Sex Ed

“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:

two daddies

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.

In the hallway of the schoolhouse at sunset

In the hallway of the schoolhouse at sunset


Running for the wrong reasons

About two weeks ago, Sean and I went to Memphis to pick up a friend’s dog, hit the library, and purchase, among other things, swimsuits for our upcoming trip to the beach. Shopping for clothes, swimsuits in particular, is an unpleasant experience for me. I feel a lot prettier if I never look in mirrors, especially changing-room mirrors. Sean thinks I’m just beautiful, and he tells me so excessively, but that isn’t enough to counteract the predominant cultural messages that I’ve been subject to for a quarter of a century.

On the outside, I look like a feminist: I have comparatively little hair on my head and a comparative lot on my legs and in my armpits*. Most of the time, I can be a feminist on the inside, too. Feeling bad about my body in a changing room, I felt worse about my character. The self-loathing I was experiencing was two-fold:

  1. Heavens, my butt is rather unattractive!
  2. How dare I betray my ideals by hating my fairly healthy and by all accounts perfectly-nice-looking body!

I came out of the changing room more or less whimpering, detesting my insides and my outsides. Because I wasn’t happy with the way I looked, I resolved to start running again. Because I couldn’t stand the idea of basing a decision on hating my body, I retracted my decision. Taking back the decision didn’t address the initial feelings, so I came back to running. I went through this cycle a couple of times, going round and round with myself.

About two weeks ago, I started running again. I ran cross country in high school and liked everything about it except for the, y’know, actual races. I haven’t resolved my feelings about the decision, but I’m embracing the fact that it makes me feel better about myself: I feel good about my resolve, my health, and my strength when I run, not just about my body. We live in the prettiest part of Arkansas, so I always see something strange or cool or wonderful on the road (I saw a wiggly lizard this morning). I’m happy with the decision, but I’m uncomfortable with my motives. I’m exploring those feelings and disclosing them to gain some perspective, and hoping that my motives will eventually shift away from my looks and toward my health and happiness.

If I’m being honest here (I’m really trying!), I want to look good without working at it, and I want to feel like I look good (who doesn’t?). However, putting effort into my appearance based on other people’s ideas of what “looking good” is works against my efforts to make the world a better, more inclusive place. It’s a dilemma. I haven’t resolved it.

A few cleanup thoughts:

  • In certain social situations, I think it’s okay to want to look “normal.” Any event where someone else in particular is supposed to be the center of attention (weddings, funerals) is a good place to put away the funny hats and don a bra.
  • I don’t always disapprove of putting effort into my appearance: I think it can be fun to try to feel like a work of art and to use clothing and accessories to send a message. Most of the time, though, I just want to be dressed comfortably and functionally.
  • This isn’t a pity party: don’t tell me I’m beautiful because I wrote this post. You’d be missing the point.
  • running in the morning (when it’s not 100 degrees) is the bomb because a) then I don’t dread it all day and b) I get to feel great about myself (Yay! I ran today!) all day long. This is the great secret of people who actually exercise.

One of the greatest things that anyone can do to empower women and girls is compliment them on something other than their appearance. Maybe if the world hadn’t emphasized my looks over my health and strength, I’d be running for the right reasons.



*Women with hairless armpits always look a little strange to me.

Hair: When it’s on your head or isn’t.

Standing in front of a mirror in a white t-shirt, I thought I looked really, really white. And shiny. My scalp felt tight and tingly and, when I ran my palm over it, a little raspy. I was fifteen, and I’d just shaved my head for the first time. It was a nice enough head: not lumpy or pointy at all. Everyone told me I looked like Sinead O’Connor, which I didn’t. Over the next few weeks, a waitress mistook me for a boy in a skirt while I was at brunch with my family, and a kid in my class mistook me for his brother. My motives for shaving my head are long-forgotten, probably because they were weird and convoluted motives, but I learned something: I didn’t see the world any differently from inside a bald head.

My mother once said something to me about the way that femininity is tied to hair, something like “A woman without hair isn’t seen as a woman.” She was right, though her statement came from an experience very different from mine. People make assumptions and judgments about your gender identity and your sexuality when you don’t have a “feminine” hairstyle. Inside, I was still me: a mostly straight, mostly cisgendered person.  Outside, I was decidedly queer. For me, this was empowering. I was able to shrug off any negative experiences because they didn’t apply to my real identity, and embrace the escape from female stereotypes. People stopped assuming that I’d be submissive, ditzy, or emotional. I wasn’t objectified.
The positive, if superficial, feedback I had been used to receiving on my looks was missed. Sometimes, I was really self-conscious about my bald head. I’m not immune to social pressure, and I remember feeling hideous and embarrassed. With practice, I learned to see some new kinds of beauty in myself; I found the bunny-soft half-inch stage of growing my hair in and the arch and expression of the thick eyebrows that suddenly dominated my looks. I learned to really notice and appreciate being valued for my intelligence, though not yet for my kindness: I was not a kind teenager.
I wasn’t appropriating a symbol of some counterculture that didn’t apply to me or pretending to be something I wasn’t. My identity is complicated and I wear it in my heart, not on my skull. My skull I reserve for triumphs and mistakes in self-expression, convenience and daring. I’ve rocked a bald head, blue hair, a Mohawk and a buzz-cut. I’ve rocked bangs, spit curls, and long, mermaid hair. Sometimes, in the grow-out phase, I’ve rocked a mullet. There’s something to be said for all of it; Long hair is beautiful, wonderfully feminine and smooth to the touch; when I have short hair, I don’t have to wash or brush it every day, let alone keep track of hairties and bobby pins. I often look like a doofus, but I don’t care much.  My appearance is something I control, and if I feel like making the effort I can be gorgeous, tough, playful, lush, practical, feminine, androgynous, professional, alternative or look like a young Leonardo DiCaprio.