Saturday, January 31, 2015

And, cue the moral outrage -- Part 1 of 3

It was springtime of 1971, as I approached the end of my fifth grade year at Thorncliffe Park Elementary School, when we were summoned to a special gathering in the library. A public health nurse from the East York Board of Health stood before us with a film projector, and our teachers were stationed -- strategically, I'm sure -- around the perimeter. She was about to give us the talk.

Her presentation included an animated film of spermatozoa swimming about fallopian tubes in search of an ovum. The sperm cells, we were told, came from the man; the eggs belonged to the woman. (I do not recall, but I suspect the word sperm was used fleetingly and without fanfare.) Nine months later...

"Questions?" our visitor asked, as the lights came on.

I can still picture the boy standing; though I can't recall his name. He had a reputation for causing trouble in class. A bit of a rarity in those days, he was the kid who didn't mind mouthing off to teachers, and was not cowed by being sent to the principal's office. 

"I don't get how those tadpole things get inside the woman," he said, but he wasn't trying to cause a stir -- he really didn't know. The reason he didn't know was that a film prepared by health educators for the purposes of teaching kids about the birds and the bees left out a crucial piece of information. This kid was kind of a rough customer, and we were frankly surprised by what happened next -- tears flowed from his eyes as the nurse attempted to placate him with a series of non-answers carefully presented to avoid any discussion of penile-vaginal penetration.

I knew the answer to his question because my parents -- Mom, a nurse; Dad, a grad student in sociology -- had briefed about a year before. Perhaps others in the room knew as well. Surely there were students who didn't, and so he was kind of brave because he asked the question that was likely on their minds. My father's eyes rolled later when I recounted that no adult in the room -- in a school -- would answer a question posed by a student.

It took me many years to process what I learned that day. There was a simple, no-nonsense answer to the child's question that was being scrupulously being avoided by people qualified to answer it because others feared the repercussions of the answer. Now, almost forty-five years later, well into my middle-age, and working as an elementary educator, I'm experiencing deja vu as a moral panic sets in over plans to release a revised version of Ontario's Health Curriculum.

In the days ahead, I'll be posting on revised 2010 curriculum, how it got scuttled, the bizarre campaign being waged against it right now in 2015.