In my first year as a teacher, I made a call home to a flabbergasted, heartbroken mom, explaining that her sixth-grade daughter had signed out of my classroom to go to the restroom and instead performed a sex act on a high school boy. In her defense, technically, she had gone to the restroom. Another boy had walked into that restroom, seen the sex act, and spread the word around campus.
By noon the next day, many of the young men were inviting her to replicate the act, and she was hysterical. I called her up to my desk and asked her why she was crying, and if she knew why all the boys were speaking such terrible words to her. At this point, I’d have to write the entire male population of the tenth grade up. New teacher orientation certainly hadn’t covered this.
At first, she told me she didn’t know the meaning of the words I’d spoken.
I wanted desperately to believe her. The thing was, I could see it in her eyes, the raw shame, humiliation, and regret. The self-loathing, the ache to fall right off the face of the Earth was like a perfume she’d over-sprayed herself in just before class. I didn’t have to press hard for all the seedy details to spill forth.
I hated that call to her mom almost as much as I hated all the calls that came in the years that followed, all the shame-filled faces that sat before me in my classroom, all the questioning, furtive young faces, asking, “So should I? Send him the naked pics?” I hated each and every conversation about “maybe being pregnant.” I despised the referrals to guidance and the school nurse that followed.
More than that, I hated the look of shock and awe that washed over each face when I said, “What does your mom, or aunt, or guardian think about this?” And the words that always seemed to follow, “I could never talk to my parents about stuff like this! They don’t even know I’ve kissed my boyfriend!”
Regardless of the endless cajoling on my part, the insisting that you, their parents, love them and want the best for them, that they can talk to you about anything, most conversations followed similar patterns. A beautiful, smart young girl opened the door and asked to talk. It might have been before school while I was grading papers, writing lesson plans, or documenting behaviors. It might have been during the brief minutes I called my lunch break when I shoved food in my face and attempted to return phone calls and emails. It could have even been in the wide expanse of hours spent at my desk after school, intervening on behalf of failing students, attending meetings, sponsoring clubs, that your children found me.
And they asked me the questions they should have been asking you.
I did the best I could to answer on your behalf. I did the best I could to answer even when they didn’t ask.
When we covered Romeo and Juliet in our curriculum, we talked about more than alliteration and iambic pentameter. We wrote letters as Juliet to her father explaining why Romeo was worthy of her heart and why the timing shouldn’t be of concern and then we discussed them aloud. If you were Juliet’s dad would you be concerned? I sure would. I hoped they’d make the connections in their own lives.
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I wish I could tell you that incidents like my first year are isolated. I wish I could tell you what you want to hear, that they only happen in low-income schools and as long as your student is enrolled in a well-rated, high-scoring school, you’re safe.
Instead, I have to tell you that my son is enrolled in one of the top schools in our state and one afternoon this year when I picked him up, he was upset because the guys in his grade kept yelling, “I have three dollars!” You see, a young lady had performed a sex act on a young man in a bathroom for three dollars.
I don’t tell you all of this to shock you, but to inform you.
My son knows he can get in the car and tell me these things because they won’t shock me. He knows we’ll discuss them. He knows we’ll pray and talk about what it means to honor a woman, what it means to stand up for what’s right. He also knows I’ve seen and heard it all.
Your kids need to know they can talk to you without shock and disgust. You can be disgusted later. But when your kids come to you, they need your presence and your guidance, not your outrage or indignation. This is the world they live in, the world you sent them into.
Parents, we can no longer wait until tenth grade to talk to our students about sex, about sexuality. If by fifth grade, you haven’t, their peers have.
I know these conversations are daunting, but I want your kids to start having them with you, not me.
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