Why one teacher asks his students to respect and love each other enough to wait to have sex until they're ready.
Sometimes when I'm feeling tired, stressed, or just plain lazy, I will use a planning period to meander down to the school counselor’s office, plop down on her couch, and demand that she fix what ails me. A few weeks ago, I was in there thumbing through one of her books about teenage sexuality. It said that in a 2008 a survey of ninth to 12th grade teens, 45 percent reported having had sex. When they restricted the question to just seniors, 75 percent said they had had sex.
This really wasn’t that much of a revelation for me. Two years ago, a friend loaned me Jeremy Iversen's book, High School Confidential, which chronicles a semester spent as an undercover high school student in California. Iversen’s tale divested me of a lot of sexual naiveté, the result of attending a tiny school in Peru.
I knew from that experience that prohibitions against teenage sexuality are as much a cultural convention as anything, but I had also come to believe that in the elongated adolescence that American culture promotes, teenage hanky-panky is a very bad idea. As a teacher, I found the extent of my student’s sexual activity disturbing and wanted to do something about it. I began to wonder, though, what I could possibly say to them that they hadn't already heard a million times before.
In the end, I gave up on figuring out how to boss them into behaving, and instead started trying to share honestly (and appropriately) from my own experience. I also took every opportunity to affirm them, and tried to encourage them with my words and actions to respect and love each other enough to wait on sex until they're ready.
As is typical in my line of work, I generally felt that I was talking to the back wall of the classroom.
Today at lunch, however, I glimpsed a ray of hope. One of my former students, Mary, came bounding into my room towing John, a quiet chap new to my class this year, and Liz, a bubbly blond. Mary did the cha-cha slide over to my desk, slapped her palms down on the projector stand next to it and said, “Mr. Barkey, we want to talk to you about sex.”
“Um, okay,” I said. “What about sex do you want to discuss?”
“Why shouldn’t we have sex?” she replied.
I thought for a moment. “Well,” I began, “I’m not gonna sit here and tell you I’ve got it all figured out. And I’m sure not going to judge you. You know I’m as messed as the next guy, but here's what I think."
Then, as Liz, John and Mary sat at the long desk in front of mine and began to eat their lunches, I gingerly picked up the gift of trust they had given me and started to talk about sex. I told them I understood what it was like to be afraid to be unloved—how since my wife had left me a year ago I, too, had wanted a quick-fix, feel-good experience. I told them how I knew I wasn’t ready yet for the trust and intimacy that a healthy sexual relationship required, and how I hoped I would be wise enough to wait for the right time. Then I shared the reasons why I believed the time was not right for them, either, and how they were worth more than that.
As I talked, I wondered again if I was being heard as yet another droning adult voice, telling them to behave. They seemed engaged, though. They asked questions and made comments and when I finished, Liz tilted her head to one side and said: “I never thought about it like that before.”
“Well, how did you think about it?” I asked.
“I dunno,” she said, “I guess I just kind of thought I shouldn’t have sex because if I did I would die.”
We had a good laugh over that, and as I talked a bit more about how fear was a terrible motivation for any course of action, I thought again about how great it was to be a teacher—to be able to meet these young men and women where they were: to love them, and maybe even show them how to love each other.
The year before, I had sat in that same classroom and had much the same conversation with Mary, who scrunched up her face, made imploring claws of both her hands and said, “But Mr. Barkey, I’m 15 and I have neeeeeeds.”
I do not expect, as one blathering art teacher, to end teen pregnancy in America. But maybe, I can help a few students to make wiser decisions.
Josh Barkey is a high school art teacher in North Carolina.