sex sux

13 06 2009

When I started working as a teacher in the Recovery School District in the fall, there were a lot of things I wasn’t really prepared to see. Fights breaking out in the hallway, for instance, and graffiti on the walls of the hallway scrawling out prison release dates for assorted used-to-be students. And then, on my second day of teaching, I saw for the first time in my life a pregnant girl wearing a high school uniform.

At the time, predictably, I looked her as a symbol of tough times in a tough city; more of a visual phenomenon than a human being, with her stomach resembling a taut beach ball, and her definitive waddle in place of the usual sassy high school stride. “Wow, this must be a REALLY rough school,” I thought; but I didn’t think much more about it.

Fast forward three months. Round bellies had become a lot more commonplace among the female student body at my high school. “Summer accidents,” they were called under hushed voices, and sometimes out loud; testaments to the consequences of a long and boring season off. One day, the woman who came in once a week to help the mothers-to-be in the Family Center called all the names of the pregnant students over the loudspeaker. I counted the names as they came: 29. If there were 300 students in total at this high school, and 150 of those were female, that meant almost 20% of all the girls who went to my school were knocked up. In other words, statistically, one out of every five female students I’d teach that year would be pregnant.

We must ask, of course, if there is a possibility that these young women are INTENDING to get pregnant. According to a nationwide study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute in 2006, 86% of all teen pregnancies are unintended; so these girls probably didn’t jump for joy when the stick turned blue. That leads me to believe that these young women (and the young men who charm themselves into their lives) — who are not by any means, I promise you, inherently stupid — are woefully and embarrassingly uninformed about what happens when people have sex.

As NPR put it in an article way back in 2004,

The debate over whether to have sex education in American schools is over. A new poll by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government finds that only 7 percent of Americans say sex education should not be taught in schools.

The article goes on to assert that there are only “pockets of controversy” surrounding what kind of sex education should be taught. In some states — Vermont, for instance, — students can expect to begin learning about sex in the fourth grade, and will continue learning about it until they graduate from high school, with a working knowledge of dozens of contraceptive methods and their success rates. In other states, though — Louisiana is one of many examples — not only is sexual education not required to be taught in public school, it may only be taught in a federally funded A-H definition of abstinence-only education.

A lot of states take advantage of the highly censored Title V abstinence-only funding, and it’s been going on for a long time (long enough for it to be officially be considered outdated, in my opinion). The federal government first began supporting these programs in 1982, and then stepped it up a notch in 1996, when President Clinton’s welfare reform law included a clause for $50 million a year to be spent on abstinence-only sex ed programs. This was a groundbreaking year for sex ed in America. The law amended Title V of the Social Security Act, and provided an unprecedented amount of money for sexual education (which pleased liberals), and also provided an anal-retentive definition (see above) of what abstinence-only means (which pleased social conservatives).  See? Everybody wins!

Except for public school students. Because the definition of abstinence-only is so conservative and narrow that it doesn’t let teachers do so much as admit that condoms exist, let alone explain how to use them. So now I have students who legitimately believe that they can achieve the same effect with a scrap of a Winn-Dixie bag wrapped around their penis as they would with a Trojan.

Since 1996, the funding provided for abstinence-only sexual education has swelled enormously. It is rarely re-examined. And as teen pregnancy rates among America’s low income and racial minority populations continues to grow, so do federally funded sex ed programs which teach them only a fraction of what they need to know.

To ask how this federal funding impacts the teen pregnancy rate in America at large is a complicated question. Of the states with the top five highest teen pregnancy rates (Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Mississippi, and Texas), only Nevada requires that students at public school receive sex ed. Three of the five states receive Title V funding, and not a single state requires students to learn about safe sex or contraceptives.

On the other hand, of the states with the bottom five teen pregnancy rates (Maine, North Dakota, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Vermont) all but North Dakota requires sexual education in the classroom. Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire have extensively comprehensive sex ed programs, which combine the benefits of abstinence with various contraceptive methods. New Hampshire and North Dakota do, however, accept Title V funding.

So the bottom line is pretty clear here: States which require that students receive sexual education have a lower rate of teen pregnancy than states with no requirement. Shocker.

Now let’s take a leap from state statistics to statistics by race and ethnicity. According to the same study done by the Guttmacher Institute, the pregnancy rate among nonwhite American teens is more than twice the pregnancy rate among white American teens. And that particular statistic has remained unwavering since 1986. Now, Biology will tell us that in no way, shape, or form are nonwhite teenage girls more fertile than their white peers; however, Sociology will tell us that white Americans generally receive a better education than nonwhite Americans. It is not a far stretch to assume that white Americans are more likely to receive comprehensive sex ed than nonwhite Americans. I believe that this is the root cause of the education gap in America today.

Yes, that was a big leap. So let me tell you about Raqueisha.

Raqueisha (not her real name) was a favorite student of mine. I know, I know: You’re not supposed to have favorites; but Raqueisha was really, really on top of everything. She always had her work done on time. She always did the extra credit. She aced all her Biology exams. She raised her hand. She made everyone laugh. She stayed after school. She was just one of those kids who gives you hope for the future, and that was that.

Raqueisha had been accepted to Xavier University of Louisiana — a prestigious historically Black Catholic school in New Orleans — and she was going to go in the fall. I remember thinking, “She’s getting out of this horrible cycle too many young New Orleanians fall into. She’s going places. She’s going to make it.” And of course, you know how the story ends.

Raqueisha told me she was pregnant two weeks before graduation. My jaw dropped. “Can’t you get an abortion?” I blurted out at her, completely unprofessionally, in a desperate attempt to go back. She started to cry — of course not. She would never do that. God gave her this baby for a reason, so college was just going to have to wait. I was speechless; aghast. I let her walk out of the room without offering so much as a word of moral support.

Later, Raqueisha left a poem she had written about the whole experience on my desk. An excerpt:

She don’t know what to do

She thinks her life is completely through

She never thought this day would come

So soon.

Now she wishes her problem was a balloon

Where it can go away and don’t come back

Just float to the moon

Something clicked for me with Raqueisha. Here was someone who could have truly made it on her own and achieved the kind of success she had always dreamed of. But now she’s going to have to raise a kid, and she has no idea how to do it. She doesn’t even know how to take care of herself.

I started thinking about the young mothers I met with all year about their problematic sons — hardworking women never older than 35 pulling multiple shifts at dead-end jobs to make ends meet. Single mother cliches, to put it bluntly. But what if they had had another five years before they had their first child? Or another ten? Is it possible they would have had the experience, humility and fundamental human tools necessary to give their children just a little bit more?

If we look at a school system which is failing the most at-risk youth in the country, we must examine all the components of the system. Yes, we must hold teachers and administrators accountable. Yes, we must raise the bar and hold students to the highest standards possible as well. So too, we must pay attention to the parental roles in the lives of our students. Too often, at-risk students are coming from families where their initial conception was not a welcome surprise to their parents. Becoming pregnant should be a choice.

I am not saying that my students’ parents do not love their children. They do. They love their children unconditionally, and they have made sacrifices for them that I would have otherwise considered unimaginable. But we live in a world in which all human beings should be able to live the lives they dream of living; should be able to reach the private goals they set for themselves. If our young people were more aware of the consequences of unprotected sex, they would finally be given that chance.





race race

22 11 2008

A national poll taken last week showed that 69 percent of Americans believe that race relations will improve with Obama in office. And I don’t blame this majority for their optimism: after all, didn’t you see all those people — black and white alike — crying their eyes out in Grant Park on November 4th? Didn’t you read all those heartening quotes from the little old ladies who never thought they would see the day? At last, the Constitution has been ratified, more than a century after the fact. At last, we are learning the true meaning of equal rights.

I’m among those pessimistic liberals who sees Obama’s election as symbolic more than anything else. This is an unpopular camp to be in these days, at least in my circle. My friends, students, and family members alike have told me to give the man a chance. He really might be the change we can believe in. Well, I’m certainly glad about the victory — elated, even. And I don’t think there’s anything all that WRONG with electing a symbol. He’s qualified, he’s articulate, he evokes the kind of hero-worship celebrity that the American people hunger for. And more than anything, I hope he will inspire people. I hope he will drive people to commit acts of sacrifice and goodness that stretch beyond their own lives. In that way, I think he could significantly change the world.

But will Obama improve race relations? That’s an interesting question.

I remember the worry that surrounded certain black activists during the election season. They were scared that if Obama was elected, white people would say, “Well, we’ve done it. We’ve evolved to be a truly colorblind society.” And no one is saying that outright, but you can tell that people are feeling it. People are letting their guard down a little bit.

It’s not just white people. My (all African-American) students have been spending the last three weeks saying, “I don’t have to do what you say anymore; I’ve got a black man as my president.” They don’t get it. They don’t understand that the racism in the education system is about the fact that they are often 20 years old and for some reason cannot read on a first grade level. Is Obama’s presidency magically going to fix that? Of course not.

And it’s interesting. We hear all these stories about grown black men moved to tears over the election, and they make us feel good, we understand them, they give us hope. But we seem to pass over the deep red items that seem like they should have come from a newspaper in the early 1900s: The second graders on a school bus in Boise, Idaho who were heard chanting “Assassinate Obama” over and over again; or the African-American church in Massachusetts that was burned down hours after Obama’s election.

In fact, worldwide, race-based threats and incidents have skyrocketed since the United States’ 44th president was announced. As reported in an article in the Times of London U.K.:

The phenomenon appears to be at its most intense in the Southern states, where opposition to Obama is at its highest and where reports of hate crimes were emerging even before the election. Incidents involving adults, college students and even schoolchildren have dampened the early post-election glow of racial progress and harmony, with some African American residents reporting an atmosphere of fear and inter-community tension.

But for me, the most frustrating story I’ve read was in the Times Picayune. It was nothing all that sensational or outwardly terrible. There are always going to be the ratty, nasty few who burn churches or hit people with bats; luckily, they are everywhere within the minority. I mean, the people who reported the story about the children chanting “Assassinate Obama” voted for McCain. Generally, we can tell right from wrong.

But in St. Tammany Parish, a small, mostly-white parish outside New Orleans (76 percent of the population here voted for McCain, and 13 percent of the demographic is African-American), frustrated teachers banned student from talking about the election. As the story reports:

In some cases, students said they were threatened with punishment if they talked about the election.

“She said that if we did talk about (the election) she’d write us up,” 14 year-old Briana Seals, who is black, said of a teacher at Slidell Junior High School.

In Covington, parent Dominique Elzy, who is black, said she complained to the principal at E.E. Lyon Elementary School after her 7-year-old son told her that he was made to stand along the playground wall after he shouted, “Obama won!” during recess.

I know it’s a small thing. But this is the kind of small thing that bothers me the most. Public school should be a place where students begin to understand the world around them. The students at my school should start to understand what it is that a president does, and the students in St. Tammany should be allowed to talk freely about what is going on in the world. I don’t care if discussions like these might make some people upset. That’s what this country is all about, after all: we talk about our differences, we discuss our options, we give each other the freedom to believe what we believe.

Places in this country that are stubbornly conservative have stayed stubbornly conservative, despite the overwhelming shift to the left sparked by this election. I think we ought to be wary of celebrating too soon. It is desperately important that we continue discussions on race, class, politics, what is going on in the world. This country is still so young, and it is going to take a long time to get to reach some kind of nationwide understanding as to what it all means.

I was pleased to hear Cornel West on Democracy Now last week talking on this issue in particular. On a the new presidential elect he had this to say:

Barack Obama is a symbol, but we’ve got to move from symbol to substance. We’ve got to move from what he represents in a broad sense—and it’s a beautiful thing to have a black man in the White House, we know that, and black slaves and laborers and other white immigrants built the White House. …But can we revitalize democratic possibilities on the ground with Barack in the White House? I think we can. We can put some serious pressure on him, and we can actually continue the democratic awakening among working people and poor people and push Barack in a progressive direction.

Seconded. I am interested in the forward motion of this country. I want the newspaper to make me happy. I want to see our school systems truly integrated, I want to see our laws fairly enforced, I want to see children whose opinions have stretched to outgrow the opinions of their parents. That’s the future of America. That’s what I have faith in.





guns, horns

10 11 2008

I work at a high school in the Recovery School District in New Orleans. I love my job, for the most part, but I am every day emotionally stretched thin by how quickly my students have had to grow up. There is a boy who sits in the Academic Resource Room with me during my planning period and quietly browses New Orleans murder blogs. You can’t get him to go to class. We’ve called in disciplinarians, other teachers, his parents, you name it, but he always comes back, privately researching real-time death. When I asked him about it — why he looks at these every day, what he is trying to find — he told me that he was looking for the names or stories of friends he’d lost in gang incidents or battles of ambiguous turf. And I thought, “No wonder you don’t want to go to class.”

And that’s pretty typical. All the students here have lost someone too early. Drugs, fighting, Katrina, you name it. But mostly, the stories you hear are about guns.

New Orleans is gun-happy. Before I moved here I had never actually seen a gun — even when I went to the homes of proud hunters. In Portland, having an automatic is like having a zombie locked up in your basement: so ludicrously dangerous it’s absurd. But now I’ve seen several. They’re on peoples’ shelves in their homes; they’re in the passenger seats of cars; people take them everywhere. Guns are treated less like zombies and more like precious babies.

Any time a gun is mentioned in a piece of literature or in a movie at school, my students are quick to call out factual inconsistencies (“He’s shooting that wrong; a semi-automatic is always a double-action only”) — but they’ll believe you if you tell them 2 + 2 is 5. Gun toting is a rite of passage. Forget buying porn and cigarettes (or registering to vote) — your eighteenth birthday is marked by your first legal gun purchase in the state of Louisiana.

There was a brief period following Hurricane Katrina when the city tried to disarm the entire population. You can imagine how well that went over with 2nd Amendment activists. Here, you don’t need a permit to purchase a weapon (although you do need one to carry it in public).

As the number gunshot homicides creeps up every day, I find myself scared to walk around at night — something I’ve never been before. I find myself terrified to answer my phone when another teacher is calling because I don’t want it to be bad news. I can’t imagine what it’s like for the kids who have to live through it every day. But still, no one seems to want to change the law. Kids and adults I talk to argue passionately that they need firearms to protect themselves. “If someone came into my house and tried to get at my family, I wouldn’t want to be caught without a gun,” a student told me last Friday as he was leaving school. Doesn’t he see that the lax attitude with which we treat weapons is causing a city-wide warzone?

There’s no obvious solution. But James Morris of the musician’s advocacy group Sweet Home had a thought.

After Katrina, he proposed to provide musical instruments for anyone who would trade in a gun, no questions asked. He knew it would be difficult to implement, but when the NOPD and a bevy of churches signed on, the project was officially green lighted. Dubbed “Horns for Guns,” community members gained interest:

Musicians signed on. Roots of Music founder and drummer Derrick Tabb joined the effort. Tulane medical students volunteered to conduct health screenings and stress tests for adults. Jim Belfon, a local photographer, agreed to take on a dozen or so interested children as students. The group YA/YA (Young Aspirations/Young Artists) offered to provide art instruction to other teenagers who might stop by.

It didn’t really work. The event, which took place last week took in only about a dozen guns, mostly from people who had “extras” lying around their homes.

Still, the notion is romantic. What if, instead of violence, there was music? Art? Revelry? What a world that would be.

But that’s not the world we live in. Since Obama’s election, gun sales have skyrocketed nationwide, as folks fear that the “gun-snatching” elect will pull the trigger on lax laws. Frankly, I think that would be great, but Obama has a lot on his plate, and he’s currently concerned with reaching across the aisle as far as he can in an effort to “unite” the country.

And last night I went to New Orleans’ “Battle of the High School Marching Bands.” It was in City Park. The attendance was 99.99 percent black. Throughout the show, MCs hailed Obama, hailed America, and issued long-winded pleas to end the violence in New Orleans.

Then someone came out with a gun. Everyone started running, like it was to be expected. As I was heading for my car in the shuffle, a little girl (as if on some cliched cue) screamed at her mom, “I DON’T EVER WANT TO GO TO ANOTHER BATTLE OF THE BANDS AGAIN.”