February 20, 2011

The Mystery


They never told us why. They never gave us any explanation at all, and to be fair, I don’t think it ever occurred to us to ask. Once a year in third, fourth, and fifth grade, the teacher would unexpectedly announce that all the girls in class were supposed to leave and go over to another classroom. Same with the boys, but we were sent to a different room far away from the girls. That was all we knew. It wasn’t a fire or tornado drill. We weren’t supposed to bring a pencil so it wasn’t a standardized test. It wasn’t the day for the hearing or scoliosis screenings, because we weren’t being sent to the gym. We just stood and headed for the door. It seemed a little odd, but we did as we were told. Whatever it was, it meant getting out of class.

            I always liked going to a different classroom, one I’d never been in before. The desks were arranged differently and there were different things up on the walls. It always smelled a little different, too. When you’re eight or nine, visiting another class is like visiting another town.

            Once we reached the designated room, we found it was filled with all the boys from our grade. There wasn’t a girl in sight. Again, this was cause for only momentary puzzlement. The movie screen was pulled down and there was a projector at the back of the room. That was cool. The movie that was loaded up was a long one, too. It looked like I wasn’t going to have to deal with that rotten Mrs. Jenkins for the rest of the day.

            We all found a place to sit where we could more or less see the screen. Once the jostling and the shouting had settled down, the teacher (who was always male) closed the door, killed the lights, and started the film.

            Every year, every time they did this, it was always the same thing—a reel of football highlights from the previous season, with a focus on the Packers. We didn’t know why we’d all been pulled out of class to be shown football highlights—were we being rewarded for something?—but whatever the reason, nobody complained. So where had the girls gone? Nobody ever mentioned coven initiation or anything like that. At best we speculated they were just in another room watching a movie about some girlie stuff. Barbies or baking or what have you. School administrators owe a debt of gratitude to the geniuses at NFL Films for providing a quick and easy way to keep a roomful of prepubescent boys distracted for an hour. Once the film got rolling, we all stopped wondering where the girls might have gone.

            When the football reel wrapped up, we were all sent home. There were never any girls in the hallway or in the schoolyard, so there was no comparing of notes. It didn’t matter—we’d just seen an hour of football, we were all revved up, we just wanted to get the hell out of there and run around.

            This all might have seemed mildly strange the first year they did it. Less so the second time. By the third year it was just “that day they show us the football movie for some reason.”

            Things changed in the sixth grade, and changed so radically it sparked a local controversy that made the papers. It was that very public controversy that finally revealed what the girls had been doing all those times the boys were being shown football highlights.

            The Green Bay school board had just acquired a new sex ed film aimed at both girls and boys, and planned to show it to both groups at the same time. Can you imagine the outrage? Bringing eleven and twelve year old boys and girls together and showing them a pornographic film like that? Before you knew it there would be orgies in the cafeteria!

            So that’s what the girls were doing, I finally realized. Watching a menstruation movie. I was a little disappointed by the revelation for two reasons. First because all that time the girls were being shown something real and useful, while we boys were merely being distracted for an hour by images of men pounding on each other. What does that say right there? Second, when I was eight my parents chose to sidestep “The Talk” altogether and simply, without any further explanation, handed me a booklet entitled A Doctor Talks to 8-to-12 Year-Olds. I read it in an hour, and it explained pretty much everything (up to a point—the mechanics remained a little fuzzy). So by sixth grade sex ed was old hat. They were learning about menstruation? Big deal—I knew about menstruation.

            Meanwhile the controversy raged for two weeks until the school board finally compromised. Before showing the film to every sixth grade class in the city, they would have a test screening in one school, and any interested parents were allowed to attend. After that, if they decided they didn’t want their children to see it, they could have them sent to another room where they’d presumably be shown more football highlights.

            Happily, my school was the one that was chosen for the test screening, and on the appointed afternoon all the sixth graders were shuffled down to the gym where a large screen had been set up. There was no confusion or mystery this time. Just a lot of giggling. We all knew why we were there. The giggling faded quickly, however, given that there were adults around. And not just teacher-type adults, but reporters. We’d all been warned to be on our best behavior. We sat on the floor. Behind us, two dozen folding chairs had been set up to seat the expected mob of angry parents. Only a few of the seats were filled, but I couldn’t help but notice that one of the parents in question was my mom.

            Oh Jesus.

            I pretended I didn’t see her and plopped down in the middle of my classmates in an effort to hide.

            “Hey Knipfel, your ma’s here,” one of them said.

            “Just shut up, okay? Don’t talk to me.”

            The yelling and chest pounding of the previous weeks had us all a little antsy. We were gonna see somethin’ dirty—right there with the girls and everything. And my mom. Jesus.

            Well, the lights went out and the film rolled. Despite some curious animated bits, by the halfway point we were all thoroughly bored. The narrator just droned on and on about “becoming adults” and changing voices. There was nothing dirty about it at all. Not that we could tell, anyway. When it was over, I almost missed the football movies. At least my mom hadn’t dragged me out—that would’ve been the worst.

            When the lights came up and everyone saw that it wasn’t a pre-teen Deep Throat, I finally went over to my mom. We were free to go home anyway, and I figured she’d give me a ride.

            “So why did you come?” I asked. She’s the one who’d given me the booklet three years earlier, and the booklet was a lot more graphic than this (except maybe for those animations).

            She shrugged. “I was just curious after all the fuss.” And that was that.

            Talking to other people my age and older, it turns out this phenomenon—separating the boys and girls and keeping the boys distracted while the girls see the secret menstruation film—was fairly standard nationwide. I don’t know if it still happens today, but I have my doubts. I can imagine sanctimonious liberal parents having a fit about such a blatant reinforcement of outmoded sexual stereotypes. Plus with all those gay and transgender eight and nine-year-olds out there, what are you gonna distract them with? A film about algae?

            No, given the state of things nowadays I suspect that in most cases sex ed simply involves sitting kids in front of the internet and telling them to ask a nice stranger in a chat room to explain what’s what.


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