"Oh, You're the Sex Lady, Right?"
Lucy Blumberg - BY-LA Program Coordinator
Michelle* wrote to me in her journal after the first day of class, after I’d told the students that it was their space to ask me questions or just say hi. She told me about her two year-old daughter, who stays with her grandma during the day while Michelle finishes out her senior year of high school. I wrote back how I’d love to see a picture of her, and how good it was to have Michelle in the class. Knowing we would talk a lot about preventing pregnancy in the class, and not wanting her to feel excluded or ashamed, I emphasized that if anything made her feel uncomfortable she should let me know, and she could always choose whether to engage with it or not. As a teacher of a subject that has many personal implications for many students in the class, whether they share their personal stories with me initially or keep it to themselves, I try to make sure that each and every student knows their experiences are real, important, and unique, and they don’t have to be defined by them. This is one key part of the trauma-informed lens that we bring into the classroom with us as BY-LA facilitators.
I’ve taught mostly seniors in my time at IWES, some of whom have already had sexual experiences, gotten an STI or become a parent. They sometimes walk into the first day with bravado, greeting me with “Oh, you’re the sex lady right?” Often they’re ready to show off their knowledge, only to be amazed by human anatomy or the difference between HIV and AIDS. Or they try to shock me with questions about wild scenarios, only to be greeted with a straight-face and a factual answer. In this way we start to build trust, another component of a trauma-informed classroom, and students recognize that all questions are valid. With trust, we can also break down more complex and personal topics such as HIV stigma and myths about queer sex, discussions that probably don’t happen at school or at home.
When I told Michelle’s story to an acquaintance of mine who is a teacher in a New Orleans charter high school, she sort of smirked and said, “Isn’t it a little bit late for her to be taking sex ed?” I fumed. The assumption that older students don’t need sex education because they’ve already become a statistic robs them of their ability to determine their futures (another hallmark of a trauma-informed practice!) and ignores the context that these students come from. As we know from IWES’ Emotional Wellness Screeners, many students in our classes are navigating their lives with a history of trauma. Acknowledging these past and present harms that occur to so many children in New Orleans, and still insisting that they have futures and choices and a right to be informed can slowly help our communities repair and heal.
True change must come from a place of love and support, not from writing off a smart and talented young woman with her whole life ahead of her. She knows what she needs to be successful and to live a healthy life. All I have to do is ask.
*names have been changed to protect student privacy