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Published in Print: January 1, 2006, as Boys To Men

First Person

Boys to Men

After a curious 6th grader began asking questions, a routine health lesson turned into a discussion about birds and bees.

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Download an audio version of this story, read by the author. (MP3; 7:30)

We decided this year to show Growing Up, a video depicting the physical and psychological changes brought on by puberty, in September instead of waiting until spring. After just a few weeks of school, we found ourselves wrenching open windows to ventilate classrooms as soon as the kids returned from PE classes. They needed information on hygiene, among other things. Notices about the content of the video, written by our school nurse on bright-orange paper, went home with students a few days before the viewing.

That Friday afternoon, the girls from the four classes gathered with the female staff to watch their version. The 50 or so boys crowded into my classroom because I was the only male teacher on the team. We’d shown Growing Up before—to mostly silent, seemingly unappreciative audiences. I flipped off the lights, shoved in the tape, and settled back into what I thought would be an uneventful lesson.

In the 15-minute video, a rock musician strums a guitar and talks about how his own voice changed when he went through puberty. He speaks of other hormonal changes that produce body hair, pimples, and, of course, ejaculations. He describes the roles of sperm and ova as diagrams of human reproduction apparatuses fill the screen. The boys and I stared at those diagrams—afraid, I guess, to look anywhere else. The video ends with the musician telling the viewers not to worry, that these changes in their bodies are normal and that it’s a fine idea to talk to someone you trust about them.

The lights came on, and the shades went up. There were murmurs here and there. I complimented the boys for not giggling so that we could get all the facts. As I do every year, I reminded them to shower daily, use deodorant, and respect girls. Then I asked if anyone had a question, figuring, as usual, that they’d feel too uncomfortable to discuss sex with each other and their classroom teacher.

They stared at me, astonished not so much by my words as by the conviction behind them. It was the truth: What guy didn’t think about sex?

A hand went up.

“It said you only got a little semen in your boxers at night,” Evan pointed out. “I have to change mine.”

“Nocturnal emissions?” I clarified, as if I lectured on the subject every day. “Which all boys have, by the way. And, yeah, there’s more than a little.”

“My brother told me there are other words for sperm,” he continued.

“Like what?” I asked, unsure of the point of my question.

“Cum. Jism.”

I paused to gather my thoughts. The boys waited for me. As I mentioned before, the windows were open, but the room seemed stuffy all of a sudden.

“Those are street terms,” I said. “Semen is the correct name.”

“Are there other types of sex besides intercourse?” he asked.

I heard a gasp. Evan had a habit of asking direct questions in class, but these were so blunt I wondered if he was baiting me. (I also made a mental note to run his name by our guidance counselor.) Whatever his motive, he’d gotten the ball rolling, and now it was up to me to produce a sensible answer, even though I had no idea where to begin.

“No, no,” I said, restoring order. “It’s OK to talk about this.”

Suddenly, I’d become Dr. Phil.

First I mentioned the “M” word, then something about the practice of using one’s hand to ejaculate. Already in over my head, I spoke in a monotone to keep my voice from catching, as if I were teaching geography, which in a sense I was. Yet after a few minutes I found this talk of sex oddly cathartic, something I’d never done in 26 years of teaching. Soon other kids had worked up the courage to follow Evan’s lead.

“How do you get an abortion?”

“What happens to the baby?”

“Why do girls have periods?”

“How many years can a guy shoot sperm?”

“Where do you buy a condom?”

“What’s an STD?”

I did my best to answer them. As unqualified as I was, I thought I sounded pretty good. I was a man, after all, and I’d given sex some serious thought over, say, the past 40 years. I informed them that when I was in 6th grade, back in 1967, no one mentioned sex to kids, and here they were today, lucky enough to see a short video and pitch their teacher some questions.

“Sex is a drive,” I confided. “It will become a dominating force in your lives, and there’ll be days when it will be all you think about.”

They stared at me, astonished not so much by my words as by the conviction behind them. It was the truth: What guy didn’t think about sex?

“It’s normal,” I added. “You’re not crazy. Sex is a big part of being a man.”

It occurred to me after those comments that my voicemail box would be clogged with frantic messages from freaked-out parents. In my attempt to cram in everything I wanted to say, I felt as if I were rambling. I glanced at the clock, expecting the questions to run their course, but as soon as I cobbled together one response, another hand went up.

Here was information as vital as any they would ever need, and most of them were getting it for the first time—and from me, of all people.

Some of the boys, no doubt, were already experimenting. I’d read somewhere that 6th graders, reaching puberty by 11 or 12, acquainted themselves with sexual techniques in the back seats of school buses. Many surreptitiously downloaded pornography or engaged in frank conversations about sex in chat rooms. Provocative images and dialogue seemed to be a part of every TV show. It was a different world from the one I grew up in, for sure, but were these kids any more informed than I’d been?

“How many of you,” I asked, “have ever talked with your parents about sex?”

A few hands—three, maybe four—went up. The other kids looked at me. Here was information as vital as any they would ever need, and most of them were getting it for the first time—and from me, of all people. They sat two at a desk, cross-legged on the floor, around the kidney-shaped table, as attentive as I’d ever seen them, knowing full well the price they’d have to pay among their peers if they missed something.

When the bell rang, signaling the end of the day, we were discussing how sperm and egg hooked up in a petri dish. That was it then, my one-hour window to bestow on them the facts of life. On Monday it would be business as usual, back to literacy and math blocks, the prep-for-test mentality that all of us live by these days. I briefly considered a suggestion box, then dismissed the idea after I considered the potential fallout from parents and administrators.

As the boys began to file out the door, I told them that if they couldn’t find an adult to talk to, there was always the public library, though I doubted any of them would approach the circulation desk with an armload of books on human reproduction.

“You looked a little flustered,” a female colleague said to me afterward. “Did they throw you a few curves?”

“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” I said.

Vol. 17, Issue 04, Pages 38-39

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