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.





outside the lines

14 09 2008

Still an avid reader of The Nation, I was interested this recent article by Lizzie Ratner about apparently abundant and rampant racism in New Orleans, particularly in terms of housing laws in a post-Katrina society. It’s a good article; it’s poignantly punctuated with horror stories from real residents from outer New Orleanian parishes and antediluvian-seeming statistics about low income housing opportunities (or lack thereof) for citizens here. I think what I was most struck by was this snapshot of one couple’s housewarming in Jefferson Parish:

[Incidents of racism] continue in vigilante acts of intimidation like the one visited on Travis and Kiyanna Smith, a young African-American couple who moved into the area in May and were treated to a crude welcome: three crosses and the letters KKK burned into their lawn.

I do think it’s worth noting, however, that this article is not really about New Orleans. It’s more about the outlying parishes in the Greater New Orleans area. Not that this makes the issue any less important, of course, but it’s a necessary distinction. In the several months I’ve lived here I’ve been struck by two things regarding parishes like Jefferson and St. Bernard (two of the main parishes discussed in this article). First, tourists and “outsiders” don’t realize that the social and physical damage from Katrina extended well beyond the Lower Ninth Ward; and second, that these largely ignored parishes are truly suffering.

My housemates both teach in Jefferson Parish. One works at a mostly-white school, and she tells me stories about racist comments in her classroom that I have a really difficult time believing (and which I feel uncomfortable repeating so as to respect her privacy). But perhaps I should be less shocked: After all, the parish only just desegregated its schools this year.

Yes, the housing laws are at the very least classist. And the parishes on the outskirts of New Orleans, like so many small towns in the deep south, are undeniably racist. But I don’t think this is because of the aftermath of a hurricane. I think it runs deeper.

What we fail to recognize too often is how complicated 21st Century racism is. Most of today’s big law-makers and policy-enforcers weren’t alive to experience Jim Crow America. Racism isn’t taught to us the way it used to be: it’s much more subtle. The problem is mostly hereditary — the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor, and institutionalized systems reinforce these patterns. We could talk about criminal justice, or about housing, or about education (I don’t want to get into how many of my 20-year-old students will not vote in the upcoming election — or any election, for that matter — because they cannot read the complicated language on ballots), but that’s the basic gist of it. It’s about money and power these days, plain and simple.

So when an incident like Jena 6 happens, we can call it “The Civil Rights battle of our time,” but that’s not really true. The Civil Rights battle of our time is far less extraordinary, far less obvious than that. It’s not black and white.

Why do white people hate black people in the parishes on the outskirts of New Orleans?

Well, a few reasons, I think. For one thing, the media acts like the only people who commit crimes are black people. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t read a story in the Times Picayune about a black kid standing trial for homicide or gang activity. And if you take the Claiborne Exit on I-10 driving into New Orleans, the first thing you’ll see is an enormous billboard with 5 black faces and a tacky announcement proclaiming that these men are dangerous criminals wanted for murder, and if you see them you should call this number. On top of that, the law teaches us that crack is tremendously worse than cocaine; that robbing a liquor store is a greater offense than stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the inside as a CEO; and that enough money can get you out of jail no matter WHAT you’ve done. There is also a disconnect along color lines in extremely poor communities (like some of the places mentioned in the articles) out of sheer competition for limited land, food, and money. That’s when issues like affirmative action become canon fodder for whites in low socio-economic situations, and the Ronald Reagans and Jesse Helmses of the world rally Republican voters around the Fundamentalist-fueled conservatism we on The Left love to hate.

Of course, the sad reality is that there are still thousands of American families who continue to teach their children to hate Difference. I don’t know what to say about that besides the insultingly obvious.

The short version is this: Yes, racism is rampant. Yes, Katrina cast a huge spotlight on that reality in New Orleans. But there is so much beneath the surface here. When it comes to race, I find myself confronted with more questions than I could possibly hope to answer. All we can do is fight for our fellow human beings, no matter what. Sadly, as articles like this crushingly articulate, we are not currently doing that.





missing in action

28 03 2008

I kind of dropped the ball last week, and I’m sorry. There are many perfectly good reasons for it, though, and I thought I might detail them for you so you can feel like you’re more involved in my life.

news.
My life mentor, Salim Muwakkil, came to speak at Whitman this week, which was a big deal for me. Sometimes I wonder if I have opinions of my own or if I just steal all of my ideas from Salim’s columns. Here are a few of my favorites:

+ Nas: Whose Word Is This?: I think the best articles Salim writes are about hip-hop. Here, he writes about Nas’s crusade to reclaim the n-word, which Salim backs up:

Those who use the word with malicious intent may still be able to inflict pain, but they are brandishing a weakening weapon. The word is being so relentlessly denuded it may one day be effectively defused. Nas’ album continues that process.

+ Throwing Away the Key: Perhaps Salim’s biggest crusade is the institutionalized racism inherent within the American criminal justice system. The insane disproportion of African-American men in American prisons (when compared with the racial demographics of the population as a whole) is, as Salim pointed out many times, something the United States will one day look back on with shame. Although many political writers touch on this subject, none do it with Salim’s passion.

+ Paying Back The Slavery Debt: This is the most compelling argument I’ve ever read in favor of slavery reparations, which was a hot topic almost a decade ago. Unfortunately, the conversation has practically become extinct, despite the coherent reasoning backing the idea (Salim wrote about it again in 2006 as a means to fund the horrific disrepair left by Hurricane Katrina, but to little dispute or rise.)

+ Katrina’s Racial Wake: Written in the direct aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Salim tells us what we all know now about race in America. If only it hadn’t taken a devastating storm to teach us that. Almost three years later, we still haven’t rebuilt what was once one of America’s greatest cities; FEMA continues to screw up, lacking any real or drastic solutions; and so many people who lived in The Big Easy have not moved back home.

Salim’s talk last week was about Barack Obama’s speech in Philadelphia, which Salim pointed out was probably the most groundbreaking speech on race made in the last century (John Stewart said as much when he told his audience in a state of make-believe shock that a politician had spoken to the American people about race as if they were adults). For those of us who had felt Obama had grown perhaps a bit spineless in the bright lights of the presidential election, the speech was a breath of fresh air which addressed the racial purple elephant legitimately for the first time. Finally, we can take a step back and recognize that a black candidate for president does not mean we leave in a post-racial society.

music.
You Ain’t No Picasso posted a link to the entire downloadable Ghostface Killah remix album. And it’s sick.

MP3: Ghostface Killah: Charlie Brown (DJ Medhi Remix)


quotes.
I don’t know if you know this, but I’m the president of the Whitman branch of Action for Animals. I know. I’m a pretty big deal. And this week, adding to the excitement of Mr. Muwakkil’s visit, was Veggie Week. So here is a veg-friendly Albert Einstein quote (he was vegetarian btw) and a recipe you might want to try out.

Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.

RECIPE:
If you haven’t visited the Post-Punk Kitchen online yet, you have to. It’s really, really good. The writer, Isa Chandra Moskowitz should probably be enshrined for proving that vegan food is often better than non-vegan food. If you don’t believe me, check out this cupcake recipe. I’m not kidding when I say that you will have a food-related orgasm (FRO).

RECIPE: Gingerbread Cupcakes with Lemony Frosting


more quotes.
ALSO this week, my boyfriend Alex Kerr turned 21 this week. So in honor of the biggest Rolling Stones fan I know (Alex), an excerpt from Wednesday’s interview with Keith Richards posted on golden fiddle. It’s one of the best interviews I’ve ever read.

Q: You should sell your body on eBay.
Yeah, I think so. Apparently, I do have an incredible immune system. I had hepatitis C and cured it by myself.

Q: How?
Just by being me.

Q: Do you regret not moisturizing your face?
No. I leave that up to other people.

Q: Ever think about getting Botox?
No one’s ever talked me into doing that. You’re lucky if you walk out of there alive. God bless you.

Q: Are you still cutting your own hair? You’ve done that all your life, right?
Yes. I did this bit here yesterday. [holds up a few strands on the side of his head] Also, I’m letting the dye grow out, since I’m not on the road. If the wife likes it, I’ll keep it.

miscellaneous.

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