I teach wellness classes to teenagers. Yesterday, while chatting about menstruation, a student asked me what happens to a tampon after a girl inserts it into herself. The student wondered aloud, “Where does it go? Can it get lost up there?”
The class is full of boys and girls who range in age from roughly 14 to 15 years old. We sit together around a large table, and for about an hour a week, we converse on topics ranging from digital citizenship to sexuality. Our school implemented a wellness curriculum to support students during their high school careers, a critical time for many young people.
In a conversational setting, students gather together with their wellness teachers to process aspects of their lives outside of their academic world. That day, after the period questions were posed, all eyes glued to me. Actually, a few more knowing students looked straight at the ground. I explained and then another student probed, “So why would you want to have sex with a girl on her period? That just seems gross.”
The room shared a few smirks, a few chuckles that could easily have been confused with coughs. Of course, before we even began the conversation, laughing was off the table. We discussed how our room was a safe space, a space where we could share and trust. Laying the groundwork for a safe classroom environment is my top priority, not only in my wellness classes, but also in my English classes.
At the beginning of the year, we develop classroom community norms, guidelines that we create together and agree to follow. We often come back to these guidelines before we begin a particular unit just to refresh and set the tone for the class.
Not the Best Moment
That day, as question after question came from curious and comfortable kids, I found myself starting to feel like the room was so comfortable that maybe I wasn’t even prepared for what might come next. As the students grew bolder my anxiety became palpable. And just as I predicted, an unassuming student spoke.
“Can you could hurt yourself by masturbating too much? Can it be dangerous to do it too much?”
After about 40 minutes of period questions, I fumbled. Before I answered him, I smiled. I smiled and then I looked down, just as the more sophisticated students had done minutes before when the tampon questions were asked.
When I looked up, I looked into the red face of a boy who knew that his question made the teacher, the arbiter of the room, look down and then smile. This is one of my worst teaching moments. This moment, and honestly a few others, haunt me.
I think about the shy boy’s face and disappointment sinks into my heart. In that moment, when he asked the question, when I smiled and looked down and then up to meet his innocent eyes, shame overcame him. My apology was quick but paramount. Shaming a child, anyone really, with a look, with words, even with your body language shapes a soul forever. Forever.
What I love about teaching this course is the way the students share. Their honesty is inspiring. Just as I said my apology and began to answer the boy’s very real question, another boy politely interrupted/saved me. “Dude, masturbation is a very healthy and natural thing to do and you can do it however and whenever you want to. It’s great. Trust me.”
The class all chuckled in a collective, safe and freeing way. In so many ways, wellness is about learning—and to learn, sometimes apologizing and listening are the very best things you can do.