My seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Robertson, separated the boys from the girls when we lined up to walk home for lunch. When the bell rang, he dismissed the girls. This was unusual, and we boys looked at each other, wondering what was up. As we filed out of the room, he handed each of us an envelope. “A signed permission slip is due by the end of the week.”
Outside the school, we stood in a large group, the rules governing schoolyard cliques suspended. Several girls joined us, wondering if we were in trouble. We showed them the envelopes addressed to our parents. When a notice was sent home, the flap was tucked inside the envelope. These envelopes were sealed.
Dwayne, an older boy held back to repeat the seventh grade, said the letter was about sex. He reminded us that girls in our class had received a similar envelope two months earlier. “It’s about the facts of life. Girls learned about their periods. What was he talking about? The only periods I knew about were at the end of sentences.
I hoped that Dwayne was correct. I’d learn something to fill in the blanks. When Dad was home from work, I’d ask him to sign my permission slip.
Back at school, the classroom buzzed with details from the letter. Some boys had asked their mothers to sign their letters at lunch, and these circulated around the class. The letter explained that a meeting for boys was scheduled to show a filmstrip about ‘Human Sexuality.’
“I know all about it,” Dwayne bragged. “I went to the meeting last year and don’t need a refresher course.” He acted much older than us, and I wondered if he’d been kept back before.
A local doctor was scheduled to lead the meeting. The school administration encouraged fathers to attend with their sons. I wondered what Steve Bushnell would do. His father had died two years ago. Surely his mother wouldn’t come. Maybe an uncle would stand in for his dad. The meeting was the first Saturday in March, two weeks away.
I knew about erections and their inevitable habit of occurring at inopportune moments. In fact, they were a nuisance because, when I had one, I couldn’t pee. I grew up with a sister, so the physical difference between boys and girls was no mystery. I also learned that certain things shouldn’t be done around girls. Last year at the cabin my parents rented each summer, my sister and I were dressing after swimming. As a joke, I demonstrated holding up a towel with my erection. And it was a damp towel.
I learned too late that my sister could not keep a secret. She was convinced she’d go to Hell if she didn’t tell Mom everything. That evening, Mom asked to speak with me. Alone. She wasn’t angry but, as the disciplinarian, she made it clear that my behavior was unacceptable and should never happen again. Perhaps Dad hadn’t yet heard about the incident, but even if he had, he always left the unpleasant discussions for Mom to handle.
At twelve, I was clueless about sex and what I’d overheard didn’t make sense. Despite my ‘A’s in school, I never questioned why boys and girls were different. I was sure there was something I needed to know, but even if I’d been able to formulate a question, I didn’t have the courage to ask it. Instead I assumed the difference in anatomy was a quirk of Nature that adults no longer found relevant. The bits of information I overheard listening to older boys only confused me more.
During recess, if the playing fields were muddy, the older boys separated into cliques to discuss sports, girls and sex. Those of us not in a clique due to age or low social standing made do talking with each other or with girls, playing marbles, or swinging two ropes for girls to skip double-dutch.
Whenever possible, I wormed my way into the outer circle of a clique and picked up some whispers about sex before I was discovered and kicked out. But hearing information piecemeal only created more confusion. Once, I heard Dwayne recite a poem:
In days of old when knights were bold
And sheiks were not invented,
They wrapped a sock around their cock
And babies were prevented.
I laughed with the other boys, but I didn’t understand what Arabs had to do with it or how a sock prevented babies. One rule I had learned was to play along and not ask. Ignorance was preferable to ridicule. A valuable lesson I learned early in life.
And now the letter from school promised to change everything.
‘Human Sexuality’ Saturday arrived: a mild spring day with the sound of water dripping from roofs into gutters. Dad dressed in a business suit, white shirt and tie. He wore a pair of boots with metal clasps. I was in my Sunday school clothes and a sweater Mom had knitted for me. At the last minute, I couldn’t find my boots, so I borrowed Leslie’s. They were dark blue with a pink band around the top. When I pulled my pant leg over the boot, the pink didn’t show.
I assumed Dad would drive the car, but instead we walked the quarter mile to school. I worried that we’d be late. I hated walking into a roomful of people staring at me.
The school playing fields were at the end of our street. Drifting fog swirled around us as we kept to the cement path to avoid the pools of standing water. My father and I didn’t speak, and I had to run at times to keep up with him. My sister’s boots clomped on the asphalt. They were too small and hurt my feet.
The meeting was held in the combination gym/auditorium. Several classes of seventh-grade boys from neighboring schools also attended. I’d never seen them before, and the prospect of anonymity was a welcome surprise. Most seats were taken. I wanted to sit in the back, but Dad walked to the front where two empty seats were on the aisle. I avoided the eyes of anyone I knew, embarrassed, as if caught someplace I shouldn’t be. I wanted to be invisible.
The gym was quiet without the shouts of boys playing basketball, the thump of the ball, and the squeak of sneakers on the wooden floor. Although tall for my age, I didn’t enjoy playing basketball. I hated playing on the ‘skin’ team which played without shirts. I was ashamed at how skinny I was. And why didn’t I have hair on my chest like the older boys?
A young man in the center aisle was threading a filmstrip through the projector. I was always disappointed when a teacher showed a filmstrip rather than a film because they were never interesting, and, with the shades drawn, I fought to keep my eyes open. When the man turned on the projector, a hush of expectation swept through the room. He focused and leveled the projector using a bull’s-eye displayed on the screen. Across the aisle, I saw my teacher, Mr. Robertson talking with his son. Before he noticed me, I looked away and slouched in my chair.
An older man with white hair and a wispy beard stood at the lectern scanning his notes. When he was ready, he cleared his throat. “Can everyone hear me?” A boy seated in the last row shouted “No.” He adjusted the microphone in its holder and tightened a screw. “Now can you hear me?” There was a chorus of “Yes” and a few whistles.
“Good morning,” he said. “I’m Dr. Wellman.” He cleared his throat again and looked down at his notes. “As you young men grow up, your body changes—” The microphone shrieked with feedback and he made a further adjustment. “As I was saying, your body changes and you develop secondary sex characteristics…”
Pictures of the female and male reproductive organs were cartoons. Too bad. I had hoped for photos. A drawing of a cross section of the male organ was unsettling and looked painful. Then, we saw a photograph of tadpoles. They had long tails but hadn’t grown legs yet. “These creatures are called sperm,” the doctor said. “They whip their tails back and forth racing toward the egg.”
Cut to a cartoon of the egg waiting patiently in something called a fallopian tube. The egg was drawn to represent a wistful princess atop a castle. The drawbridge was down. The next diagram showed a mob of invading sperm. Then a close-up of a sperm, dressed as a prince, crossing the moat. “Once a sperm enters the egg,” the doctor said, “the egg prevents other sperm from entering.”
In the next cartoon, the drawbridge was raised, and the princess was smiling. I found all this hard to believe. Surely the other sperm were smart enough to find another way inside. And what if two sperm princes raced across the drawbridge at the exact same moment? These were good questions for the doctor, but I wasn’t asking them. And where did the sperm come from anyway?
After a few photos showing the fetus developing in the womb, the instructor turned up the lights and asked if there were any questions. Silence. The radiators along the wall hissed and clanged. A few coughs. Before the silence became unbearable, Mr. Robertson stood up. “Doctor, some boys may not know how the sperm gets inside the woman. Would you address this?”
The speaker hesitated and swallowed. “Of course.” He took a deep breath. The audience leaned forward as if sucked toward the front of the auditorium. I held my breath and listened. You do what? You put it where? Does he know what he’s talking about? And then what happens? I was dizzy with facts, then I remembered to breathe. And Mom was worried about what I did with a damp towel!
Leaving the gym, a few boys ran ahead, shouting and laughing as if the lecture was nothing new. How much had they already known? Other boys, acting cool and nonchalant, chatted with friends as if saying, “That was interesting, but let’s get together for soccer this afternoon.” The rest of us were silent, concentrating on thinking and walking at the same time. I nodded to the boy who sat behind me in class. His eyes widened, but he said nothing. I wasn’t the only one who was speechless.
Dad and I crossed the field back the way we’d come. The sun had burned off the morning fog, leaving the trees, fence, and houses in sharp relief as if I saw the world with new eyes. My questions had been answered, but more were already waiting off stage. The facts made sense in theory, but what do I do now?
Dad spoke once on the way home. “If you have any questions, come and ask me.” His tone was perfunctory. These words were the beginning and end of our discussion about sex. I was scornful; this was something he had to say. If we never discussed the simplest emotional issue, how would we ever talk about this? I’d never ask him any question about sex even if my life depended on it.
At home, Mom asked me how it had gone. I ignored her and went to my room. “Did you learn anything?” she called after me with a laugh. I silently repeated her words, exaggerating her facial expressions. I changed out of my Sunday clothes and adjusted the bicycle clips around my jeans.
“See you later.” I went straight to the front door to avoid looking at her or Dad. “I’m collecting for my paper route.” I closed the door with a bang before they could reply. I was angry. I’d been deceived and kept in the dark.
It reminded me of adults justifying their lies about Santa Claus: “All done to bring joy to children at Christmas.” But I also remembered walking home one day in second grade, when Kathleen, the girl across the street, told me Santa didn’t exist.
“Of course, he exists.” She’s nuts.
Kathleen laughed and told me to ask my mother.
“We planned to tell you after Christmas,” Mom said. I was stunned by her deception. Humiliated that I’d fallen for a story that, on rational examination, was an obvious hoax. And laughed at by a girl I liked who thought I was crazy for still believing such nonsense.
All this time, sex had hidden in plain sight behind a flimsy curtain of silence. Only after wallowing in ignorance and tormenting myself for a year, had the curtain been pulled aside with a smirk and a laugh. Hoodwinked once again.
I stayed out the whole afternoon. After collecting, I sat on the fence facing the highway, waiting for the delivery van with the afternoon papers. When an older boy rode by on his bicycle, all I could think was, “He already knows about this.” Or when watching a man getting out of his car, I was amazed: “He’s known about this for years.” And when I threw a newspaper onto the porch of a house where young children played on the lawn, I watched them for a moment, then shook my head. Another generation of suckers!
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