“Whew,” we all grimaced, clipping on our “Visitor” tags in the hallway of the D-town middle school. “It smells horrible in here!”
“Mothballs,” Christy announced, covering her nose and mouthing the words “morning sickness.”
I scrunched up my nose and shook my head. “Smells like a skunk to me.”
We trooped into the science room and began unloading piles of colored folders, a projector, Daniel’s lap top and a zillion cords. Already my stomach was beginning to knot up a little. Arrived at the destination for our presentations and I still had never even seen the power point, much less the actual information I’d be delivering. Just the folders we handed out to the kids—complete with a zillion blanks waiting to be filled in. Training on the fly, I guess. Drilling while in combat. Sixth graders started filing in, a mixed bag of girls who could squash me between thumb and finger and boys who could wear my sports shirts for pajamas. I helped Christy pass out folders while Daniel scooped up the remote and launched into the first day of “No Apologies: the truth about life, love and sexual integrity.” From the back of the room I watched the PowerPoint slides and tried to tie them together in my mind. In typical youth pastor fashion, Daniel bounced around the room, calling out kid’s names, getting them involved, asking silly questions, probing for answers. “Uh, yeah,” I thought, “This is what he does for a living.” The buzzer screeched through Daniel’s voice and he tied up his presentation and grabbed up folders as we scurried to get ready for second period.
Christy took the front next, with a completely different style—a style that screamed the fourth grade teacher she’d been before her first baby. “Oh yeah,” I reminded myself, “She did this for a living, too. Besides, they wrote the program. Just try and pay attention.” Daniel elbowed me and whispered, “Did you get one of these?” he pushed an outline of the program toward me. My eyes widened, “No! Never even seen it.” He grinned. “It’s yours then.” That would certainly help, although a three page outline is a bare skeleton for a forty-five minute period.
After three periods of silent watching, followed by a lunch break, Daniel handed me the remote with a cheerful, “You’re next” and vanished for a dentist appointment. I looked out at the rows and rows of expectant sixth-grade faces, glanced down and my sparse outline and back at Christy who was stewing over information for the seventh and eight grade program next week—which we’re writing on the fly. I’m not silly like Daniel, nor do I have all the wowzer facts and figures that Choices Counselor Christy has, but I launched out, doing my best to pretend I was just having a conversation with a bunch of kids—about abstinence. And why they should, of course. Because that’s just a really normal thing to talk about. I came to the sexual progression chart—“Draw your line high, guys,” I told them, motioning toward the end where we’d scribbled “hanging out” and “hand holding”, but I really wanted to shock the socks off every kid in the room by declaring, “Look, just be friends. You’re twelve. You don’t need to date. In fact, you never need to date. Dating is stupid.” Because holding hands might not seem so dangerous physically, but the broken heart baggage is still very real. Besides having to beg Christy to perform the baggage illustration for me, due to the awkward fact that I simply couldn’t reach the bags where they hung on the board, I managed to wind up just as the bell rung and sank into a chair at the back of the room feeling like a veteran of Iwo Jima. I made it through. I survived. They seemed to have gotten it. “Funny,” I thought, peering at one boy as he gathered up his school books and headed out of the classroom. “Wasn’t he here in first period? Sitting on the other side of the room? And his name was Tanner?”
So ended day one. And I went home and slept. Hard.
The kids were excited to see us again the next day and I took notes on my outline to flesh out the ideas behind “Can a condom protect your dreams.” And I skimmed the flyers on STDs. I even hit Christy up for pronunciations. Trichomoniasis can be a mouthful, but pronouncing it is nothing compared to describing it. Disgusting stuff. “Raise your hand if you want one of these lovely little diseases,” Daniel called out from the front of the room racing through statistics and facts and recounting the story of the skanky bed, where STDs spread from teenager to teenager, wrecking havoc. Last period had filled the seats before we realized I’d done no more than handle the bed of skankiness. “Just summarize most of those statistics,” Christy whispered as I headed for the front of the classroom. “And try to put it in kid speak.” Okay. No problem. Right. I perched on the edge of a stool and launched into dreams and goals and the devastation an STD can cause. Then came the pages of STD facts and figures. Pages and pages and pages of them. And more pages of them. About halfway through I suddenly had the overwhelming sensation that I didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. “Wind up with HIV and what happens?” A girl called out, “you die!” “And condoms, even when used correctly ALL the time, only protect from HIV 90% of the time.” I counted out, Daniel-style, across the classroom. “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9 and congratulations, you’ve got a mild case of death!” I’d forgotten that half the class was special needs students. “No!” the “infected” boy wailed. “I don’t want that bad thing! Don’t make me have that bad thing.” Embarrassed I stopped, waiting while the teachers quieted him. I felt like a crack had started in my little toe and was slowly splitting up the side of my body and my head pounded. At the back of the classroom, Christy and Daniel were absorbed in plans for next week. I clicked to the next slide and tried to regain myself. One in four wind up with an STD. One per table, I pointed out. That’s the extent. Is that a lot or a little? Next slide. One in four. Again? Weren’t we just repeating the same basic facts and figures over and over again? Daniel and Christy’d filled in with examples, illustrations, stories. I just felt lost. Expectant eyes watched me as I struggled to decipher the next fact. Teens and inconsistent use. Again? Did these statistics ever end? “Uh, Daniel,” I called and he looked up quickly. “You want to explain these?” Two slides later he’d finished the facts and was on to the fun parts again, but I just huddled in the back, feeling like I’d never want to talk again. Forty-five minutes is an eternity to have to keep moving your mouth with sounds coming out. With nobody else talking. When you’re so tired your mouth is calling it a day and shutting down. When you hardly know what you’re talking about. When you’ve already said all you have to say. I hate repeating myself. Can you tell?
My ears felt hot as I gathered up folders at the end of class and my stomach sagged. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this after all. It’s one thing to deliver a prepared ten minute speech in the Kansas State Capitol, under a canopy of flags, to a breathless audience, it’s another to blabber on and on about STDs to a classroom of wide-eyed sixth graders and smiling special needs students. And an entire class period is a ginormous span of time to spend in one-sided conversation.
“We weren’t even listening,” Christy told me as we parted at the church. “You were rolling along just fine so we were working on next week’s presentation. You should have seen us when we first started the program several years ago. And we wrote it!”
I felt a little better. Just a little. But I still didn’t have anything to say the rest of the night. 44,000 words, a woman speaks in a day, they say. Whoever “they” are. I think I’d spent mine.
The last day I listened with a will to Christy and Daniel’s presentations, scribbled down notes on my outline (which I discovered was slightly out-dated) and told myself how easy it would be—mostly talking about “true love” versus “in love” and adoption versus abortion. Topics I could dig out of the storage bin of my brain without too much trouble. I was almost afraid to ask to teach again, until Daniel vanished again after lunch. Christy was huddling by the back wall, trying not to throw up. “Want me to do this one?” I asked. “If you don’t mind,” and she covered her mouth and shuddered. I started the PowerPoint and handed out folders as kids trooped in. Here came Tanner from first period and right behind him his spitting image. Wait. It really was his spitting image. And dressed exactly the same. “Are you guys twins?” I demanded and was answered with two sheepish nods. No kidding. They looked as alike as a boy and his reflection. The kids started chatting with me. “Oh good,” a blond girl smiled, “You’re teaching again.” I grinned. Before I knew it we’d launched into the presentation and were spinning along, talking, laughing, oohing over the videos of Christy’s baby and winding up with the pledge of abstinence. As I stuck together two pieces of duct tape, named Robby and Clare, the words “God created us…” nearly slipped out. The hardest part of the presentation is editing out the truths that fall so easily from my lips. Instead I toned it down to “We were created…” It wouldn’t do us any good to be thrown out, like they’ve been in the past. Christy was still feeling like a seasick whale when the last period rolled around, so I faced that classroom again and survived it, too. Not just survived it, but enjoyed it. I couldn’t believe I’d actually enjoyed it. Sixth graders are so smart. “Abortion is murder!” they insisted. “It should be illegal!” I wouldn’t mind having a few of them in the state legislature. “STDs are disgusting. Sex before marriage is stupid.” Those ones should be hired for TV programming. “Being ‘in love’ (that feeling of carpet in your stomach, with someone walking across it, as Tanner described it) is a dumb basis for a marriage or for not waiting.” That kid should go into counseling. Or come join us at Choices.
“I’ll miss you guys tomorrow,” kids chattered on their way out the door. “I wish you were coming back. Will you come back next year?” I hadn’t actually decided yet, but I’m thinking yes, maybe so. Whether the kids stick to their good intentions remains to be seen, but at least they know the truth…about life, love and sexual integrity. And they know that society often lies to them about all of the above.
“By the way,” Christy mentioned to the science teacher as we packed our bags to leave, “what is that horrible smell?”
“You think it’s bad now,” the teacher laughed, “You should have been here a week ago! A whole family of skunks moved in underneath the school.”
I patted Christy on the back. “See?” I said. “I was right. Skunks.”
“Funny,” Christy shrugged. “I was sure it was moth balls.”
“Oh,” the science teacher’s eyes widened. “Well, we put those out to cover up the skunk smell.”