who knew? He would be able to confide in me and I would tell him reassuring stories about my own adolescence.
What struck me the most at the parents’ orientation meeting was how important it was for the teachers to tell us about how much they had already heard and seen. I suspect that they simply wanted to reassure us that our children were in capable hands. But their protestations only made me wonder, what on earth had they heard and seen that compelled them to repeat it so often? And was there, perhaps, something I could learn here?
Our kids were meeting in another room while the adults sat on folding chairs facing Sue, a tall round woman with no make-up and an aggressive manner that evinced a “scared straight” team leader or a charmless Dr. Phil. She was of indeterminate gender persuasion and she went on to display not a scintilla of irony whatsoever throughout the entire afternoon.
“A lot of the stuff we’re going to be talking about with your kids in these classes is UNCOMFORABLE people. You better get used to it. Because TRUST ME these kids have ALREADY heard and seen it ALL,” she said, parking a big pad of paper on an easel next to her. She picked up a sharpie and wrote, ‘Twat’ on the pad then turned to eyeball us each individually. “Does this make any of you UNCOMFORTABLE?”
I looked around at my fellow parents. It was a mixed bunch of touchy feely liberals who routinely protested about education cuts, about half of whom probably still smoked pot. We all shook our heads, no. The written word ‘twat’ didn’t make us feel remotely uncomfortable.
“How about this word?” Sue said, turning her back to us and obscuring the pad for a second. Then she stood back dramatically to reveal the word, ‘Schlong’.
Nah. That didn’t seem to make anyone uncomfortable either.
“It’s OK to feel UNCOMFORTABLE,” Sue went on. “When I first started teaching this stuff, I was uncomfortable. But now, nothing surprises me. Because I HAVE HEARD AND SEEN IT ALL. Any questions?”
Nope. No questions. It all seemed perfectly clear. She’d seen a lot and she was going to teach it to our children.
“OK, people,” she said after an awkward pause -- the lack of response was like that moment when the entire table of dinner guests refuses seconds, clearly indicating the presence of a culinary bomb. “We’re gonna learn something here. I’m splitting you up into three groups.” She expertly had us count off. “The first group is ‘vagina’. You’re over here,” she pointed. “Group 2 is ‘penis’. You’re over here. And ‘sexual intercourse’ is over here.”
She quickly explained that each group was to devise a list of slang words for their assigned correct sexual term. I was excited about landing in the vagina group because I could already think of nine slang terms without even straining. We started slowly, but picked up speed, yelling out profanities to an Asian woman who had remarkably neat handwriting. By the time we had exhausted the biggies, we were reduced to ‘na na’,’cha cha’, and ‘vajayjay’.
Finally the ‘vagina’ group paused and the Asian woman said, “Anything else?”
“Tool!” I heard from the ‘penis’ group. The ‘sexual intercourse’ group looked finished. No pun intended.
The vaginas looked at each other. “Meatwallet?” offered a young mom in braids.
“Meatwallet,” repeated the Asian woman, neatly writing it at the end of the list.
When we were satisfied with our lists, Sue gathered us together and asked each group to chant the words on the list. I wasn’t sure where this was all going, but I’ve always liked chanting. The vaginas took a breath and started, “Pussy, clit, snatch…”
After which the other groups dutifully chanted their obscenities. The penises seemed the most boisterous lot, possibly because they had more men. And I was glad that I hadn’t been stuck with sexual intercourse. They only had about five predictable words, which made you wonder what kind of company they would be at a cocktail party.
“NOW,” said Sue, winding it all up. “Did any of THAT make you feel uncomfortable?”
We all looked at each other and shrugged. No. Not really.
Then a sandy-haired woman raised her hand.
“YUP. YOU,” Sue barked.
The sandy-haired woman lowered her hand and said, “I wish I hadn’t heard ‘meat wallet’.”
Typical, I thought. She was ‘sexual intercourse’ and obviously hadn’t even heard of ‘give it the business’. Come on.
The sandy haired woman continued, “’Meat wallet’. I mean it doesn’t even make sense.”
“Well, GET USED TO IT,” Sue said to the sandy-haired woman. “Because your kids…” She trailed off and scanned the room to bring it all home, “HAVE HEARD IT ALL, PEOPLE! And now that you’ve heard it here, you’ll be able to talk to your kid without being UNCOMFORTABLE.”
Ah hah, I thought. That was all a desensitizing exercise. Now, if Spencer came home and talked about a meat wallet, I would be able to maintain a placid demeanor, rather than saying, “What the hell is a meat wallet?” and derailing any more constructive conversation I could be having with my preteen. This was good – all paving the way for those soulful connections that Spencer and I would be making.
Having made her macro point, Sue quickly wound up with some housekeeping about forms and attendance. She encouraged us to help ourselves to some cookies before joining our kids, who had been going through similar exercises, downstairs.
Spencer was bouncing around like nothing was new when I walked in. Chairs were arranged in a big circle and it looked like the kids had just finished up a session with a man who looked a lot like Sue, but wasn’t. He quickly yielded the floor to Sue who created a gap in the circle for her easel and planted it.
“Parents, I want you to find a seat next to your kid!” she yelled over the din of unfocussed preteen excitement.
I claimed a chair, eyeballed Spencer, and patted the chair next to me. Spence whapped a kid companionably on the shoulder as if to say, “OK, gotta do this thing,” and settled next to me. I resisted the urge to pat his knee, but settled back in my chair enjoying the familiar feel of him next to me. Even without looking at him, I knew it was him and no one else. After all, he was mine. Mine from birth. Mine and no one else’s in this room. And now we were about to share something profound together. I shifted in the chair, excited to do whatever exercise Sue threw at us. I happen to love manufactured bonding moments.
“OK,” said Sue, “Parents sit this one out.” My chest deflated somewhat, but I was still thrilled to be sitting at this important event with my son. Sue flipped her pad of paper to a clean sheet. “So kids. You’ve already heard that we’re going to be sharing a lot of personal stuff in this course. Stuff that might even make you feel UNCOMFORTABLE. Can any of you think of any reasons why you might NOT want to share stuff with your group of peers?”
Spencer’s hand shot up. I smiled reflexively. He was engaged already. Clearly, he was going to flourish in this environment.
“You might feel embarrassed,” he offered.
“RIGHT,” barked Sue. She wrote ‘EMBARRASSED’ on the page. You might feel embarrassed to share your feelings. Adults – have any of you ever felt embarrassed?”
I threw my hand up. God yes. I felt embarrassed daily. Was she going to ask me to tell a story? Sue scanned the room and I followed her gaze. Every parent had a hand raised.
“See, kids. Everyone has felt embarrassed,” Sue said, circling the word. “Even adults. You can put your hands down now.”
I put my hand down. Was that it? No one was going to share more? Surely it would help Spencer, and the rest of the kids, to hear my story of getting a period stain on my white jeans in seventh grade.
“Now kids. What’s another reason you might not want to share your personal feelings in a group like this?”
A girl raised her hand tentatively, “We might be nervous.”
“Of course,” affirmed Sue, writing it down. “You might be nervous.” Then she asked the parents if they had ever felt nervous. We all raised our hands. Oooh. I could tell countless stories of nerve-wracking job interviews, but Sue didn’t ask any of us to elaborate. I get it, I grumped to myself, it’s not about the parents; it’s about the kids.
Sue petitioned the kids again, “Anyone have another reason why you might not want to share your feelings with this whole group?”
I looked around. No hands. Seriously? That was all they had?
Adults and kids looked at each other. Were we done here?
Finally a kid raised his hand and Sue pointed, “YOU. What’s another reason you might not be able to share your feelings here?”
The kid shifted and said quietly, “Physical injury?”
What? I glanced at Spencer who smiled slightly and shrugged.
Sue repeated to the boy, “Physical injury?”
“Yeah,” said the kid like it was perfectly obvious.
Sue stood staring at the kid, betraying that she hadn’t exactly seen and heard everything. This was a new one. Did he mean that someone in a wheelchair, for example, might not be able to get into the room to share?
I shot a look at Spencer again. He pressed his knee against my thigh. I pressed back. We both looked at Sue but kept knee and thigh pressed tight against each other, sharing the beautiful, comic awkwardness of the moment.
“All right. Physical injury,” Sue finally said. Spencer and I released the tension in our legs. Sue wrote “Physical Injury” down on her pad. “Let’s review. Reasons why you might not be able to share your feelings with each other in this room.” She pointed to the first. “Embarrassment.”
I smiled at Spencer’s word being the first. Sue pointed to the second, “You might be ‘nervous’.”
I glanced at the timid girl.
“Or,” said Sue, pointing to ‘Physical Injury’ and staring for a moment.
“Or,” she repeated, then rallied: “Your mouth might not work.”
Involuntarily, I turned to look at Spencer. Had he heard, what I heard? Sue hilariously wanting to make the suggestion work? Even though she didn’t understand it? A moment so incredibly absurd and beautiful at the same time?
Spencer’s expression answered mine. Yes. He had heard it too. Yes it was absurd. Yes it was sweet and true.
Later, on the walk home, we reviewed the scene and laughed about the awkwardness hanging in the room. Every parent so eager and proud. The kids all wanting to belong and impress. Sue handling it all, I saw now, with such bravura that the children immediately trusted her. And the boy, so sure of his enigmatic answer.
I grabbed Spencer’s hand to cross a street. We might not have shared what I had hoped, I thought. We hadn’t imparted meaningful confidences about this prepubescent rite of passage, his beginning and mine long over. But we had shared a compatible view of the world as both ridiculous and achingly lovely.
We got to the curb on the other side and I let go of his hand.
|Photo by Cathy Mathews|