Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On Menstruation

A momentous event occurred yesterday in my classroom: one of my students became a woman. That's right, she got her first period!! (Those aren't sarcastic exclamation points, by the way – I was almost as excited as she was. Of course, she pretended she didn't care, but I saw right through her act.)

As soon as she disclosed this information, my students made one of the thousands of lightning-quick changes they undergo each day, and began treating me kindly and with respect rather than the utter contempt they bestow on me at other times, like for instance when I baked them chocolate chip cookies yesterday. Then they told me they'd like to ask me a few questions.

I accepted, but with the stipulation that we needed to check with Max, the lone boy, and make sure that it was a conversation that wouldn't make him uncomfortable. He said he was fine with it, but when the questions about tampons and PMS started pouring out, I realized that the co-ed talk was just not going to work out. We postponed the discussion and arranged for Max to spend some time with the fifth-grade class later in the day.

When it was just us girls, and after I was done going over the basics of the ovaries and the egg and all that, I opened the conversation up to questions and was immediately barraged: “What does a penis look like?” “Have you ever seen one?” “Are you a lesbian?” “What does it feel like to have sex?” "Does it always feel good to have sex?" "Why do girls bleed the first time they have sex?" This from girls who have spent entire days ignoring me! All of a sudden they couldn't tear their eyes away from me. I tried to answer honestly -- for instance, I told them that no, sex does not always feel good -- and get rid of some of the confusion that is so inherent to being a young adolescent, but also told them that discussing my own sexuality is absolutely not an option.

All of this brought back a lot of memories. When I look back on my school years from age 10 to 15, it seems like it was one sex ed class after another. (I just met up with a childhood friend who told me that she managed to get through public school in my town without EVER getting a sex ed class, so I'm not sure how I hit the sex ed jackpot.) I got it every year in school beginning in fifth grade; in high school, my biology teacher dressed up as a giant condom and organized races in which we practiced putting prophylactics on wooden penises (which in retrospect seems very weird – is this really a good activity to perform hurriedly?). My parents signed me up for an extracurricular sex ed class at the Unitarian Universalist church that a few of my friends were taking, called “About Your Sexuality.” Apparently, the Unitarians believe that there is no such thing as too much information, so they showed us films of everything you could imagine – lesbian sex, gay male sex, heterosexual sex, as well as both men and women masturbating. My two teachers were a couple, and the woman brought in her diaphragm to hand around. Of course, it got ripped up. Can you imagine letting pimply 12-year-old boys handle your diaphragm?!?

If nothing else, one strong message I got from this course is that sex ed should be taught in a gender segregated setting. And also there IS such a thing as TMI.

Despite the extremely comprehensive sex ed classes, I was plagued with confusion about my body and sexuality during those years. My mom bought a book for my older sister when she was going through this, called “The 'What's Happening to My Body?' Book for Girls,” and it was subsequently passed on to me. This book saved my life. I must have read it at least one hundred times. My friend Ms. B and I spent hours poring over it, comparing our (miniscule) breasts to charts that explained the phases breasts go through as they grow and arguing about which phase we were in (I think I'm still in phase 2, unfortunately). I'll never forget the first time we flipped to the boy section in the back and saw a drawing of an erect penis: “Is this a JOKE?” we shrieked. “There is NO WAY this really happens.” The book included a description of how, in 1950s gym classes, girls were instructed to do exercises to encourage breast growth, while chanting “We must! We must! We must increase our bust!” This was supposed to shock us, but instead my reaction was to begin practicing these same exercises daily, minus the chant. (Didn't work.)

My plan is to get my hands on a new edition of this book to bring in for the girls to look over. I think it will answer a lot of their questions better than I can, and I'm sure they will be as fascinated as I was by the drawings. In the meantime, they have had an interesting reaction to this news in addition to their sudden interest in sex education: they've begun bringing dolls in to school and pretending they are mothers, changing diapers, feeding the dolls, and putting them down for naps. My take on it is that it is a bit of a regression to their childhood, which is now nearly behind them, as well as an acknowledgment that they are now able to bear children, even if it will be years before this actually comes to pass. Knock on wood.

1 comment:

  1. Oh man, I was just talking about those breast stage charts the other day! And how, yes, I never got past stage 2. Damn genetics.