My first exposure to what passed for sex education was neither about sex nor was very educational in the slightest.
It was fifth or sixth grade. Nearing the end of the day, all the boys and girls in my grade were separated without warning, the boys herded into one room, the girls into another. In this room, we waited and waited and waited, our teachers telling us that the man who was coming to speak to us was running late. And then finally, he showed up, a guy in a worn suit who looked the part of your average rural doctor to a T, as if sent from central casting directly, down to the thinning, greasy hair and thick eyeglasses. Our special guest stood in front of these assembled boys and told us that changes would be coming soon, changes to our very own bodies, and that we should be ready for these. What these changes were, he didn’t say. Finally, he told us that if we had any questions, we should feel free to write them down on these index cards that were being passed around, and he would gather them up and answer them, allowing us to preserve our anonymity. Some of my classmates apparently glommed onto the general drift of this non-presentation better than did I, for he picked up the top card and read aloud the question: “What is a boner?” We all laughed. He laughed, too, good-naturedly, just like a country doctor. “Well, that’s enough of that,” he said, still chuckling. “Good luck.” And with that, he was gone.
“You can’t go out, you are arrested.” “So it seems,” said K. “But what for?” he added. “We are not authorized to tell you that. Go to your room and wait there. Proceedings have been instituted against you, and you will be informed of everything in due course.”
We were all sent back to our home room. Mine lay at the far end of the hall, and between there and here was the door behind which the girls were all sequestered. I could hear some kind of informational film strip being played. As I neared the door, I slowed down and weaved toward it, hoping to get some hint of what was going on inside. Then I heard my name being called warningly by a teacher, and I veered straight for home room again.
Sure enough, those mysterious changes did come to my body. In particular, I remember hard little nodules forming right under my nipples. Damn, they hurt. I didn’t know what was going on, but on account of having caught an episode of the daytime Sally Jesse Raphael talk show about men with breast cancer, I figured it had to be the worst. I had cancer. Worse still, I had breast cancer. I kept waiting for them to go away, but they persisted for weeks on end. I spent a few weeks believing that I had cancer and was too scared to tell anybody. Finally, I worked up the nerve to try to discuss cancer in general in a roundabout way with my dad. “Dad, cancer is like a lump, right?” “Yeah. Why do you ask?” I couldn’t answer that, and he said, “Why, do you feel little lumps in your chest? That’s perfectly normal for your age. Not cancer at all.”
Maybe you’ve had something show up in a routine medical examination and you spend a few weeks fretting about it before a subsequent test shows that it wasn’t dangerous after all. You know the feeling. But my own weeks-long cancer scare could have been avoided with some simple information. It could have been avoided by that shithead doctor saying one useful thing during the five minutes he spent with us boys.
It’s probably popular for folks at my middle age to begin railing against the youth coming up. Around age 40 is when that seems to kick in. But the young people I know not only have so much more access to information than I did when I was young (the internet being in its infancy, and Dan Savage not yet being a personality), but they have a devotion to the dissemination of knowledge, an ease with the idea that the answers are out there somewhere, somewhere—especially with regard to the workings of the human body and the intricacies of desire. What took me years to discover they take as a matter of course. Not that their relationships are any less messy or their lives necessarily less complicated, but they are on surer footing when it comes to knowing who they are, or at least feeling that they are accepted even if uncertain about themselves. And I cannot help but to admire and envy them for that.
Believe me, Franz Kafka had nothing on sex education in Jonesboro, Arkansas, circa mid-1980s.