Children ask a lot of questions. They’re supposed to. It is a cornerstone of learning. And I believe it is the duty of adults, parents, teachers, even the whole village, to answer those questions as honestly and unemotionally as we can. But it’s not always easy.
Now, I’m not talking about the kinds of questions which are asked as distractions (those are a different problem). I’m talking about the kinds of questions in which the child really does want an honest answer but where an honest answer can be embarrassing to the adult or a serious challenge to adult dignity.
If you have ever changed a diaper, cleaned up after a sick cat, or used a bedpan in a hospital ward you probably know that some situations require actions which are necessary but inherently undignified. It is in those moments in which we learn that dignity is carried in the heart and not dictated by circumstance.
When children are young and the questions are things like: “Daddy, why do I get boogers in my nose?” or “Mommy, why do Daddy’s farts smell so bad?” the challenge to dignity isn’t all that great. But as our children mature and the questions become more sexual in nature, far too many adults/teachers shy away in embarrassment from these assaults on adult dignity. Among the many embarrassing questions I’ve been asked, the following three questions stand out for me. They were serious questions asked in class. Although they challenged my dignity, I felt they were worthy of serious, dignified, honest answers.
I was asked: “Mr. D., what’s a stiffy?” “Mr. D., why do your nipples look like that?” and finally, “Mr. D., have you ever kissed a man?”
That first question has to do with body parts. I assure you it was asked in good faith and I felt it deserved a good faith answer. It was just after our nutritional break and kids were coming into the room for third period. As the students filed in, Carol came up to me and asked, “Mr. D., what’s a stiffy?” I figured it was something she had just heard during nutrition and, not wanting to seem naive, she was too shy to ask her friends what it meant. So I told her in the same dispassionate tone of voice I would use if I was telling her the definition of the Pythagorean Theorem. I said, “A stiffy is a vulgar term for an erect penis.” She said, “Oh. Thanks.” And that was the end of it.
It’s important to note here that I always tried to teach my kids the difference between a curse word and a vulgarity. I’d tell them that ‘damn you’ is a curse, but ‘aw shit’ is a simple vulgarity. And there is a difference between a vulgarity and a polite word. Vulgarities are words used in the locker room or the street by undereducated or ordinary people and polite words are used in mixed company or under polite conditions in which you want to be taken seriously. Teaching Life Sciences in 7th grade, I learned that every 7th grader I taught knew what shit is but almost none of them could tell you what feces is. Hence the need for dispassionate adults to demonstrate correct terminology as calmly as possible.
As to the second question, “Why do your nipples look like that?” (also a potentially embarrassing body parts question) I assure you that I NEVER walked around class or campus bare-chested. You might think that this was a distraction type question but I really believe it was asked in complete innocence. It was asked by Emma, who I knew was a lesbian (she told me she was, and she displayed proof when she and some other sweethearts of Sappho were enmeshed in a torrid love triangle which distracted my class and much of the school).
So why did she ask her question? The fact is, that whenever I wear any lightweight fabric (which I often do in our warm climate) it is obvious that I have pectorals (muscles not moobs!) and nipples. They are just there! So my answer was easy, “I was born this way. Why? Is it causing you any discomfort or concern?”
“No,” she said, “I was just wondering.” And that was the end of it.
The third question, “Have you ever kissed a man?” is definitely the most difficult and problematic for a number of reasons. Foremost of these problems is the rampant homophobia among teens in general and boys in particular. You might think that inner-city kids would be more liberal in their thinking but it’s been my experience that they are more conservative and prejudiced than many adults. Ironically, the girls who were lesbians had a few minor difficulties with boys trying to convert them, but they were generally safe at our school. The gay boys were not so lucky and were in constant danger of getting attacked. We did our best to protect them but it was impossible to be everywhere at all times. And Bruce, the kid who asked the question, was as out of the closet as you could be.
I first heard of Bruce through the girls. They were loudly gossiping amongst themselves, breathlessly saying, “Have you seen that sweet new boy who just checked in? His ass is cuter than ours!” and words to that effect. I thought to myself, ‘Lord have mercy. A new target for the bullies has arrived.’
You might be asking if Bruce was trying to fluster me with a distracting question. I believe he was not, for several reasons. When homophobic guys want to insult or distract a teacher they invariably ask, “Are you gay?” or they say, “You’re gay.” I have known gay teachers who wanted their private lives kept private but who became unglued when confronted with such insulting questions or statements in the classroom. Read my post Sex Education #1: Water Based Lube to learn of one of my snappy answers to just such a question.
I also believe Bruce was sincere in his question because of the timing. He asked his question the week after he borrowed money from me to get an HIV test. He asked for the loan after privately confessing to me that he had had unprotected sex. I don’t normally lend students money but this wasn’t a lot of money ($3) and it was important. Unfortunately, he asked his question, “Mr. D., have you ever kissed a man?” in the middle of class. Boy, that shut everybody up. The silence was palpable, with everyone wondering what I’d say. So, I answered honestly.
I said, “Yes! I’m Italian and Irish and we are a very affectionate loving family. Every time I went back to Chicago I’d kiss my father hello and goodbye. I’d kiss my brothers, uncles and grandfather. When my brother Michael was dying, I laid on his bed and held him and kissed him goodbye.”
Bruce was not pleased with that answer, “That’s not what I meant.”
I chuckled and smiled and said, “Probably not. But what I do or what any other teacher does with our private time is not considered appropriate discussion for the classroom. But just to show you that I’m not embarrassed or ashamed of myself, I’ll make you a deal. When you can come to me and show me a driver’s license that says you’re 18 years old, and you can show me your high school diploma, I’ll answer any question you want as honestly as I know how. But I warn you. You probably won’t like that answer any better.”