Not long ago, about halfway through my freshman year of high school, while I was still trying to decide who I was more in love with—the short, curly-haired boy with whom I talked about movies in math class or the vivacious, artificially blonde girl who so exuberantly ignored me in art class— a paunchy older man with a voice like a revivalist preacher and a similarly aged woman who I’ve retroactively decided looked tired and abused came into our health class to teach our two week-long Sex Ed unit, an abstinence course, or, as they termed it—with all of the moral and religious implications therein—a course on “chastity.”
Chastity, they explained, the man doing most of the talking, was like a red, felt heart. He held it up for us. When you “have intercourse” with someone—he tore it in two—you give away half of the heart. Do it again, and you’ve lost another piece. Living the wanton life, by the time you settle down and get married, how much heart do you have left to give to your partner? FUCKING TATTERS. A whole, happy felt heart, on the other hand, once married, can survive drowning (he dipped it into some solution) burning (he set it on fire), and suffocation (he dunked it again), and in the end emerge good as new (he held it up, proof).
Granted, this was at a massive, conservative-leaning public high school in suburban Ohio, and the visiting instructors were representatives of some unspecified division of Christianity who had been brought in to teach sex education, but still. For a fairly confused and emotionally tumult-stricken youngster like me, struggling with the dynamics of the Freshman Dance Assembly (into which I had been bribed by my mother) and entertaining cocksucking fantasies about my then-best friend (who has since disappeared), cloaked morality and obscure metaphor were the last things I wanted to hear. I wanted answers, but got none.
In class, we learned about the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, about how to treasure our virginity and to spot and avoid others’ attempts to steal it. All the while, our regular health teacher, Mr. Barlow, sat blithely at his desk, visibly flinching whenever our leader pro tem said “watching pornographic videos”—which he did often, as a synonym for “masturbation,” no one was fooled—presumably thanking God that He had sent these Messengers to instruct his impressionable students in such an uncomfortable subject.
Overhead transparencies featuring a shifty-looking cartoon male, lascivious gaze concealed behind sunglasses, and a vulnerable, freckled female boasted the slogan: Don’t Get HORIZONTAL! i.e. don’t let your evil boyfriend seduce you into lying down, because from this position much rape, unwanted pregnancy and rampant genital diseases (and possibly death) are wont to ensue.
In small desk clusters, we practiced what we would say if our Other tried to convince us to get horizontal with them.
The joker to my left gave his vicarious response to the Aggressive Other: “No way. I thought you were gay anyway.” (This kid, by the way, was one of the great practitioners of the sexually-confident innuendo, who wore his gym shorts low and mooned people on the bus, and on whom I also had a minor crush, because he was small and feisty, just like I wasn’t; he still exists.)
Our male leader slapped his leg like it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard in his life. I smarted a little.
Following this activity, we divided into biological boy and girl groups and watched old slides of STDs for about a week. The extent of my official high school sex education.
At the end of the course, the end of our supposed initiation into the matter and means of sex, we were all given plastic Chastity Cards on lanyards to sign (and wear around the neck) to pledge virginity until our heterosexual wedding night, when we would finally be able to give “the ultimate wedding present.” Not signing the card would not adversely affect our grade in class, though signing it would, in all likelihood, secure our place in heaven.
I waffled at length, but eventually decided not to sign, because at that point I was unsure which gender of my classmates-cum-fantasy-sex-partners I would end up marrying, if I was even allowed to. I reasoned: safest not to make any lasting commitments. The important things, I reasoned, would gradually come about as I grew old and wise. Junior year at the latest.
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If you’ve been looking for a chance to say something then this very well could be it.
I wish to God I’d had a list like this when I was 23.
Answer phones better than anyone else has answered phones before. Relay messages so brilliant, they bring people to tears. Turn the coffee run into the choreography of Swan Lake. Become best friends with every intern and every underling and every taxi driver you encounter.
I remember taking the pen and notebook from that woman outside the courtroom, flipping to a clean page in the book, and writing, JESSICA IS SAD in big, bold, uncoordinated letters. “My sister is going to be a good writer someday! Look at how nice her lines are!”