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"How ya feel about this? How ya doin'?" Twenty Grade 8 students in Ottawa's Fisher Park/Summit Alternative School library have just heard the facts about HIV and AIDS. Shifting in their seats, one or two mumble, "All right, OK." Their interrogator is the poet known as Oni, the Haitian Sensation. Taking in the room's languorous air, she suggests they might want to try another response: the soul snap. As the kids follow her lead, silence gives way to the soft, groovy applause of snapping fingers. Yeah, they're cool, and now, they're interested too. Circling the group, Oni eases into her poem, singing A, B, C, D, HIV / let's make use of condoms please … By the time I count to 10 / one of us will lose a friend. Then, she shifts to rap-style "slamming": At the dawn of / sexual reality / this is mortality! / Canadian women represent 24 per cent of new infections / what a projection! / instead of being the subject of nervous erections / I would rather masturbate / keeping your legs closed and your mind open / might decide your fate. The kids are really tuned in now. And after collectively brainstorming, they write, and perform, their own poems about AIDS and HIV.
Sex education has never been as fun -- nor, possibly, as effective. At least that's the hope of Oni, a 31-year-old single mother of three, and her workshop partner, Richard Naster, who works with people who have HIV. Oni (whose name is Ingrid Joseph) approached Naster about taking her poem into schools after reading in the newspaper that sex education wasn't mandatory across Canada, and that the information wasn't always sinking in. The article was about a 2002 Council of Ministers of Education survey that concluded, among other things, that kids know less about HIV and AIDS today than in 1989, and also feel more immune to the virus. Two-thirds of Grade 7 and half of Grade 9 students think drugs can cure AIDS. And about half of 9th- and 11th-graders don't realize they can get herpes or other infections from unprotected oral sex. While fewer young people are having intercourse and most know how to use condoms, many still take risks -- a fifth of boys and a quarter of girls in Grade 9 didn't use a condom when they last "did it," though 39 per cent of boys and 28 percent of girls had consumed alcohol or drugs. Meanwhile, rates of some sexually transmitted infections (STIs), chlamydia in particular, are on an upswing.
It's a bit much to lay all the responsibility at the feet of the education system. Parents and doctors, too, regularly fail to play their part, while teenagers are hardly models of rationality, especially in the hormone-revved heat of the moment. Still, schools are there to educate. In my day, that meant diagrams of sex organs and textbookish lectures on how sperm and ova meet their fates. The concept of unrolling a condom on a stiff penis was never broached. Sexually transmitted diseases? Never heard of them.
That pre-AIDS head-in-the-sand mentality is long gone. Today, Canadian kids are supposed to learn about safe sex, and in more progressive classes, they discuss things like emotions and sexual orientation. But for the vast majority, it's too little, too late: an average of three to eight hours of instruction a year, usually beginning in Grade 7 -- half of 12-year-old boys and more than a third of the girls say that by then they've already engaged in heavy kissing and petting. It's also, by the kids' own reckoning, still way too clinical. When asked, as they were in a Health Canada study, which subjects they'd like the classes to cover, students mentioned date rape, masturbation, anal sex, oral sex and how to set limits with partners.
All those topics were given their due at a rural eastern Ontario school one morning last March. Grade 9 and 10 students -- many wearing drawstring cotton pants and fuzzy slippers for pajama day -- had assembled in the gym to watch an hour-long sex education revue. The skits were decidedly burlesque: an HIV pirate ship sails the four seas of vaginal fluid, blood, semen and breast milk; the STI Singers belt out such lines as "herpes forever" and "we wanna give you a burning touch"; a magician tries, and fails, to turn a gay man straight, and so on. The audience was attentive and amused, though boos greeted scenes about gay men. (Sadly, teaching about homosexuality is still hotly contested.) Post-show, the actors -- eight teens who created it under the auspices of Planned Parenthood Ottawa's Insight Theatre -- fielded questions: "What happens if the penis goes soft? Can you flush a used condom down the toilet?"
Students clearly love it. It's the adults who can get a little antsy. The principal permitted me to view the show only if I agreed not to speak to anyone or print the school's name. And in the past, teachers at two middle schools cut off questions when students asked about semen and homosexuality. Oni reports that a vice-principal at an Ottawa high school once chased her down the hallway, scolding, "There are Muslims in this school -- you can't say those things!" Teachers think the kids "shouldn't be having sex," says Insight actor Angie Bird, 16. "When really, a lot of them are, and being informed is the best way to make the best choice." (Studies back her up: having the facts tends to delay the onset of sexual activity and reduces teen pregnancy rates.) Teachers might also intervene, she observes, because they judge the kids are only fooling around. But, as the group's co-ordinator, Erin Williams, 22, points out, "laughter can be a way of hiding discomfort or anxiety."
For now, however, it's adult comfort levels that dictate what gets taught. Barb McWatters, executive director of Planned Parenthood Regina, works with a group called Youth Educating About Health (YEAH), another youth-run initiative reaching out to peers through games and puppet shows. Getting YEAH through the doors of some schools has been tough -- despite the fact that Saskatchewan has the country's second highest teen pregnancy rate, after Manitoba. Yet "too often teachers are not qualified or not anxious to teach sexual health," says McWatters. And, if you want students to really listen, she adds, you have to listen to them first. "There's too much time spent in boardrooms, figuring out what we think kids need to know, without a youth in sight. Then you wonder why they stare blankly in class."
What kids need to know has been hotly debated in Nova Scotia recently. After consulting with 500 students, the province's Office of Health Promotion has developed a sexual health booklet for schools. Avoiding a preachy, clinical tone, it covers everything from how to talk to your parents about sex to how to protect yourself from STIs if you share sex toys. It also makes the point that most teens choose not to have sex, and no one has the right to pressure them into it. Five school boards agreed to give the pamphlet to students (two refused, and the French board has yet to vote), but some are treading carefully. The Halifax regional board flip-flopped, ultimately deciding to send it to the parents of 7th- and 8th-graders. Board member Debra Barlow is happy with that compromise, for now. Next year, says the former nurse, she'll push for a reassessment. "My goal is for all students, from junior high on up, to have access to it." Her motivation? "Have you ever listened to a conversation in a school washroom?"
Judging from the poems written during Oni and Naster's workshop, the washroom buzz at Fisher Park/Summit Alternative will be relatively enlightened. Anne Pigott and Ellis Rockburn, both 13, wrote: Unprotected sex ain't for me / that's what Adam and Eve did under the apple tree / even though they wanted to be free / a condom could have been used respectfully. It's a far cry from the disembodied ova and sperm of clinical sex-ed classes. And when was the last time you encountered an adolescent writing so matter-of-factly about a condom -- in poetry, no less?
Reflection Exercise #5
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