Monday, December 28, 2015

Why Middle-Schoolers Need Real Sex Ed, Part One

    Common Stereotype: Teenagers think about nothing but sex.
    This is false.

    Common Stereotype: Teenagers think about sex an awful lot of the time.
    This is true.

    I’m pretty sure I think about sex a lot less than most of my friends. In fact, I repeatedly entertained the notion of sitting at a different lunch table when Erica kept bringing a book of old-timey insults, slang, and the very strange concepts that started some of these sayings. Let’s just say that ancient Romans came up with many, many perverted ideas, and leave it at that.
    Why can teachers not remember what it was like to be a teenager? I don’t know. The fact is, though, they can’t. And all the science in the world can’t quite measure up to the thoroughly bizarre mind of a middle-schooler.
    The health curriculum is utterly stupid. At least, anything even remotely sexual is taught in a stupid fashion. Really, the whole curriculum is a repeat, from year to year. Maybe three weeks of material in our one quarter a year of health is new from last year’s. So while I don’t yet know what they’re teaching us this year, nearly all of my friends are taking health second quarter, and, at some point or another, have complained about it. And all their complaints are awfully familiar.
    Eighth grade is supposed to be the year where Sex Ed actually teaches about sex rather than the reproductive systems and feminine hygiene. This year is supposed to be the year where we “learn” how babies are made (yeah - if there’s anyone in the eighth grade who doesn’t know at this point, I’ll eat my binder), where we learn about sexual harassment (myth busted), and where we get to see a video of a baby being born (myth confirmed!).
    Many of my friends were discussing the “sexual harassment” lesson during lunch. And no, it wasn’t the sort of thing that would make you lose your appetite, though there have been plenty of conversations along those lines that have forced me to develop an extremely strong stomach. (Never ask your friends anything about Game of Thrones….) I questioned my friend Helene about the lesson, and she explained. Apparently, and please remember I am not an eyewitness (though I will get to take health fourth quarter, same curriculum, and I’ll bet you can guess what the vast majority of my blog posts will be about then), students discussed a text conversation between a girl and a boy. She texted him, What do you like doing after school besides playing basketball? He responded, Making out. I don’t remember all the examples, but they were basically along those lines - just something suggestive said by a friend. This appears to be what they count as sexual harassment. So, while my opinion may very well be disproved when I actually suffer through the course, it appears that the teachers have, yet again, suddenly gone all squeamish right when they get to something interesting. Sigh.
    The thing is, this generation gets some disturbing stuff. Movies, TV shows, websites (<cough>fan fiction<cough>), which, as I can guarantee from experience, one doesn’t need to actually see to hear about.
    In detail.
    As much as this sucks, it is pretty much unavoidable. It’s about as easy to eradicate in a middle school as bullying. And I’m sure glad they haven’t tried, because they would fail at least as spectacularly as they have with bullying, and it would only involve more assemblies and counseling lessons chock-full of uselessness.
    Health teachers don’t know just how little innocence a good deal of us have left. And I’m pretty sure that some of the lesser-known things our generation accepts as normal would still shock most adults.
    I am not saying this to prove that I at least have experience in something over teachers, though the fact that I do does still give me a small jolt of satisfaction, however illogical (since it would hardly be my choice field of expertise). It is simply true.
    So I say, bring it on, health teachers. You are the squeamish ones, not us. We can take whatever diluted version of the truth you deliver.
    Actually, I am questioning the ability of the male participants to hold it together when they see the childbirth video.
    But other than that, we can take it.

Why Middle-Schoolers Need Real Sex Ed, Part Two

    My friend Cassandra was complaining, during the last few minutes of orchestra, about some of the health lessons. She began in a slow, measured fashion. “Apparently,” she stated thoughtfully, “the only way teens can be even slightly intimate,” another pause, “is to hold hands.”
    “Are they showing you that list of ‘appropriate ways for teens to show affection’?” I asked disgustedly. I got it last year. The teacher made a big deal of pointing out that kissing wasn’t on the list.
    “Yes,” she groaned. “It’s all ‘hold hands’ -”
    “And ‘give small gifts’,” I agreed.
    I don’t remember the whole thing. That’s pretty much it. It’s basically a very brief list of nauseating ways to show affection - and, as Cassandra noted, nothing even remotely sexual.
    “Apparently if you kiss someone,” she griped, “they will automatically get HIV. Like, if you have the tiniest cut on your lip, and you kiss someone, they will die.”
    Okay. All the lessons about STD's and teen pregnancies they blabber on about for weeks is probably enough to scare whatever tiny minority may actually have considered randomly having sex in middle school - and if it’s not, nothing will except physical restraint and/or threat of death. But kissing? I’m pretty sure kissing is considered an acceptable practice.
    By the students.
    But as long as it’s a fairly, er, straightforward kiss, and not done in the middle of math class or whatever, seriously, what is the deal? It’s reasonable for teachers to warn us about the dangers of having sex, even if their methods are somewhat questionable. But kissing?
    No one will take them seriously if they tell us all the terrible stuff that can happen if you kiss someone. That’s like a terrorist threatening to bomb America if we don’t give them, let’s say, cloning technology, pay them fifteen billion dollars, and, oh yeah, change the national anthem to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” It would make the small amount of rational advice they give us look less rational because we’d take them less seriously.
     If a man proposes to his girlfriend, can you imagine her gasping, and smiling, and then holding his hand? That sounds like a commercial: Wait! Don't kiss her! You may or may not have a minuscule cut on your lip that will give your beloved HIV if you kiss her! [Cartoon creature hands baffled-looking man box of chocolates.] Remember, if you kiss someone, you may get them sick! Use healthy ways to show affection so you don't give your Significant Other a cold, such as holding hands or giving small gifts! [Flies away wearing superhero cape.]
    Not to mention, but…what about when we’re married? Do marriage vows somehow neutralize whatever viruses may be swimming around in one’s blood? Or are they just telling us to never have sex?
    Hate to break it to you, health teachers, but we all exist because someone had sex. So do you. If no one ever has sex anymore, there will be no next generation to suffer whatever twisted TV shows this one dreams up.
    And, as we exist, it is a pretty safe conclusion that our parents have had sex. And haven’t we all seen our parents kiss each other at times? Are we going to take them seriously if our own parents (who, in my humble opinion, are far more trustworthy than most health teachers), are regularly contradicting their example? If our own existence contradicts their example?
    What about birth control? Are they going to teach us about that? If they do, they’ll be sending mixed messages - would they be promoting asexuality, or safe sex? Yet wouldn’t it be good to learn about - for the people (there are bound to be some) who won’t listen to the don't have sex lesson?
    Additionally, I really don't think there are a lot of people who would actually have sex in middle school. My friends like to talk about it (far more than I like to hear about it), but I don't think any of them are stupid enough to just go out and do it, at least not without any sort of birth control. And whatever they're going to teach us, they don't need to teach us repeatedly. Either one will listen or one won't. Lecturing us about the number of diseases one can get three years in a row will just bore us. If it's going to make an impact on anyone, it will have already. For those who didn't get the message the first time we spent two weeks studying STD's, there will be no understanding, or just no care.
    In short: Health teachers, don't teach us about STD's again. Save your breath. Or better yet, teach us stuff we don't already know, or at least stuff that has a better than thirty percent chance of actually making an impact on us.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Morally Questionable Morals

    As many of my recent blog posts - and probably quite a few of my future ones - talk a lot about my disdain for my English teacher’s theory that fiction is written just to deliver a life lesson and every piece of fiction has one, I have Defended My Claim with a list I compiled (during math class) of well-known stories with morally questionable morals.

1. Cinderella
Moral: Spend your childhood taking crap from abusive parents, and eventually some chick with a wand will solve all your problems for you.

2. Sleeping Beauty/Snow White
Moral: If a strange man comes around and kisses you while you’re comatose/dead/asleep, you’ve got it made.

3. The Little Mermaid
Moral: Do everything and anything for a guy.

4. Rapunzel
Moral: If a foreign prince tricks you into letting him in while you’re home alone, marry him.

5. Rumpelstiltskin
Moral: Cheating, lying, and going back on your word are great ways to get out of a pickle.

6. Jack and the Beanstalk
Moral: If you’re poor, break into the house of a rich man, steal his valuables, and kill him. Problem solved!

7. Hansel and Gretel
Moral: If you’re hungry, feel free to eat the house of a stranger and kill the owner if she gives you grief.

8. The Ugly Duckling
Moral: Society only values the beautiful.

9. The Three Little Pigs
Moral: If you fail to see the obvious in architecture, you will die.

10. The Twelve Dancing Princesses
Moral: Use an invisibility cloak to follow your crush into her bedroom, then stalk her all night, and you’ll end up marrying her.

Something else I found interesting was the story The Pineapple and the Hare. Apparently, some idiot decided that this goofy story, apparently written for fun, would be an excellent reading passage for a test in New York schools, which is incredibly stupid, but I couldn't find any links with just the story, so you get the whole article. If you like, just scroll down - there are two versions, and only the second one has the moral. I am trying to imagine my English teacher's face if I submitted this story....

And The Moral of the Story Is.....?

    I just got back from seventh-period English class and my teacher, who was out sick Monday through Thursday last week, has come back. I was on a student court trip all day Friday, when she finally returned. I asked three other students from my English class about what happened on Friday, and they all said that the teacher chewed them out for talking during class and generally “disrespecting” the subs. She told them she hoped it wouldn’t happen again (dream on, Mrs. T - you’re teaching middle school). The students apparently tried to argue that the subs were just insane - which they were - but of course, two random teachers against a class of twenty-something eyewitness students? The students don’t have a chance.

    I have frequently noticed this pattern, as a matter of fact.

    So today, we began preparations for our next writing assignment, which is going to be a narrative. The teacher says it can be about anything we want as long as it has a theme. (Remember - when she says theme, she means moral.) My prediction is that we’re going to get a rubric about length, structure (i.e., introduce the conflict at the beginning, have two instances of rising action and two of falling action, etc.), and just about everything except plot, but teachers have varying definitions of “anything”.

    She is still determined that authors only write stories to teach life lessons, and that this is applicable in every case. I wholeheartedly disagree - maybe you can take a moral from most stories, but that doesn’t mean they were just written as lessons. Maybe it’s me, but that sort of makes it sound like fiction has to be justified - like you can’t just read or write a book for enjoyment, like I do; you have to be getting a life lesson from it. For instance, what is the moral of, say, any of the Harry Potter books? Do you think J.K. Rowling wrote them to teach that, I don’t know, friendship conquers everything or something equally sentimental? (And if she submitted Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for an English assignment before she published it, would her teacher tell her it was unsatisfactory because it didn’t follow some neat little rubric and she didn’t emphasize her moral?)

    I thought for a while about what I would write. Originally, I was trying to think of a way to skirt the guidelines and let her draw her own conclusions about the moral of whatever story I chose to write. Then I had a better idea: I would tell the story of a girl who loved to write, hated guidelines, especially for narratives, and thought her teacher’s opinions about morals - which, by a complete and utter coincidence, happened to be exactly the same as my English teacher’s - were kind of stupid. And I would ensure it was also good writing.

    Asking for trouble? Obviously - though that’s not why I came up with the idea. I just thought it would be a good piece of writing, and maybe make her think a little. (Not likely, but a girl can dream, right?)

    Today, she passed out blue index cards for everybody. We had to brainstorm potential themes for our narratives. She told us we didn’t have to make our final decision - we could change our minds when we started writing, and she just wanted us to have an idea of what we were going to write. Since I already had mine figured out, I got permission to skip the brainstorming page and just write mine. I assumed, when she didn’t collect it, that she would get them at the end of class, so I left mine on my desk. It read Moral: Not all stories have morals and so students shouldn’t be required to write every story with a moral.

    Looking back on it, it’s a lot more provocative than it seemed at the time. I could - and probably should - have left it at not all stories have morals. But still, it was legitimate. I already knew how I could write it.

    It’s probably easy to figure out where this is going, right?

    I got out my book and read for about fifteen minutes. Finally, she noticed I was done and asked for my card. Tensing, I handed it to her and innocently buried my nose back in my book, pretending I foresaw absolutely no impending explosion, while I waited for the impending explosion.

    “This isn’t a theme,” she stated coldly, handing the card back to me. “Try again.”

    “Why isn’t it a theme?” Okay, it’s obviously not the sort of theme she wanted, but I could write a story with this theme. I had already had it planned. I could prove it.

    “Because I’m telling you it’s not.”

    “Well, yes, I know, but why isn’t it a theme?”

    “Because,” she repeated, her voice hard, “I said it’s not a theme.”

    I could sense that to argue further would have been suicide. Irritated at her lack of answer, I erased my theme. She walked away, and immediately, the others at my table wanted to hear the controversial theme. I recited it for them.

    “Well,” I said, perking up as I recalled something she had said earlier, “she told us we could change it when we started writing. I’ll just put down some sentimental fake theme and write my story with the real one.”

    Janet suggested, “You should just do something like ‘Friends should always stick together.’”

    “Great,” I agreed, blowing eraser dust off my index card and writing it down. “Just the nauseating sort of thing teachers want.”

    Janet snorted in reply.

    The teacher saw as soon as I was finished writing and came over to retrieve my card. She picked it up gingerly, as if it was a bomb that could go off at any time. I could almost sense her relief as she scanned it. “Much better,” she said, an undercurrent of warning in her voice as she carried it away.

    Ha. If she thinks I give up that easily, she doesn’t know me very well.

    The moral of this story is: If you come up with a moral a teacher doesn’t like, she will treat you like a tantrumming two-year-old.

PS: Here is the story I eventually came up with and submitted.

Substitute Teachers and Torment OR, Tormenting Substitute Teachers

   I haven’t received critique for my persuasive essay yet because my English teacher’s been out most of the week and I had the student court field trip on Friday, the day she came back. However, the presence of multiple subs has proved endlessly entertaining, so I’ll share a few stories while I wait for my essay.

    First, you must know about Janet. She is one of three by that name (not actually Janet, because I’m not naming names), and all three are in advanced orchestra, which makes it difficult for subs calling attendance. She is bold to the point of insanity. Case in point: When a substitute teacher requested her name last year, so he could report her misbehavior to her teacher, she hollered, “Chimichanga!”

    She is in my English class, which is one of the main reasons the presence of multiple subs was so entertaining. Janet has gotten the concept of bothering substitute teachers down to an art. First, she sasses them about whatever comes up - for instance, a teacher passed her a worksheet of questions about a poem, and she said, sounding thoroughly bored, “I don’t want it.  Can you take it back?”

    Once a teacher gets mad, he or she will immediately start the displays of power - “Would you care to discuss this with the main office?” “You realize I have you tomorrow as well, right?” “This is absolutely unacceptable!” - essentially trying to assert dominance. What’s really funny about it is that it’s obvious that’s what they’re trying to do. They feel this smirking eighth-grade girl has threatened their position, and now they must clearly establish that they are in charge and will not tolerate any more.

    Then she continues sassing them, trying to see how much they’ll put up with. They handle a surprising amount, considering how blatantly rude she is. They have all received the finger from her when their back is turned, which causes much sniggering among the nearby classmates. They start falling apart - completely losing control and basically ranting at her, and all the while she’s sitting there smirking, not even trying to hide her satisfaction at a job well done, and everyone else is enjoying the spectacle of a teacher comically screaming at this girl who’s making it perfectly obvious she couldn’t care less. The meaner the sub, the more satisfying it is to see them brought to justice.

    So Janet provided a lot of entertainment. Our first sub, a man who stayed two of the four days the normal teacher was out sick, played The Victim, the sub who makes a big deal out of acting nice at the beginning of the class, so they can immediately act like students talking during the warm-ups is a massive betrayal and they didn’t deserve any of it. (This is an example of the attempted guilting I talked about in my last post, The Power of Empty Threats. As I explained in said post, it doesn’t work.) Janet is merciless with these teachers - I’m not sure why they’re her favorite. Maybe because they’re so obsequious. Still, it is a very popular choice among substitutes, because it conveniently releases them of blame and pins any ineffectiveness on the students.

    On Monday, we started with the warm-up our normal teacher had left us. We were apparently about to get into morals, I discovered. I was determined to prove my teacher wrong about every story having a moral. The warm-up in question read, What was your favorite book or movie when you were young? What message did the author want you to take away from it? It was asking what the moral was.

    I knew whatever story I chose, she would find a moral in. So I didn’t choose anything with a storyline - to prove my point, I answered, When I was extremely young, I enjoyed the book Goodnight Moon. This has no moral. When the sub asked for volunteers, I raised my hand and shared my answer, wondering what this sub would do.

    “Well, maybe Goodnight Moon doesn’t have a moral per se,” he reflected, “but why do you think the author wrote the book? What message do you think they were trying to convey?”

    “Um…'Go to sleep'?”

    Irritation flared on his face. “That is really immature. I can tell you’re not going to do well on this unit.”

    Seriously. I am not making this up.

    The next day, I asked him what the message of Goodnight Moon was. He said he didn’t know.

    Wednesday, I got to miss English because I was performing in the winter concert teaser. Thursday, we got this lady whose name I never discovered. She played Authoritarian, the type that thinks they’re privy to the minds and hearts of students and therefore knows they’re not little angels. They’re the ones who intend to rule with an iron fist and keep students in line.

    At first, I couldn’t tell. She seemed nice, just tired, and I sort of felt sorry for her.

    Then, once I finished my warm-up, Janet asked if she could borrow my pencil for a second. I handed it to her. She wrote something in her agenda book and tossed it back. However, she tossed it a little too hard, and it bounced off my desk and rolled across the floor.

    “Really, Janet?” I muttered. She resumed her work and paid no attention.

    I got up and retrieved my pencil. A few seconds later, the boy next to me asked if he could use it, so I gave it to him. “Just don’t do what Janet did, or I’ll press charges,” I joked.

    “Why? What did Janet do?” he asked as he took the pencil.

    I snorted. “She threw it halfway across the-”

    “Excuse me!” yelled the sub in a tone that clearly countered Excuse you. “Why are you talking? This is warm-up time, not talking time!”

    “I finished my warm-up!” I objected, but she was still talking.

    “Why on Earth would you be talking now?” Her eyes were wide, as if she couldn’t believe that a student would dare be so disrespectful.

    “He wanted a pencil!” I cried, gesturing to the startled boy.

    “So? You don’t need to talk to give someone a pencil!” She stared at me disgustedly.

    I couldn’t think of another retort, so I put on my best sullen-teenager, wow-this-crazy-lady’s-got-serious-anger-issues face and shut up. Practically spitting, she stalked away.

    “Sorry,” whispered the boy, looking mortified.

    I shook my head. “It’s not your fault.”

    Kids always talk during warm-ups. There will almost never be a silent classroom. Therefore, even the ones who really prefer quiet - like me - have been forced to adapt and learn to register chatter as white noise, or they will never be able to complete their work. It’s a middle-school-created Darwin.

    In short, students naturally tune out the talking of other students while they work. Of course, it’s pointless to explain this to teachers, but it’s just a fact.

    A strange lady yelling in a very angry voice…that’s another story. Everyone was tuning out my brief murmurs, and then she comes along and shatters everyone’s concentration, by yelling at me about shattering everyone's concentration.

    Okay, I recognize and admit that I shouldn’t have been talking during the warm-up, but does no one else appreciate the irony of this?

    The moral of this story is: English teachers shouldn’t get a cold that lasts four days, or all hell will break loose back at school.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Power of Empty Threats (or lack thereof)

     Last year, during lunch, one of my friends was texting her dad. I don’t know the whole story - she said he was taking her somewhere and they had to work out the logistics of it, or something to that effect. But you’re not allowed to have your cell phone out during lunch.

    I don’t know why it mattered. She wasn’t being disruptive or anything, just sitting there quietly, not bothering a soul. But a teacher came by, noticed her phone-holding position, and asked, “Do you have your phone?”

    Of course, by the time she got the words out, the girl had slipped her cell phone subtly beneath the lunch table. She looked up, weighing her options, and then said, awkwardly, “No.”

    Well, what the heck else was she supposed to say?

    “I hope not,” replied the teacher, looking expectantly at her. It was clear she didn’t believe a word.

    “Um…I don’t.”

    “Good. I’m glad.” The teacher gave her a long look and moved on.

    When she had gone, the girl turned to me and muttered, “Yeah, people just randomly look down at their crotches and smile.”

    It was pretty obvious she was lying. I’m glad the teacher didn’t call her on it, of course, but it seemed pretty stupid on her part. Did she think she was giving the girl a warning, or guilting her, or what?

    Here’s a hint for any teachers who may think that works: It doesn’t. Students know when you know. And they don’t see your silence as a warning, they see it as a weakness. They won’t feel guilty for lying, they’ll scorn you. And it’s not because they’re heartless.

    Teachers make a big deal out of making the rules and insisting they have power. It’s like a silent challenge, and most students treat it as such. When it comes to actually enforcing the rules, though, teachers are a bit lacking. And students know this from experience. They will not hesitate to take advantage of it, just to prove they can.

    When a teacher says, “Stop talking over me, or I’ll give this whole class lunch detention,” they won’t. When a teacher says, “I guess you guys can’t handle being in groups,” students know, even before the teachers admit it to themselves, that they’ll be back in groups by the end of the week.

    My English teacher made this threat. She is the rare type who actually carries out most of her threats. She still makes us sit separately (though I’m betting at the start of next quarter, we’ll get a chance to “redeem ourselves”), and it’s been several weeks. It was kind of impressive.

    Then recently, while we were working on our persuasive essays, things fell to pieces.  All the students were sitting at their desks with their laptops. Someone unplugged the headphones from the laptop next to them while the owner was absent, and loud music played for a good five or ten seconds before the giggling student plugged them back in. The teacher snapped, “It’s not cute, and it’s not funny.” The whole class was still snorting with laughter. “If you guys would rather handwrite this essay tomorrow, that’s fine with me.” The laughter abruptly halted.

    Several students talked quietly amongst themselves. Others looked up photos on their computers instead of typing. (I may or may not have been pausing to type creative insults about a computer program that opened a window every ten seconds after my mouse stopped moving, but that’s beside the point.) But a not-entirely-focused class is to be expected when you teach middle school. About five minutes before the bell, she ordered brusquely, “Sign out and put your Chromebooks away. Sit at your desks until the bell. I shouldn’t be hearing your voices.” She paused a moment to let this sink in, then continued, “And tomorrow, we’ll be handwriting this whole essay.”

    Then, right before the bell rang, she informed us, “Tomorrow, you get one last chance to impress me with your Chromebooks.”

    And just like that, most of the lingering respect I felt for her vanished more quickly than joy in math class.

    The more empty threats a teacher makes, the less effective future threats will be. When you get an exceptionally rare teacher (that isn’t a sub) that actually carries out some of what he or she threatens, most likely they will be labeled a dictator. Striking a balance is possible, but difficult. And I’d say I admire teachers for achieving it, but…I’m not sure I’ve ever met a teacher who has.