Fifth grade. Fifth grade was the magical year. The year we were deemed ready. Ready to have all revealed. And what they revealed was everything we ever wanted to know about sex…along with
everything we didn’t want to know.
Mrs. Semsar was to be our Catholic elementary school version of Dr. Ruth. And it’s a good thing, too, because the other fifth grade teacher was approximately 874 years old and passionate about only one thing: leading the All Saint’s Day procession dressed as her patron, St. Helen, while emphatically singing, “Oh, When the Saints Go Marching In.” In contrast, Mrs. Semsar said things like “no big hairy deal” and let us pick out two gumdrops from a Quaker Oatmeal canister whenever we got an A on something. And if we happened to pick out two gumdrops of the same color, we got to pick two more. So she obviously knew a thing or two about indulgent gratification…and spherical things that come in pairs.
But Mrs. Semsar was no pushover. She was willing to reveal the secrets which were housed on the “special” library shelves that could only be accessed by librarian permission; but we had to play by her rules. She understood that the subject of sex was uncomfortable, embarrassing, and foreign to us, so she tried to make it as painless as possible. We were not forced to read aloud from the texts, lest we have to say the word “penis.” Instead, she read the text to us. We were not made to feel the hot, gawking stares of our classmates as we asked what “petting” and “fondling” were. Instead, she allowed us to write anonymous questions on index cards, which she would answer honestly. Boys and girls were separated during lessons specific to the intimate changes our bodies were going through, so we didn’t have to be mortified at the fact that our crush might be looking at us and wondering if we were menstruating or having wet dreams. The whole atmosphere was contrived to provide us maximum comfort while learning this sensitive material. In return, Mrs. Semsar asked only one thing of us: don’t laugh.
According to Mrs. Semsar, sex wasn’t something trivial to giggle about. It was serious stuff. It was natural and God-given and a good thing; but it wasn’t funny. So don’t laugh at the word vagina. Don’t. Seriously. Don’t do it.
Easier said than done.
We tried. We really did. We tried so hard. But when you’re ten-years-old and your teacher is standing in front of the classroom reading the sentence, “Pubic hair begins to grow on the vaginal lips, or labia,” it’s pretty much the equivalent to telling a poop joke to a five-year-old. NOT laughing is a physical incapability. The giggle would inevitably find its way out through either the mouth or the nose, and then the death stare would fall upon us.
How were we going to make it through the sex ed unit while staying in Mrs. Semsar’s good graces? If we kept up with the laughter, we were afraid we had all seen our last gumdrop. Not laughing wasn’t an option. Our only choice was to disguise it in hopes that Mrs. Semsar wouldn’t recognize it when it happened. So we all turned to the best friend of Catholic school kids in sex ed classes everywhere: the turtleneck.
While the fashion merit of turtlenecks has always been debatable, they are most certainly good for two things: hiding hickeys, and their ability to be pulled up over the mouth and nose, concealing whatever facial expression the wearer might be making. Whenever it was sex ed time at school, the turtlenecks had their day in the sun.
The bell would ring, we would sit in our desks, take out our textbooks and notebooks and pens, then swiftly pull those turtlenecks up over our faces, ready for a barrage snicker-inducing sexual vocabulary. Mrs. Semsar would never be the wiser.
Except that she was.
She knew our game. It had been played by class upon class of fifth graders before us. She was going to break us of our habit whether we liked it our not. And she didn’t make it easy on us either, using those words so frequently and with such candor that our muscles would be weak and weary from straining to hold in the giggles. One time she pushed too far, answering the anonymous question, “Do women have to take off their shirts to have sex?” with the reply, “No. But it makes it more fun.” I think one of the boys in my class just couldn’t quell the laughter any longer, and it ended up coming out as puke. All over the floor.
It was a good thing we all still had on our turtlenecks. Had we not been able to use them to shield our noses from the stench, a chain reaction would have likely occurred. And puke is not exactly the bodily fluid one wants to associate with sex.
Hence, the number one rule for sexual education was and should always be wear a turtleneck. It’s your first line of protection.