Hint: there is no safe way to talk about sex to children. You just sort of have to do it. I just did not realize that would be part of my job when I decided to teach English abroad. When I applied for an English language assistant position in Spain, I really had no idea what kind of foolishness I was getting myself into. Had I done some research, I would have been better prepared to withstand the onslaught of TV sitcom scenarios in which I had an involuntary starring role. When things didn’t work out at my first school, a soap opera tale worthy of an entire season on Lifetime, my second school tried to make it up to me by conferring me with the baffling role of English Science Teacher.
I suppose it sounds like a snazzy sounding title. That is until I realized I would be teaching science to ALL classes at the elementary level from first through sixth grade. Did these people realize they were putting in charge of their students’ English science education someone who mixed up protons and neutrons? I barely know what photosynthesis is. How did these people expect me to explain scientific concepts I could barely grasp in my own native language to Spanish elementary students who barely knew how to say “Hello my name is Mario/Maria?” in English?
I did not wear a white lab coat to class. Now that I think about it, it may not have been a bad idea.
Leafing through the English science textbook I was expected to use, I glanced at some of the subjects. Magnetism. Circulatory System. Digestive System. Respiratory System. Reproductive System. Oh look, some helpful illustration diagrams of the outlines of a naked male and female human and their reproductive organs labeled including their genitals. Apparently the Spanish education system was of the opinion that these were some key English vocabulary words for 12 year old Spanish children to learn. And I had the enviable task of explaining what they meant and why they were important.
Something kind of like this. Source
My mom gave me the “birds and the bees” talk early on when my sister and I asked her where babies came from. My mom went the scientific route talking about “fertilization” and “eggs” and throwing in the “evolution of the human race.” I’m not sure this was my mom’s intention but my five year old self walked away from the discussion thoroughly perplexed as to why women had eggs inside them–the only eggs I had experienced at that point were scrambled ones which my dad made for breakfast. It made for some very confusing imagery.
My sister actually learned about the reproductive system in first grade (the French-American school was progressive that way) and after listening to my mom’s fertilization-egg speeches, she decided to share her new knowledge and clue her friends in to the real purpose of genitals one year at summer camp. This predictably ended in a fiasco when a fellow mother walked up to my mom at camp Visiting Day and accused her with, “Did you know that your daughter talks about SEX all the time?” (My mom’s awesome answer: “I’m honest with my daughters when they ask me a question”). At that point in my young life, I learned something key which was that most people are unable to have intelligent conversations about sex, whether they be children or adults.
So you can imagine my terror when I realized I was expected to go over the reproductive system with preteens. That was bad enough. However, it’s an entirely different kettle of fish when you are expected to go over it with students whose native language is not English. I had no idea if these kids had had “The Talk” yet with their parents. I had no idea what they knew about sex. Even worse, I had no idea what they did not know. And I did NOT see it as my responsibility to explain sex things they did not know. Wasn’t that their parents’ job?
There was no way around it. I was going to have to teach the unit. And so I did, resolving to remain unflappable and professional. Of course, those two goals went straight out the window as soon as we started the lesson. Because how the hell do you remain unflappable when students are mispronouncing penis and vagina with a Spanish infused accent resulting in “peh-nees” and “vaheena?” Of course the students giggled when we stumbled across those words, they already knew what they meant. It fell to me to correct their pronunciation and I found myself repeating over and over, “NO, it’s PEEN-is and va-JI-na!” Not to mention all the other reproductive organ related vocabulary such as testes, urethra, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, cervix, and the prostate gland.
Apparently Google Images thinks Angela Merkel is unflappable. Source
Once we struggled through the text, I heaved a sigh of relief and patted myself on the back for getting through it. It was over. Done. They were going to copy the reproductive organ diagrams from their textbooks into their notebooks and color and label them. And most important of all, they would leave me alone and not ask me anymore reproductive organ related questions. Oh, how naive I was.
A girl’s hand shot up. I nodded at her to signal she could ask a question. With a completely straight face she asked, “Teacher, what eez a cleetorrrees? What does eet mean?” Oh. my. god.
I stared at the girl. She stared right back at me expectantly. She was actually one of the strongest English speakers in the class and had done most of the reading. She also understood most of the text. Naturally, she wanted to understand the one word she was not familiar with. Unfortunately for her, this was one word I was not prepared to explain.
Completely caught off-guard, I made things even worse by repeating the question back, “What is a clitoris?”
“Yes, what does it mean?”
I looked helplessly to the Spanish teacher Mercedes who was supposed to be supervising me. Luckily for her, Mercedes did not speak a lick of English and was completely unaware of what was transpiring, immersed in correcting her students’ tests.
On the spot I improvised oh-so-brilliantly with, “It’s part of the female reproductive system. Every woman has a clitoris. You have one, I have one, Mercedes has one, all the girls in here have one.” The girl’s face clouded with confusion. Uh-oh. “Yes, but what does it do? What is it exactly?”
At this point, I was ready to bolt from the classroom. I did the only thing people do when they want to avoid answering a question which is to tell the person to ask someone else. “I don’t know, why don’t you ask Mercedes?” I was dragging in the Spanish teacher, whether she wanted to be involved or not. The student switched to Spanish and asked Mercedes if she could help. Mercedes looked up, clearly bewildered about being interrupted in the middle of English science class which was not her usual area of expertise.
The question was repeated in Spanish. “Que es un clitoris?”
And much to my relief, Mercedes looked just as uncomfortable as I felt and answered the same way I did without getting into specifics. “It’s part of the female reproductive system.” The girl was undeterred, “Yes but, what does it do?” “It’s part of the female reproductive system.” “Yes, but…” “It’s part of the female reproductive system and that’s it!” Mercedes shouted her final reply, looking incredibly flustered. Any further questioning was interrupted by the bell ringing. Saved by the bell, literally. I gathered my things and fled from the classroom, completely losing any small shred of dignity remaining.
As I said earlier, it is nearly impossible to have an intelligent conversation about sex. I’m just heartened to know the Spanish are no better at explaining sex to children than us Americans.
I have to thank the Twitter account @AuxiliarProbs for inspiring me to write this post. I was going through the Twitter feed giggling at all the comments from current auxiliares and reminiscing not very nostalgically about my time as an auxiliar. I realized that my experience teaching sex ed to Spanish middle schoolers was probably something pretty unique and had been considering sharing this story for awhile. Thanks to @AuxiliarProbs for the motivation!