A pink plastic case arcs through the air, soaring over the rows of coal-black lab tables. A teenaged girl ducks to protect her face but catches it like a fly ball in both hands. She opens the case quickly, glancing at the rubbery object inside. “Diaphragm!” she shouts. “Barrier! Fits snugly against the cervix to prevent the passage of sperm! Must be prescribed by a doctor! Can be used either alone or in concert with spermicidal jelly!” Then she snaps the case closed and sends it airborne again. She does not throw like a girl.
The next item to sail through the air is an IUD. Privately, in their off-duty hours, the students have nicknamed it “the fishing pole.” As usual, the IUD comes apart in midair. The student who catches the pieces expertly snaps them back together and recites, “IUD! Intrauterine device! Abortifacient! Does not prevent conception! Prevents implantation of the fertilized embryo in the uterine wall!” and tosses the IUD back to the teacher, in whose hands it falls apart once again.
The year is 1990, and the scene is the upper school science classroom at the K-8 girls’ school I attended. We will graduate soon, and the final lessons in the school’s sex education curriculum are designed to prepare us for our lives as adolescent and adult women in the years just following the sexual revolution. The teacher is a young man of about 30 whose expertise is in ecology, geology, and environmental science. In these areas he is an excellent teacher. When forced by curricular expectations to teach other topics, his impatience and frustration are palpable. This teacher introduced the sex ed unit by drawing a large diamond on the board, etching squares next to the four points of the diamond, and pointing to each square with a pointer. Hmmm, I remember thinking, that doesn’t LOOK like a uterus and fallopian tubes. “This,” he said, pointing to the square located at the three o’clock position, “is FIRST BASE.” The lesson continued from there.
This teacher had been hired two years earlier to replace a longtime science teacher who had been promoted to assistant head of school. This teacher – with whom I really had very little contact – was one of several at that school who were part of a dying generation of educators who had attended girls’ schools and women’s colleges and then taught at girls’ schools throughout their long careers. She wore blouses with gigantic bows at their necklines and once told me that she couldn’t in good conscience let me graduate without taking at least some sewing. “I’m not saying you have to take it every semester,” she said, “but let’s be real.” When she took over as assistant head of school, she BANNED MUSIC from the gym and art room because modern pop music was just too pernicious of an influence on young minds. (This happened in MY lifetime? I ask myself as I review these memories. In San Francisco? Yes, it did.) She had handed her collection of contraceptive devices down to her successor in a worn cardboard box. I remember thinking (and, strangely, I don’t remember talking about these thoughts with anyone else – a sign that they probably really disturbed me) that the contraceptives we were throwing around the classroom were from the assistant head of school’s personal stash – that one day in the distant past, perhaps late at night when she was desperate for a lesson plan, she had ransacked her house with a cardboard box, dredging up any stray birth control devices she could find and hauling them off to school, where they remained, immortal, even as she aged and moved into administration. And it was true that the contraceptives that we handled in class had seen better days. The rubber of the diaphragm was stiff and a little bit cracked, like the nipples of old baby bottles. The condoms, sponges, and pills, however, were still in their original packaging.
A few other snapshots from that year:
First: Science class was not the only place where we received sex education. Due to some kind of curricular cross-wiring, we also received sex ed (or “health,” I think they called it) classes during P.E. on alternating weeks during the second semester. They divided the class into two groups, and while one group received lessons on sexually transmitted diseases and eating disorders and avoiding date rape, the other stayed in the gym and shot baskets or played dodgeball (actual dodgeball – not the kind where you throw Today sponges). At the end of each week of health class, we took a quiz, and anyone who failed the quiz had to re-take the health class the following week instead of taking P.E. So guess who failed the health quiz every single week? It was my best and longest-lasting getting-out-of-P.E. scheme ever. I’m pretty sure the P.E. teacher was pretty happy about it too.
Anyway, the main thing I remember about these health classes was playing a game called GYNECOLOGIST. (Relax, people. Gynecologist was a card game. No adolescents were harmed in the making of this blog post.) In any given round of the game, one player was the gynecologist and everyone else was a patient. The patients were dealt a series of cards, each of which contained a symptom. You might have one card that said “Low-grade fever,” another that said “Blood in urine,” and another that said, “Pus-filled chancre.” Whatever. The gynecologist’s job, then, was to ask each player a series of questions and eventually “diagnose” each patient’s problem. Since the cards were dealt out at random, a genuine diagnosis was not always possible, but we did our best. The most memorable part of this game, though, was the fact that when it was your turn to be the gynecologist, you got to hold a REAL SPECULUM. It served a purpose similar to the conch in Lord of the Flies, which we happened to be reading in English class at the time: it was a symbol of the gynecologist’s authority and signified that its holder was entitled to ask the questions and control the conversation. We all made the best of this authority when it was our turn to wield it, snapping the scissor-like speculum open and shut like demented barbers. I remember this particular teacher as hapless but well-intentioned, and there is no doubt that she included this prop in the game in order to demystify the speculum itself and the gynecological experience for us – but she failed. To this day, when I see another person holding a speculum, a little voice inside my head tells me that my job is to sit down and shut up.
Second: our class play that year was Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Yes, really. As in most middle-school drama productions, there were about nine or ten main roles, and everyone who did not have a main role was assigned to a chorus. In this particular play, everyone who did not have a main role was either an office worker, a gang member, or a PROSTITUTE. The word used in the program was “girls,” but we knew what that meant. I was on the tech crew, and I remember being on stage just a moment before the curtain was drawn, scampering from prostitute to prostitute and helping them get into character by asking them how much they charged. I also remember not thinking there was anything unusual about this situation until I heard a friend’s mother say that she was boycotting the play. “I am NOT taking time out of my day to see my daughter play a prostitute in the school play,” she said. “I’m just counting the days until you graduate and get out of that crazy place.”
Third: At some point during the lessons on rapid-fire contraception recognition, someone made the brilliant observation that our math teacher LOOKED LIKE a diaphragm. And it was true – she did: her face was round, soft, and rubbery, and just wrinkled enough to resemble the aged diaphragm in our science teacher’s collection. Over time, this casual comparison morphed into a series of detailed comic strips detailing the life of our math teacher, who was portrayed as a diaphragm with feet, hair, and a face. Other faculty members played cameo roles and were always portrayed as contraceptive devices: a tall, skinny teacher was an IUD; a very petite teacher was a birth control pill; a squat, stocky teacher with a pillar-like body was a tube of spermicidal jelly, etc. Besides interacting with her various friends, the primary pastime of our diaphragm protagonist was to try to have sex with porcupines. Each page of each comic book was full of long laments about how difficult it is to have sex with porcupines when you’re a diaphragm, as well as drawings of the diaphragm steadfastly putting a condom on every single one of the porcupine’s quills (which we called – you guessed it – “pricks”).
I should add here that I have been a teacher and administrator in high schools for ten years, and before that I taught at the college level for three years and worked part time in various preschools and day care centers for eleven years – and my own students have never even come close to paying me back for the disrespect that my friends and I displayed toward that teacher. NOT EVEN CLOSE.
And finally: my eighth grade year marked some anniversary in the career of our headmaster – his twentieth anniversary of service at the school, I think. The school planned a day in his honor in the middle of May, a couple of weeks before our graduation. Among many other speeches and accolades, the plan was that the student body would serenade him with the 1934 Cole Porter song “You’re the Top.” We all received printouts of the lyrics and music and were excused from classes on several occasions to practice the song in the music room. At some point our radical Marxist-Feminist history teacher (hereafter referred to as the RMFHT; and how, HOW, have I made it this far into this blog post without mentioning the RMFHT? She deserves an entire post all her own – if not an entire website) found out that we were practicing this song in preparation for the headmaster’s celebration, and she went nuts. Abandoning her lesson plan in a split second of eye-flashing anger, she informed us precisely what the words “top” and “bottom” mean in sexual parlance and announced that she was NOT going to stand by and watch as 300 girls sang to one man that they were the bottom and he was the top.
And, OK, she was right. I am not saying that we needed, at the age of fourteen, quite the explicit lecture that we received on the philosophical and sensual limitations of the missionary position – but the music teacher who chose the song (and/or whichever administrator chose it for her – I suspect the former science teacher with the gigantic bows on her blouses and the nasty old cracked diaphragm) should have known that there would be plenty of faculty, parents, and alumni present at the event who would recognize the undertones of the song and be some undesirable combination of amused and offended. I mean, some things are just better left in 1934 – know what I mean?
So, under the influence of the RMFHT, the entire eighth grade class decided to reverse the pronouns in the song and sing “I’M the top; I’M the Tower of Pisa… and if baby YOU’RE the bottom, I’M the top!” – a choice that, of course, was no less inappropriate than the original lyrics. This event took place in the gym, with the students lined up by grade level: kindergarten in the front, closest to the stage where the headmaster stood, eighth grade farthest from the stage and closest to the rows of visiting parents, alumni, and other guests, who sat in the bleachers. Our 47 voices were mostly drowned out by the 260 others in the room, but I’m SURE we were audible to the guests in the bleachers behind us. Fallout? I have no idea. I don’t remember hearing anything about it afterwards. The RMFHT did not return to the school the following year, but that plan had been in place for a long time prior to the Cole Porter incident.
In fact, no reflection on this year would be complete without considering the fact that all four of our major-subject teachers (English, math, history, and science) had turned in their resignations by October. The RMFHT had been taking night classes to become a nurse and was moving to Honduras (??) to practice nursing; the math teacher – as much as I want to be kind to her to atone for how profoundly we tortured her – was terrible at her job and was not asked back; the science teacher was moving on – I forget where – and made his general disgruntlement at having to finish out the year in his current job no secret; and the English teacher – who was wonderful – left mid-year to take a maternity leave and then stay home with her baby. As students we took a certain pride in this attrition and assumed that we would go down in institutional memory as “the class that made all the teachers quit.”
As an adult and a teacher, I have an enormous amount of sympathy for those teachers. I can’t say for sure – but I would imagine that the morale among the faculty that year was extremely low. I know very intimately what it feels like to keep returning day after day to a teaching job that you do not love. In earlier posts I have mocked my younger self for wanting to treat my job as a marriage, but sometimes I think that maybe I was not so off the mark. Returning every day to a teaching job (and all teaching jobs are also ACTING jobs, at least in part) is a bit like waking up each morning in a loveless marriage.
And of course I know now that – contraceptive cartoons notwithstanding – it was not our class that made all the teachers quit. It was something darker, something more fundamental, and something more adult. I believe that my school at this time was going through a bit of an institutional identity crisis. This is a necessary and good thing, although it didn’t feel good at the time to those of us who lived through it – in fact, I have trouble imagining that any honest institution involved in educating women would HAVE to be going through an identity crisis of some kind in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The sexual revolution had come to stay, and its pioneers were combing out their gray hair and writing books about menopause. But not enough time had gone by to allow educators of girls and women to assimilate everything that had changed into the world and use that information to adjust their methodology – OR, equally likely, to use that information to actively decide NOT to adjust their methodology.
Educators must constantly juggle the future and the past. The purpose of what we do, of course, is rooted in the future – in our students’ lives as scholars, citizens, and people. During times of rapid change, teachers are expected to prepare their students for a world that they themselves do not understand. For my generation, this rapid change was most apparent in the area of gender roles – a fact made more apparent for me, since I attended what had until recently been an ultra-traditional girls’ school. For my students’ generation today, this change is most palpable in the area of technology and workplace dynamics. Every time I hear a consultant tell me that I must train my students in “twenty-first century thinking,” I want to pick up a diaphragm and hurl it at the wall in frustration. They didn’t TEACH us twenty-first century thinking back in the twentieth century, I want to shout. Isn’t that the fricking point?
But there’s more. Just as teachers must always consider the future, we are also anchored in the past. The whole accumulated tradition that my teachers passed on to me is not wrong or outdated. The fundamental truths that we are responsible for teaching our students have changed very little since the days of the ancient Greeks, of the writers of the Old Testament, of Shakespeare and Milton and Austen and Dickens. We must teach them how to grow up and how to love. We must teach them to nurture healthy ambitions and to recognize poisoned ambitions when they arise in themselves and in others. We must teach them that at some time in their lives they will likely fail, will likely lose everything. All the bad things out there – all the charities we raise money for at Thanksgiving and Christmas – represent traps that they themselves may fall into no matter how careful they are and no matter how well we do our jobs – yet we must also teach them not to fear their uncertain futures too much. We must teach them to find outlets for their feelings of guilt and shame – and we must do so without revealing the secrets behind our own guilty and shameful feelings. We must teach them that being a woman – just like being a man – is and has always been a complicated journey. We must teach them to understand the primacy of the human drive for sex while still making it clear that we don’t want them to actually have sex themselves for a very, very long time. We must teach them how to help others to die and, eventually, how to die themselves. And we must do all of this without letting on that we are doing it – without ever diverging from the party line that what we are really teaching is Hamlet and the Civil War and Boyle’s Law and the quadratic formula.
And I must say that my own teachers did this job very well, in spite of and often because of their many mistakes. The great behemoth that we call “curriculum” comes from a variety of sources: from administrators and consultants, from the demands of specific disciplines, and – depending on the nature of the school, the teacher’s experience and mindset, and the discipline – from teachers themselves. But a teacher’s own accumulated humanity is always the glue that holds a curriculum together. I don’t know exactly why my eighth grade science teacher thought it would be a good idea to teach us to recognize contraceptive devices at high speed as if we were fighter pilots learning to identify enemy aircraft as they appeared for a split second on a simulator screen (although it seems like as good a way as any to become a sexually mature adult woman in the face of an uncertain future, doesn’t it?), but I know that it worked. I know my contraceptives, dammit. I also know that in the process I imbibed a little bit of my teacher’s cynicism and frustration. When I picture him throwing each birth control device now, I imagine that his internal monologue went something like this: How the hell do they expect me to teach these fucking kids about fucking sex? I barely understand it myself! The physicality and anger and mild danger of the lesson (he aimed to hit our faces when he threw; we did the same when we threw back) made their way in subtle ways into my subconscious understanding of sexuality. I don’t know that this is a good thing, exactly, but it is an honest thing – and in education, as in almost everything else human beings do, honest but ambivalent is usually better than good but sterile.
This entry may seem to veer a bit off the track of some of the others I’ve written. While the primary topic of this blog is my own journey toward health and healing from my fibromyalgia and brain injuries, a secondary – but not very secondary – topic is education. To be honest, at this point in my life I am not sure if I would be capable of writing anything more complex than a shopping list that wasn’t in some way about education. In order to understand where I am right now, both physically and mentally, I need to understand how I got here. My elementary and high school educations, college and young adulthood, my grad school training as a fiction writer, my early and ongoing training as a teacher, and the great growth as well as the great injuries that were the fruits of my training in martial arts: all of these are puzzle pieces in my attempt to understand why I am here at my kitchen table at noon on a Thursday instead of sitting around my Harkness table with my honors juniors. Some researchers believe that fibromyalgia is essentially the body’s inability to recognize that it has healed from past injuries – in other words, that it is almost a physical manifestation of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Just as a PTSD sufferer relives old traumas and terrors through nightmares and hallucinations, a fibromyalgia sufferer relives the pain, confusion, and fatigue of her own past.
These ideas are also on my mind because my career is at a crossroads. I have the opportunity to return to my school in the fall in my previous capacity (teaching five English classes and serving as department chair in addition to certain other duties like moderating clubs and supervising detention), or I can choose not to return. My boss (who has been supportive and entirely wonderful throughout this entire process) was willing to consider working out a part-time position for me, but she just couldn’t find a way to make it work in the context of the school’s overall staffing needs. So I have a decision to make – and I have to make it in (gulp) the next ten days. I can go back to the lion’s den, to the arena, to the trenches – insert your own preferred melodramatic metaphor here. Or I can start from scratch and see what happens next. On the one hand, starting from scratch is one of my favorite things to do. I spent my childhood wishing I had been born into the Ingalls family from Little House on the Prairie largely because of that family’s endless transience, and as an adult I’ve never lived more than five years in the same place. Thoreau’s words – “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one” – echo in my head every single year at contract-renewal time. But of course I’m not Pa Ingalls, and I’m not Thoreau, and I’m not a kid anymore, either.
And, perhaps more importantly, I LOVE the lion’s den. I really, really do. Even when it hurts – perhaps even especially when it hurts.