What is the first thing you think about when you think of elementary school rites of passage? For me it is and always will be sex education. Only for me it was not such a time of wonder; it was more like a time of trying to keep my stomach from turning inside out. I remember it like it was yesterday, even though it was more like seven years ago. It was late April, headed into the summer of my fifth grade year. My teacher was Mr. Atkinson, a funny little man with a good background in American history and, conveniently, a fifth-grade sense of humor. Our class was located in a small portable, which was the trademark of overcrowded public schools in the area. Without air conditioning in the spring it was like a furnace in there, and that did nothing to help my situation.
District policy in regards to sex education led to this learning phenomenon each spring, when the male teachers would take aside the fifth grade boys and the female teachers would do the same with the girls. I remember being rounded up like cattle and herded into the portable, which was doubly crowded as it bore the brunt of the fifth grade male population in the school. There was excitement, fear, wonder, apprehension, and a hundred other emotions swirling around the group of kids, and all of them were obvious to anyone watching.
As we entered the small building, a mass of fidgety kids pinching through a small doorway in the corner of the room, it was like no other time I had been in there. The room seemed different somehow. Not worse, anyway, but there was a definite change between then and the last time I had been in there. Thinking back on it now, it was most likely the energy of all that curiosity, because when the speech began, a depth of knowledge previously unknown to us was suddenly and wonderfully available. Previously, that which we did know was as much fiction as reality.
We scrambled for chairs at an increased speed, resulting in the expected griping, shoving and whining that we always heard. After we had all found chairs, those who had not sitting on the floor, the room quieted down and we all knew something was about to happen. Mr. Atkinson greeted us with his usual easily relatable anecdote. The crowd seemed to settle slightly, as if some energy had been lost when we saw that this new, exciting lesson was going to begin just as all the two-plus-two, preamble to the Constitution speeches had before it. But this lesson was more interactive. All throughout the first few minutes of our meeting hands shot up fast and sometimes naive, sometimes completely misinformed questions were launched at the three male teachers at the front of the class. Sometimes the answers incited giggles, while other times they induced debate, even looks of pure astonishment.
After we had covered the basics of the human anatomy, which happened slowly but sped up when we were given a glimpse of what was to come, we moved on to some of the even hotter topics among the boys on the playground, relationships and sex. It started out fine, but I was in for a surprise. As the details of the lesson became clearer, I found my stomach feeling somewhat unsettled. I pictured in my mind all the things that the teachers were saying, and it was really disgusting to me. The strange feeling in my stomach grew more intense, and before I knew it I was queasy. It didn’t end there, because soon my head began to swim, and my vision was fading in and out. I was scared not knowing what was happening to me, so in panic I stood up weakly and slid my feet one in front of the other until I was at the front of the room. I vaguely remember trying to tell Mr. Atkinson that I didn’t feel good, but before I knew it I was falling to the ground.
Luckily the teacher caught me, and through eyewitness accounts that have been related back to me more times than I like to think about I’m told he carried me to the nurse’s office, where I regained consciousness on a small bed with a paper-covered pillow, which crinkled as I moved my head. The nurse comforted me and told me that I would be fine, and that my mom was on her way to get me and take me home. Feeling reassured, I sat up and waited.
Ten minutes later my mom was hugging me tightly and worrying over my condition like almost any mother would. I went home that night and ate dinner, which was of my choice that evening, and then went to bed. I had no idea the teasing that would begin the next day. All throughout recess wisecracks flew at me from all directions, and I did my best to bounce them off me with my own schoolyard wit. The teasing subsided a week or so later, and I, as a fifth grade boy, made up my mind not to harass people about things that they couldn’t prevent.