Sunday, July 13, 2008

How I (Almost) Failed Sex Education

By John Eric Brandt

I exited the men’s room and found Tony C waiting anxiously to speak to me outside. We were attending a college reunion and, for many of us, this was the first time we had seen each other in years. Tony had heard I was attending the reunion and had been searching for me most of the evening.

Grasped in his arm was a small, middle aged woman looking a bit uncomfortable about the circumstance. We were, after all, standing in front of a men’s room.

It has been about 33 years since I had last seen Tony and, except for a head full of gray hair, he looked essentially the same as I remembered him. One of those perpetually happy characters back in the college years, Tony C always had a quip or humorous comment to make about the world. He had a face that made you want to smile.

We were not particularly close friends in those years, but I soon learned that we had shared a painful experience back then that apparently had affected him as much as it had me. He was anxious to find me to confirm the story.

“This is my wife, Marie. I have been telling her about you for years. Now, tell her the story?”

I smiled at Marie and initially expressed confusion as to what Tony was talking about.

“You know, tell her about the Sex Ed course and Michelle. I’ve been telling my wife this story for years and she never believed me. Now you can confirm my story.”

I started to laugh loudly.

“Oh. you mean the time we almost failed sex education?”

By now Tony was hysterical. “Yes, yes, tell her, tell her!” he shouted bending over in pained glee.

I had forgotten Tony was in the same class. I reminded him of a third fellow victim, Bobby S, who had also been in the famous 1975 class. Bobby S was a fire plug of a guy, short and tough. A valued member of the college hockey team, Bobby was missing two or three teeth. That winter he was always wearing a bandage on some part of this body.

It was the final spring semester in our senior year at St. Francis College, a rather conservative Catholic institution located in Brooklyn Heights. In the early 70s the college was trying bold new approaches to education and a 400-level psychology course, Human Sexuality, seemed to fit the bill.

“Yeah, Bobby! Yeah Bobby was there too.”

It was supposed to be “an easy A” by my calculations. Being a psychology major, I figured this newly posted elective course might propel me to a higher grade point average and give me the opportunity to graduate with honors. A “cum laude” announced after my name at graduation would sound nice and likely come in handy down the road of my chosen career path.

Collectively, Tony, Bobby and I made up the only three members of the male gender in this historic educational experience. We, of course, did not know the agonizing significance of this at the time, and it would not have made a difference. After all, how difficult could a course in human sexuality be? We had all just recently experienced the “summer of love” and I figured this was going to be, well, groovy. Added to this, for safe measure, was the fact that the course instructor was none other than Michelle M, the associate dean of students and a woman who was the faculty advisor for one of the college clubs I belonged to. She was someone I use to see daily, someone I would speak to on a first name basis, she was – a friend. This was going to be easy.

The course began in the bowels of winter and moved along smoothly for about a week or two. Then our first assignment was given and things started to change. Our assignment was to view an Ingmar Bergman film and write a multiple page “reaction paper. Exuding in confidence, I figured this would be a piece of cake.

“Scenes from a Marriage,” a 1974 production, is described on the Internet Movie DataBase (IMDB) as follows: “The movie … follows the relationship of Marianne and Johan as they separate, engage in extramarital affairs, bond, re-bond and eventually divorce. Their relationship continues after the divorce, it seems this is a couple that can't stay away from each other, though they argue most of the time.”

Well, being the ripe old age of 21 and still a virgin in every sense of the word, I knew little if anything about marriage and divorce, and absolutely nothing about extra marital affairs. So, in an effort to give my best Gene Shalit review of the Bergman classic, I proceeded to pen a real winner of a reaction paper. Analyzing the plot from several angles, I provided great and deep insight to Bergman’s use of shadows and light. It was one of my more sophisticated and erudite works; a real page turner.

Thus it came as a bit of a shock to see a large “D” on the top my page along with lots of red marks and comments throughout the paper indicating that the instructor believed I had obviously “missed the point” and was not “expressing my true feelings!” I had indeed expressed my “true feelings” the movie was boring and stupid. I sensed danger.

I explained all this to Tony’s wife as he stood next to her, strenuously nodding in full agreement. By now we had thankfully walked away from the entrance to the men’s room into the cafeteria and Marie was appearing to recognize the similarities in my story with that which Tony had apparently been gracing her for years. Up until that point I thought I had suffered this disgrace singularly, but apparently I wasn’t the only victim. Ah, the joys of youth.

I continued in my explanation about how we soon discovered the classroom was filled with “angry women,” mostly middle aged nursing students who frequently appeared to feed off each other’s anger, commiserating in great detail about the inequity in their lives and collectively hating their husbands and boyfriends – indeed all men. Each week their voices grew more and more shrill until they reached a crescendo calling for the castration of all males over the age of 10. By now I had moved our little trio to a quiet corner of the college cafeteria and we sat down to continue the conversation. I crossed my legs in reflexive action.

Needless to say, we the three, non-female members of the class volunteered very little to the discussion that semester. We usually sat slumped in our chairs in a corner of the room wishing we were elsewhere. We spoke little to each other at that time, apparently all oblivious to the shared pain we were experiencing.

By midterm I was riding a D+ in the course and the fun was just beginning. In desperation I made an appointment with Michelle in part hoping to convince her I was trying by best, and in part hoping to reestablish my position in the human race; or at least my half of the human race. Ultimately, I hoped to at least salvage a passing grade for the course. The effort was doomed from the beginning.

“You’re just not being honest,” I was told in no uncertain terms. Apparently the truth that I was a complete retard when it came to matters of the heart didn’t matter to Michelle. She seems totally insensitive to my plight and apparently assumed all men were liars. I skulked out of her office, my tail between my legs, verbally castrated.

Things only got worse after that. Several time a month, Michelle brought in a guest speaker to the class. Nearly all were female and shared the same “male bashing” mind-set. The only two “men” she brought into class were a transsexual (he-to-she, she-to-he, I can’t remember) and a “latent homosexual” man who had decided at age 50 to come out of the closet and ask his wife of 20 years for a divorce. He spent a great deal of the evening detailing how he tried to explain this revelation to his teenage children. Apparently, his wife needed little convincing.

By the end of the semester I was wasted and angry. All hope for a happy ending was out the window. I wanted to crawl into a hole.

I ended my little story by telling Tony and his wife that I had “barely passed” the course with a C or C- and, of course, missed graduating with honors. I also told them that the last person I saw at graduation that otherwise momentous day in June 1975 was Michelle standing at the edge of the stage; a tight smirk on her face. She had won that battle and I was the living proof. I explained to Tony and Marie that I had to strongly resist the tremendous urge to spit in her eye.

The conversation with Tony C and his wife that evening, while funny, was completely true. Over the years it has led me to often wonder why I have been an absolute klutz when it came to - how should we say this - interpersonal relationships. Recently, I think I discovered the reason.

While digging through my storage closet in search of old photographs, I came across three shopping bags full of stuff from my father. Dad died in 1996 and, like me, was part squirrel; he kept everything. In the collection were theme books of his from eighth grade, old newspapers and magazines, and every letter, Christmas card, post card, and birthday card I had sent him from 1972 to the day of his death. All of this was collected by my siblings and delivered to me when we sold the family compound in 2004 after my mother had died. In my grief of my Dad’s death, I had never opened the bags figuring I would do so some day, but knowing instinctively it would be an emotionally draining experience.

Packed away among the aged and yellowing baby pictures of cute little John Eric in his sailor suit, stuffed away among the first grade report card, photos of my First Communion, my first grade Christmas pageant, the snapshot of eight year-old me sitting on Santa’s lap, was a small blue booklet: “The Story of Life” by Ellis W. Whiting. The subtitle states, “An intelligent answer to the question, ‘Mother, where do babies come from?’”

I handled the booklet carefully and examined the opening page. It looked vaguely familiar. With a photograph of the stoic and circumspect Mr. Whiting himself proudly displayed at the top of the first page, the book begins:

In his message to parents Ellis W. Whiting says:

“Your reward for telling the story FIRST will be that you, rather than any playmate, will be your child’s confidant for future questions on this and allied subjects…and you will be able to offer friendly counsel whenever it is needed to help solve any vital problem of life.
“’Where do babies come from Mother?’ Most of us are confused and uncertain when called on to answer our child’s first innocent questions about sex. We don’t know what to say (italics his). Here is a character-building solution to this delicate problem, with the EXACT WORDS to use – an accurate, beautifully told story of how life begins.”

Wow, what a treasure. My first thought was that perhaps my parents had FORGOTTEN to read this to me, hence my near fatal experience with Human Sexuality in 1975. But as I pored through the manuscript, the words sounded eerily familiar.

Leafing through the brown edged pages I notice that one page had been torn from the volume and then carefully placed back. It was page 23-24, Chapter V “How Our Babies Come Into the World.”

That’s it – this had to be THE most important chapter in the book. Why it was ripped out of the book we’ll never know. Perhaps my father, while preparing for the requisite “man-to-man” talk he would give me at the ripe old age of 11, needed to keep that page handy so he would know the EXACT WORDS to say to me. Good lord.

Chapter V reads as follows:

Now in animals and in people, the babies come into the word just as do the flower babies and seeds. Just as in the flowers, the ovary is the part of the mother’s body which furnishes the seed that helps to make the baby.
There are two ovaries which produce the mother seeds in every mother’s body. These ovaries are right near and connected with the little nest in mother’s body where the baby starts to grow. This part of the mother’s body is just below the “tummy” under mother’s heart, and just below the navel. (Show the child on self.) The part which receives the seed from daddy’s body is the opening in the mother’s body just below this. The part of the daddy’s body which gives the seed to the mother is in about the same place on his body – below the navel and “tummy.”
You see now, _________ (at this point you are supposed to insert your child’s name), that part of your body which you use when you have to urinate (substitute family term in place of urinate), is used also to bring our little babies into the world. As you were told in Chapter IV, this part of your body makes up your sex organs.
Boys and girls should always be careful to bathe often enough to keep these organs clean. They should always think of sex organs as part of the body that are necessary to bring more babies into the world.
Isn’t it wonderful, _________, to think that even you, when you get a little older, will have within your own body the power to help create a new life?

Well, there you have it: the smoking gun, the reason for my apparent and continued confusion, the reason why I practically flunked Human Sexuality.

I’ve read and re-read this passage about a half-dozen times and still can’t figure out what this guy’s talking about. It’s a wonder anyone born in the 1950s were able to figure out how to procreate. It certainly didn’t help me. Little nest? Bring OUR little babies into the world…? My God, who writes this crap?

So, that’s my tale. This explains why there are no little Johnnies running around the house. And, it is all Ellis W. Whiting’s fault.

Damn, I gotta call Tony C. I just wonder if HIS parents read him this book too.

© 2008, Copyright all rights reserved by John Eric Brandt.

Excerpts of “The Story of Life” were first copyrighted in 1933 and last copyrighted in 1961. My understanding is that that copyright expired 20 years later. Attempts to contact the original holder of the copyright were not successful as I suspect that Mr. Whiting has been deceased for some time.


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