Monday, March 10, 2008

No such thing as a "free lunch"

A couple weeks ago, I blogged on some recent reads and promised a more in-depth post on The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta. My thoughts on the novel require a prequel. Here goes:

Join me in the Fall of 1997. I am a couple months into my first big girl job as a high school English teacher. Although I had "always wanted to be a teacher," I was finding the first year pretty tough, as most rookies (who care) do. All the planning. All the insecurity. The reality of standing before 15 year-olds every day and trying to be instructive and engaging. All the papers to grade. Plus, no cable tv at the apartment I am sharing with my roommate, a medical student. Also, no central air and our unreasonable worry that the cost of turning on the apartment's window box unit would be prohibitive. It's October, and I've probably gained ten, maybe fifteen, pounds since college ended back in May. A couple of weeks ago, I've had my hair cut short and colored a dark brown that takes on reddish/purple tints in certain lights--neither the cut or the color is doing me any favors. I can still remember my mentor seeing my drastic change in hair style and asking, "Already?"

Now, all of the above is not to say that I was miserable. I was not miserable. I was struggling though. I had not achieved any work/life balance, and my work life was more stressful than rewarding at that early stage in my teaching career. So, one day around late October, one of my English teacher colleagues comes to me with an opportunity. Some guidance counselors and health teachers are going to a presentation and luncheon at the Marriott down the road. The district has a certain number of slots to fill and needs a couple of teachers to come along. What's it for? My friend is not sure, but assures me they will find me a substitute for the day and lunch is included. I am nervous about leaving my students for the day, but I know that I need a little space and, well, if the district "needs" to fill some seats at the luncheon table, sign me up. I like lunch.

The event at the Marriott was a presentation on the new abstinence-based sex education curriculum my district was adopting. I was fine listening to the philosophy behind the curriculum. I didn't mind viewing the slides that showed what STDs can look like. And, since I was neither a guidance counselor or a health teacher, this shift in curriculum was not going to have much of an impact on my daily teaching. I admit as well that I didn't have any sort of critical perspective on the district's choice of an abstinence-based curriculum. You tell me condoms don't protect against HPV? Okay then, I guess abstinence is the answer. What's for lunch?

That lunch wasn't free though. There was a woman with frosted (not highlighted) blonde hair that was pulled up in an elaborate bun. She had a Southern Accent and wore slightly garish lipstick. I can't remember how she was related to the abstinence scene. I can remember what she wanted from me and from my friend--the naive young teachers who thought they were enjoying free lunch and a day away from school. She wanted moderators for "The Abstinence Club." She was so thrilled to meet us, so glad we were going to head up the "after school club" (she kept using that phrase), and so sure we were going to be great examples for our students. We still don't know how it happened or who signed us up.

Now, for the record, my friend and I were great examples for our students in the sense that each of us was abstinent and always had been. I certainly was not embarrassed to be. At the same time, I didn't feel any particular need to advertise. Did I think it was a good idea for high school students to have sex? Not really, considering the physical and emotional (seriously, there is so much real turmoil and drama anyway) risks. But again, abstinence was not a mission or pet cause of mine. I had no interest in preaching on the subject or on becoming the poster child for just saying no.

But my friend and I did not know how to fend off Ms. Elaborate Bun. Honestly, I can't really remember how it all went. I know there were t-shirts, but I can't remember what they said and had no part in their design. (I think mine is upstairs in a bin. I had the fleeting thought that I might put it on--24 weeks pregnant--and post the photo, except that I don't really mean to mock the cause.) It's possible that there were some meetings, but I can't really remember any meetings. Plus, what would we have done at the meetings of the "after school club"--sat around and talked about reasons to be abstinent, reviewed more STD slides, simulated teenage parenthood by carrying eggs around . . . I don't know. It's likely that thriving abstinence clubs do exist, and again, I don't want to disparage or mock them. I imagine, however, that they are led by people who have a sense of mission and enthusiasm instead of by individuals who mistakenly thought they were getting a free lunch. The club never really gained momentum and if I failed the students of MHS in that regard, I am truly sorry. I had enough on my plate at the time though, and I would have gladly refunded the district the $18.95 plus tax and gratuity they likely paid the Marriott banquet people.

So, all of this leads me to The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta, which tells the story of a high school sex education teacher who gets caught in the crossfire when her district switches to an abstinence-based curriculum with which she is not comfortable. Woven with Ruth's story is that of recovering-addict-born-again-Christian who coaches her daughter's soccer team. Tom Perrotta gets so many details of suburban life and high school teaching right. So many moments ring true. I just really enjoy his writing. Plus, the novel made me think about abstinence curriculums more critically than I had back in 1997. I don't mean this post to offer any kind of political statement on the topic. That's not our bag here at NTB. I do think that the book gives people plenty to think and talk about in terms of recent social and cultural trends though; it would be an ideal book for a book club discussion. So, if you've read it, and I do recommend it, please tell me what you thought.

What about you? Any expensive free lunches?


Actchy said...

MEP, I think this post/review/memoir is publishable. Terrific work. The fact that abstinence clubs "are led by people who have a sense of mission and enthusiasm instead of by individuals who mistakenly thought they were getting a free lunch" is such a great sentence, in so many ways.

When I was a VISTA volunteer, working with inner-city teenagers, one of our kids was 16 and had a 2 year old. One day, the group sat talking about teen pregnancy and this girl shook her head and said, "Giving birth is no joke, man." I remember wanting to curl up on the floor in the fetal position in an effort to escape all the raw issues her statement exposed.

Anonymous said...


Just wondering if you have any personal connections to Perrotta's Little Children. I mean, I reconnected with you at a park,so I know you frequent them, and well, I was just looking for another good story.

Sara G.

Anonymous said...

I need a good book recommendation and you have just satisfied my thirst. I don't really like "free" lunches because they usually involve a box lunch that usually involves a certain condiment that I despise. That's all I got.

Steph said...

Ms. Elaborate Bun - that phrase just caught me and I have such a vivid image!

LAP said...

What was for lunch?

Anonymous said...

There really is no such thing as a free lunch. This was a delightfully amusing post. I do recall discussion about being assigned as the Abstinence Club Moderator. I think I need a break from the Oprah book, so that sounds like a fun read.

MEP said...

Sorry, LAP, I can't recall what the lunch was!

Sara G., as for other life experiences that relate to Tom Perrotta novels, I've got nothing to offer. I was a super-involved, slightly-anal high schooler a la Tracy Flick in Election, but I never had an affair with one of my teachers nor rigged an election. I do frequent Chicago parks but steer clear of stay-at-home dads, just in case. It helps that I'm not married to pornography addict two decades older than I am.

Regan said...

The news indicates that teachers need some abstinence instruction vis a vis their relationships with their students before they teach sex ed. Failing that, I propose the following one sentence high school sex ed course:

"Avoid sex, it is very confusing and everything will be made perfectly clear to you when you get to college anyway, so why risk it now?"

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