“They should be paying you by the mile,” she said, as I flew by the office for the fifteenth time that hour. I had students in the library using the laminator, students in the copy room, students in the computer lab and students in my classroom. Supervision was impossible without superdupervision (which I don’t have). I had to settle for intermittent supervision and superduperspeed (which I can at least try to have).
The boys’ sex-ed class was meeting the library this week, and on one trip to the laminator, I overheard the following from the teacher:
If you know someone who’s having an abortion, you should talk to her. Ask her some of the questions we talked about. If she’s planning to have an abortion, that’s bad. She’ll regret it.
I almost hurled. I hate that I work for a school that allows these contractors to come in and pass off utter crap as information. I now wish that I had stopped and said something to them, even just “I absolutely disagree with the blanket statements that you just made. Reality is far more nuanced.” My kids deserve better, and I should have spoken up just to let them know that I’m comfortable with the topic and that they can come to me.
I’ve found kids reading flyers with the stunning title “Is Virginity What’s Missing in Your Life?” about how you can restore your virginity if you’ve lost it. There are five or six very unsettling things going on there.
At a bake sale this summer, two of my former students opened up to me a little about their sex-ed class. It’s abstinence only, and they don’t feel adequately informed. I asked them if they knew what “consensual sex” is, and they said “is that when you have your parents’ permission?” We’re really missing the point here, folks, if kids are led to believe that abortion is always bad and that consensual sex is when you have your parents’ permission. I don’t know how much information those two (both were boys) had about birth control.
Some of Sean’s female students seem to have a lot of information about birth control (he overheard them comparing the pill, the patch, the ring etc.), but one of them explained that she doesn’t want to use birth control because she’s afraid she’ll get fat. Sean fields a number of fairly interesting inquiries about sex because he’s a science teacher. His badass feminist self handles them beautifully. A 7th grader once asked him if a baby could have more than one daddy. They were learning about reproduction in class, so the kid drew a picture to illustrate:
My students don’t ask me those questions outright. Occasionally, in a quiet moment in the afternoon, they’ll ask me personal questions that relate to sex. It’s not hard to tell the difference between idle curiosity and a desperate need to know something.
The pregnancies that I’ve been closest to as an adult have been teen pregnancies: Girls growing bellies that no longer fit in the chair-desks in my classroom, standing by a bank of lockers holding their wondering friends’ hands flat against their tight-stretched shirts to feel the baby kick, and missing day after day of school for doctor’s appointments. A young mother that I teach bribed me with a cupcake to let the class share her birthday snacks a few weeks ago. She was turning sixteen. Another, a promising math student, dropped out of the tenth grade last year. It’s the same way for Sean. I remember him standing in front of a shelf at the pharmacy, reading labels and selecting prenatal vitamins for a middle schooler.
If I haven’t said something controversial yet, here it is:
Despite the misinformation and lack of information provided at school, I think some girls get pregnant not out of absolute ignorance (this is the age of the internet, and I know they know the basics of where babies come from), but out of emptiness. Accidents happen, but I think that girls are taking greater risks than they do elsewhere (Arkansas has the country’s highest teen birth rate) because they want to feel needed. They want to be of value to someone. It’s a pretty dismal outlook for girls here. They’re second-rate citizens, and they know it. A baby fills the void that should be filled with aspirations and plans and confidence and self-efficacy, all of which have been forced down or stunted by the time girls reach high school. Additionally, when a girl gets pregnant, there’s no great stigma. The hard conversations are for her family: at school, we try to be supportive and loving and excited about the baby. Besides, many of our students’ parents had children in high school. One girl told me that her mother was married at fourteen. Sean teaches a sophomore whose mother is only a few years older than Sean himself.
At homecoming last night, I watched for the boyfriends of the girls in the homecoming court. They followed the girls like devoted puppies, almost sad-eyed. They wouldn’t let the girls swish out of sight in those bright, flowing dresses.
I intercepted a note at summer school, where I taught rising ninth graders, that contained the charmingly sexist phrase “I’m gonna put a baby in her.”
After school one day recently, a boy (now a junior) that I taught in ninth grade came to visit me.
“Ms. O’Connell, you know I’m gonna be a daddy?”
I glared at him, waiting. We’d had a conversation or two about the responsibilities of fatherhood last year.
“Okay. I was just kidding.”
“Good. You dink.”
“I’m gonna be a baby-daddy before I graduate, though.”
“You know I think you’re better than that. I think you’re father material. Don’t be a baby-daddy. Be a Daddy.”
On the flip side, one tenth grader expounded in my classroom during lunch (he had been debating the morality of abortion with a female student)
“If you’re not prepared to be a father, don’t have sex. I accept that risk, but I’d rather wait to have kids. That’s why I use a condom every time I have sex with my girlfriend.” The debate went on, but I stopped listening. I’d heard those two argue over that subject before.
What is there to say here? What conclusion can I draw? This is just one more spoke in the wheel that turns the world here. It’s connected to poverty and health care access and education and racism and environmental injustice and sexism, and you can’t repair one without stopping the wheel and fixing them all.