The Lessons That They Need

It happens during my last class of the day: A seventh grader raises her hand and asks, “It’s a bad thing if you want to date more than one person, right?”

The task I’d assigned my students was supposed to be a simple — list some things that might tell us if a relationship is healthy or unhealthy. As I’ve learned over the past few years, however, nothing in sex education is ever simple.

I gulp and look over at the school’s biology teacher who has paused from grading papers to see how I will answer the question. My pulse quickens a bit. When I was a kid, the answer to that student’s question would definitely have been, “Yes, that is a bad thing.” Then again, that would also have been the answer to, “It’s a bad thing to be gay, right?”

The sex education I received as a child taught me to be afraid of my body and ashamed of my sexuality. It primed me to treat my partners with suspicion and judgment, and to expect poor treatment in return. That’s not what I want for the kids I teach. Not to mention the fact that every Tuesday evening, I facilitate a support group for non-monogamous adults. So I can’t just say that non-monogamy is bad.

I take a breath. “Well,” I say, “what do you think?”

The class erupts. “You’re going to get diseases!” “You’re a skank!” “You’re going to cheat on your boyfriend?”

The girl’s face flushes. I raise my hand to quiet everyone down. “Okay,” I say. “You just brought up a whole lot of stuff. Some of it is really important. But we’re trying not to shame people in this classroom, right? We’re not trying to make them feel bad?”

They nod. (Thank god).

“Is there a way you can talk about your concerns without being judgmental?”

One boy raises his hand. He wants to know how you prevent STIs if you’re sleeping with more than one person. Another suggests that he’d just feel jealous all of the time. Yet another student raises their hand and says, “I mean, it might make sense if you were bisexual. Then you could date different genders at the same time.”

I nod. This is something I can work with.

As a sex educator, I constantly find myself in a balancing act between the lesson I want to teach and the lesson I have to teach — the lesson that emerges from what kids are actually thinking about. In a lesson on consent, I might have to sacrifice some nuggets of wisdom in favor of a full conversation about how alcohol changes our ability to make healthy decisions. In a lesson on STIs, I might have to sacrifice some information on proper testing in order to address students’ comments about promiscuity or sexual orientation.

What I’ve come to accept is that the sweet spot, the lesson that they need, is somewhere in between my lesson plan and my students’ plan for the lesson. When I allow my students to talk about what’s on their minds, we end up discussing very difficult topics — not just non-monogamy, but also societal issues such as race and racism, socioeconomic class and gender.

My role in these conversation isn’t didactic. I often don’t have concise answers to the questions they ask. Rather, I see myself as a facilitator of social and emotional skill-building. In my classes, we practice empathy and dive deep for answers that reflect our own values, even if those values are not the ones we’ve seen at home or in school or on television. Usually, somewhere along the line, my kids identify “non-judgment” as a value they’d like to practice.

Teaching this way, I’ve learned that most kids struggle to feel comfortable in their own bodies or enamored of their own brains. They wonder if they are capable of finding love, if they will ever have sex or if the sex they are having will ever feel good. They wonder if being gender nonconforming makes them transgender, or if being transgender means they have to get surgeries, or if there’s even a word to describe their experiences. Without any interrogation of the assumptions they’ve been taught to make about the world, these kids feel lost at sea and latch onto the values that have been imposed on them by the world at large: judgment, shame, conformity, silence.

So when a student asks, “This is bad, right?” what they’re really asking is, “Should I feel bad for wondering about this?” And the answer to that question is always, “No.”

We make it through the conversation about non-monogamy. The kids decide that it might be the right choice for some people, but it would take a lot of patience, generosity and knowledge — and a willingness to go against the grain. The bell rings. I breathe a sigh of relief. On her way out, the biology teacher catches my eye and says, “Interesting lesson.” I can’t quite tell if she’s serious.

I notice that the girl who posed the initial question has been lingering at her table. “How are you doing?” I ask.

She looks up brightly. “My dad has two boyfriends,” she says. “I’m glad that everybody understands him a little bit better.”

“Me too,” I say.

“Except for the dude who called me a skank.”

“I’m sorry about that,” I say. “I should have been addressed that more strongly.”

She shrugs. “That’s life, I guess.”

I sigh. There’s always more work to do.

Noah Bogdonoff is an educator with The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health in Pawtucket and Partners in Sex Education in Newton, Mass. He is currently pursuing his MSW at Boston University.

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