Good Life

Focus of sex ed changes, but starting point remains the same

The numbers are scary. According to a recent government study, one in four teenage girls is infected with a sexually transmitted disease.

Maybe this figure is not so surprising when compared with a 2005 report in The Daily Collegian on a feminist forum at the HUB at Penn State. A sign there stated “1 in 4 Penn State students has an STD,” a statistic provided by Planned Parenthood of State College.

Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, says in The New York Times that the new findings “emphasize the need for real comprehensive sex education.” I thought times had changed since I attended a small Catholic high school in the 1950s. Sister Joanna taught chemistry, but she was also assigned to warn us of what were then called social diseases.

We loved Sister Joanna. The other nuns were strictly business, but Sister Joanna had a sense of fun. She whipped through the halls, veil flying, a half smile on her face as if she had just heard a funny story. She taught us to play volleyball in back of the school, using the hedge along the alley as a net. It was even rumored that she roller-skated in the basement of the convent. Though I never caught on to chemistry, I liked Sister Joanna’s class.

On a late spring day in the chem lab, she seemed more serious than usual. “Boys and girls, there are certain diseases ...,” she said, and then stopped. Her pale skin turned pink against the white of her wimple. We stared. What was she trying to say? We loved Sister Joanna and wanted to help her out.

“Boys and girls,” she said again, “there are certain diseases. ...” And that was as far as she got. We left class as uninformed as we had entered.

By the mid-1960s I was teaching high school English in a rural area.

A speaker introduced a film on sex education for all senior high students. I remember only a white-coated doctor speaking earnestly to some young people and the tagline: “Remember. Choose your companions wisely.”

The age of HIV and AIDS arrived in the ’80s. One spring on sabbatical I attended a workshop on campus about women and AIDS. There was some serious discussion about the exponential rates of infection, but I had nothing to take back to school except this advice: “Question your partner.”

Sometime in the ’90s I sat in on a small group presentation for 10th-graders conducted by a worker from The AIDS Project. The chalk talk began, with squiggly lines representing body fluids and straight lines representing mucous membranes.

Question: How to prevent them from coming in contact with each other? A cherubic blonde-ringleted girl raised her hand to answer.

As she started to speak, sex education as I knew it came full circle from that long ago day when Sister Joanna struggled for words in the chemistry lab, which, come to think of it, might have been a good place to start.