Puberty is hard.
Teaching it ain’t easy either.
Still, those “what happens to my body” conversations are a perfect test-case for why school is pretty important. Yes, this is a conversation that many parents have with their kids, but not all parents do. Also, I don’t know if you’ve sat with a group of educated adults lately and asked them to sketch diagrams of the human reproductive system, but my wife has, and the results aren’t great.
It feels as if we should have long-since been past the argument that good sex ed is important. We all know we need it. We all don’t want the internet to educate our kids on bodies and sex and relationships. We all know that our voices, the voices of parents, can only do so much to push against bad lessons.
For some things, for a lot of things really, it’s just better to leave things to the experts.
Teaching Kids About Puberty and Sexual Health
Tatum is just such an expert. She is an educator with Family Tree Clinic, which has been around roughly forever and has been one of those places that have an unflappable belief in the power of information. There are places like them all over, but Family Tree is the best, because I say so.
I’ve been spending as much time as I can scratch out this year to visit classes of teachers doing awesome things. The experience is often a little odd, because I don’t really know the kids or the place or anything else. Doing these visits has had me thinking a lot about those teachers who need to jump in new classrooms every day, who somehow have to take all those things we know about meeting a new group of kids and getting them to listen and trust you, and condense it into an hour. This has to be hard, even when you’re teaching about something kinda easy. But puberty is hard, and teaching about it ain’t easy either.
Family Tree sends a whole cadre of educators all over their region to teach kids about puberty and sexual health. That’s why I met Tatum in the front office of an elementary school. She had graciously agreed to let me watch her teach some fifth-graders about all the places their bodies could start growing hair.
It didn’t take long to figure out that Tatum’s never-easy job was going to be especially challenging this morning.
We couldn’t hear the gasp from the teacher on the phone, but we could see it on the secretary’s face. The school contact had messed something up, had forgotten to, you know, tell people that Tatum was coming that day. Cool.
Oh, and it was also 8:30 a.m. on a Monday morning. Oh, and it was also the Monday after springing forward to Daylight Savings Time. And the students hadn’t been prepped at all that the puberty talk was happening. And before it even started, some fun-looking dude wearing a sweatband and a colorful t-shirt dipped his head in and was told that the students wouldn’t be doing whatever fun thing this dude was going to do. Kids looked longingly after him.
Tatum was unflappable, professional. She was genuinely warm and understanding with the teacher and students as the energy level rose in the room while setting up the slide show.
Between Giggle Breaks, There’s a Whole Lot of Teaching Going On
Tatum started the lesson by showing the students her hand, showing them how to run a finger over her hand (a bit like drawing a turkey, but in the air, and with a finger). She showed them how she breathes in when she is tracing up her finger and breathing out when she is tracing down. She had them try. They do. She told them this will help them relax, and it helped them relax. She told them she will use this technique during the lesson, because there will be things that will make them giggle or fidget or feel uncomfortable, and she will do this hand-turkey thing (she does not call it that) and count down from five, and they should be ready to move on.
What sorts of things? Tatum let the students know that there will be drawings coming up of people without any clothes on. We took our first giggle break.
The teacher chimed in from the back, letting students know, “and if you need to keep fidgeting, just make sure you do it under the table,” and I needed to do my own hand-turkey to keep from losing my composure.
Luckily, any giggles that may have escaped me were well covered by the noise of the classroom when Tatum flipped to the next slide, which featured drawings of two naked people looking into mirrors. The kids lost their minds, because naked people and funny hair and NAKED PEOPLE. Tatum hand-turkeyed, and it even mostly worked.
She asked the students what they noticed about the pictures, and it was really amusing to watch them try to talk about anything but the fact that the people were naked. They talked about the tan one person had, the length of the hair on their head. One kid was extra obsessed with why the tall person had a short mirror and the short one had a tall one. “They should switch mirrors” he said, like he had solved the puzzle.
Tatum, a master of the “no question is a bad question” school of thought, takes all these in stride, and pounces on one pattern she has noticed in the student comments. “I really like,” she says, “how everyone is saying ‘person’ instead of ‘boy’ or ‘girl.’ Do we know for sure if either of these people are a boy or a girl?”
“No,” the class answers, mostly sure. This is a concept a whole lot of fairly smart adults seem to have trouble to get right in their heads, that body parts and gender are two different things. But I know what it sounds like when a class answers what they think the teacher wants to hear, and this isn’t that.
“Right. So in this picture, we can see what these people look like with their clothes off, and there are words that a doctor would use to describe what we see. Does anyone know the words a doctor would use for these parts?” There are no takers, so Tatum soldiers on, “well, a doctor would call what this person has a vagina, and this person has a penis.”
We take another giggle break. I’m worried about some students’ ability to breathe at this moment.
But man, Tatum is teaching the hell out of some stuff right now. By the time we are five minutes and eight giggle breaks (I’m keeping tabs on the top of my notebook) into the class, she has established norms around noise and re-focusing, she has affirmed students for being willing to contribute, has made clear the difference between body parts and gender identity, and has established the thesis she will continue to reinforce for the rest of the day, which is that “everyone experiences puberty differently, but all those ways are normal, so no one should feel bad about them.”
Kids have gotten pretty serious, and questions and comments from them are coming freely now. When Tatum asks, “why do you think they are looking at their bodies in the mirror?” One student responds, “because they are weird” (giggles), but another adds, confidently, “to see that they are fabulous.”
By the end of our hour, we have crossed the 40 giggle mark, but Tatum has managed to meaningfully talk about internal and external anatomy. The biggest laughs of the day go to the drawing of an erect penis (I believe this is because penises are ridiculous, but Tatum would never for a minute allow that sort of body shame in the room.) “One thing that is important to me,” she says after they hand-turkey twice, “is that people don’t feel teased about how their body works.” The most minds are blown when she explains, with diagrams, “people don’t pee out of a vagina, there is a different tube for that.”
She teaches how periods and pregnancy work. “Are humans like chickens? Do they come out of eggs?” asks the kid who many comments ago has been asked by the teacher to come sit right next to her. “Good question! Humans are actually a little different than chickens…” Tatum cannot be stopped. She talks some basic hygiene, then facilitates a conversation about cultural and scientific understandings around puberty and menstruation while affirming both.
Thanks to a Great Teacher, Puberty Doesn’t Have to Be a Solo Voyage
Near the end of the lesson, the tone in the room has demonstrably changed. There are still giggles and squirming, but there is also a sort of “oh shit” feeling settling over most kids. Like, “oh shit, this is going to happen to me.” This is especially noticeable as Tatum discusses how body changes often come with internal changes. Crushes, mood swings, new interests, new tastes.
Noticing the feeling in the room, Tatum pauses and says, “and you should all know, that even though it is all normal, it doesn’t mean a person has to experience it alone.” They brainstorm together what sorts of people they can go to with problems and questions, where they could go to get more information. Tatum ends with a final message to the students: “Your questions are really important, and they deserve answers.”
Tatum’s teaching job is very different from mine. Where I build relationships slowly over the course of the year, Tatum has about five minutes to get kids on her side and trusting her. She’s an expert at doing so, and on every little bit of the topic she is teaching. Watching her teach was a master class on establishing norms and trust, on showing patience and inclusion, and why, for teaching some of the toughest stuff we can, school is the best chance we’ve got.