Great Moments in Public School Health Education, #2

A Tale of Two Condoms

I used to love proving my teachers wrong. What can I say? I was a bit of an insufferable kid. And I wasn’t always successful, some of my teachers just refused to accept that I was right. (I’m still bitter that my ogre of a third grade teacher yelled at me for suggesting a book could have more than one main character. I wish I’d brought something like A Tale of Two Cities or Romeo and Juliet the next day, and asked her who the main character was.) But I never expected it would happen in sex ed.

Ninth grade health class, as I’ve discussed before, was not my favorite. It was an abstinence-only class in the beginning of the George W. Bush era, only a few years after Dr. Joycelyn Elders had been fired for daring to suggest teaching kids that masturbation won’t hurt them. Abstinence-only was the only way, even if, by ninth grade, we all knew it was bullshit. I spent most of the time flipping through my textbook, wondering why I’d never heard of barbiturates (probably because it wasn’t the ‘70s anymore) and feeling bad for the pretty woman in the stock photo they used alongside an essay about genital herpes. She seemed to be the only person in the book who admitted to having sex. The fact that most adults were sexually active, and that herpes was extremely common, went completely unmentioned. Even the characters in the essay questions had all decided “to be abstinent until marriage.”

Not only was the class itself a travesty, but the kids in that class really didn’t like me, and I didn’t like them, either. I actually missed the unit about sex, because I was transferred to a different class mid-semester, at my teacher’s suggestion, after being bullied too much. Strangely, I did not miss the part about HIV/AIDS, because we did that unit before the sex unit. It carried no new information for me, we’d done a pretty comprehensive unit on it two years earlier in middle school, and I’d been volunteering for the Children Affected By AIDS Foundation (now part of the organization Keep A Child Alive) since I was eight.

Our teacher was a first year teacher, recently married, and we had a lot of substitutes around the time she learned she was pregnant. She was sick for a few days during our HIV/AIDS unit, so our lesson plan for the day was to watch Philadelphia. It’s a good movie, but one completely wasted on a class of shitty fourteen-year-olds. The substitute was pretty into it, but I’m pretty sure that substitute was an actor. If you didn’t grow up in the L.A. area, you have no idea how often substitute teachers here are out-of-work actors. We were always spotting them on commercials or game shows. Sometimes this meant they were a little too friendly with me, because they saw me as a fellow actor, on their level. Other times it meant they were deeply resentful that Mr. Saracino, who taught the Improv Comedy elective, assumed the sub wouldn’t know what they were doing and put me in charge of our class. Yes, I was an eighth grader with two years of Improv under my belt, but they’d done the full series of classes at The Groundlings.

We fast-forwarded through some of the less child-appropriate scenes, and strangely, through the Maria Callas scene, to save time, and there was a lot we still did not understand.

“How did he not get it?” asked a boy near the front of the class, referring to Antonio Banderas’s character, who was HIV-negative despite his boyfriend, Tom Hanks’s character, having AIDS.

“They must have used condoms,” said the substitute.

“Condoms?” the boy repeated, dubious. We knew about condoms, in theory, and maybe a few kids knew in practice, but they hadn’t been mentioned once in class. There were brief mentions in the textbook, but always followed by a disclaimer that “condoms do not offer complete protection,” and that “abstinence is the only 100% safe method.” We were being taught not to trust condoms, especially not up against something like HIV/AIDS — which we were also being taught was essentially a death sentence.

“Yeah,” she said, and then she added. “Sometimes they might even use two condoms, one on top of the other, just to be extra safe.”

Something stirred in my memory. Sex was still years away for me, I hadn’t done anything besides some slow dancing at summer camp formals. But I spent a lot of time online. Porn didn’t interest me (and I had not yet learned the word “erotica”), but there were ways to find out about actual sex. A lot of great sites and magazine had popped up online around that time with a lot of good information, some of which are still around today: Sex Etc., Scarleteen, the Go Ask Alice! advice column, the now defunct but amazing gUrl.com. Even Alloy and Teen People were pretty comprehensive. It was a good place to be a teen whose interest in sex was, and would for several years, remain purely academic.

So I actually knew something about condoms. Something kind of serious, actually.

“No,” I said, a little too loudly, from the back row, without raising my hand. “They wouldn’t—or at least, they shouldn’t do that.”

The substitute looked a little surprised, but I went on. “Doubling up on condoms is a bad idea. They can rub up against each other, which can cause friction.”

“Oh,” she said.

“And that makes them more likely to break,” I said. “So it’s actually not more safe, it’s more dangerous and can lead to more easily getting STDs.”

“Oh,” she said again, a little quieter this time. She seemed embarrassed. The boy who asked the question turned to at me, bemused. The kids around me were looking, too, and I knew everybody, including the substitute, was wondering the same thing: how did she know that?

I’m probably about the same age now as the substitute was then, and I cannot imagine how that must have felt for her. I’ve worked with kids, and I know they can really catch you off guard. I think that even by fourteen I had stopped trying to catch teachers in a mistake, I had realized that it didn’t make me look cool or smart, just insufferable. Although some friends have suggested it wasn’t just that she felt embarrassed to be shown up by a child. Maybe I actually touched on something a little more personal, and maybe she had to rethink how she’d used protection. She’d have think of me, the fourteen-year-old virgin in a Weezer shirt, every time she reached for a condom.

That might be the worst kind of sex education possible. Except for abstinence-only, of course.

Stuff I Did This Week: I appeared on my dear friend Josh Gondelman’s podcast, Make My Day! He asked me to make up a lot of character voices, so if you’ve ever wanted to hear me play a lovelorn robot, or a tow truck with some avoidant attachment issues, you are in luck! Listen here! It’s SO much fun.

I also did an interview about OCD and OCD awareness! Read it here!

Fake BBC Show of the Week: This Garden’s Also Private, No Having a Sit (inspired by a true story, trying to find a place to sit in London last Summer)

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