The back seat of his car glows blue
in the classroom darkness. The filmstrip
is chattering steadily through its loops, teeth
holding it to the light. We’re slumped
in our seats, legs stretched in the aisles—
unwieldy, bursting packages of spandex,
watermelon lip gloss, hard-ons,
torn jeans, acne scars, unlaced sneakers.
The guy with the car, bad 70’s hair
and a varsity jacket is kissing a girl now,
one hand grasping her waist, the other
roaming her buttoned blouse trying
to convince her to go all the way—
but it feels so good, baby,
how can it be bad?
The film bleeps suddenly, freezes
in mid-convince—the signal
for classroom discussion, all of us sitting
uncomfortably silent, no one wanting
to be the prude or the slut, the scapegoat
for Mrs. Callaghan’s lesson on negative
peer pressure or abstinence or whatever
was chalked on the board today
to teach us sex as danger, sex as fear
of consequence, sex as weak-willed passion
gone too far; sex as anything but get-lost-in-it
pleasure, ephemeral treasure-chest
of orgasm, a word Mrs. Callaghan
has managed to avoid all semester—
somehow more uncomfortable
than menstruation or nocturnal emission,
penetration or intercourse.
Who decided to leave the most intricate union
of flesh and emotion to health class, to 30 kids
playing Frisbee with sample diaphragms, batting condoms
from row to row like balloons? We are at risk. We are
self-conscious. We don’t need this moral guidance, this
just say no public health awareness training, but sex ed
is not an elective. We have no choice
so we become a captive audience
to latex AIDS prevention, the horrors
of teen pregnancy and early responsibility.
We cart eggs around for a week
and try not to break them.
We take pop quizzes on STD transmission.
We are compulsory in our hormones.
We are standardized in our knowledge.
We work hard on weekends to master
drinking in backyards, smoking blunts in parks,
making out in bathrooms. We get on our knees
to study toilets, torque, touch, taste, zippers,
hangovers, the elaborate instructions that come
in tampon boxes, condom boxes, home
pregnancy test kits. Drugstore clerks
become our examiners, our worst after-school
nightmares in price checks of K-Y jelly or Trojans
camouflaged carefully under Seventeen magazines
and double A walkman batteries.
In unofficial night classes we promote
promiscuity, teach each other
gutter words, trade misguided tips
on broken hymens, blue balls, the precise
definition of third base, how to
find a clitoris or get rid of house party
Someone needs to raise their hand immediately
and volunteer to tell the girl in the car
to unbutton her blouse for that guy slowly.
Someone needs to show him how to caress
her eyelids with his thumbs, then run one
over her lips, see if she takes his finger
into her mouth and sucks, then turns her head
to the side so his moist thumb trails her cheek.
Someone needs to remind them, in the silence
of the beep—the longest hanging moment ever—
that we don’t need to ask forgiveness for exploring fingers,
roving lips and tangled limbs, for baseball metaphors
and base desires, for holding each other close
in darkness. The force that drives all flesh
exhausts, exalts, raises us up ecstatic.
Sex Ed first appeared in North American Review 289.5 (September-October 2004).
Poem, copyright © 2004 by Erika Meitner
Appearing on From the Fishouse with permission
Audio file, copyright © 2005, From the Fishouse