It was Seventh Grade and among many other tortures, came Mr. Brown’s Health Class. It met once a week for forty-five minutes. He taught us all about the stuff that a worrywart like me wallowed in: lockjaw, puss, cancer, infection, broken bones, internal bleeding, poison, influenza. In short, the things that bring hypochondriacs to their knees. Every weekend was a new battle. A fresh set of symptoms to give warning of yet another lurking killer. I was certain mom was close to suffocating me with a pillow to put me out of my misery, as I twitched and moaned each Friday night to the nightmares of bloody operating tables and melting body parts.
The only beacon to see me through was the final lesson Mr. Brown would teach, Human Growth and Development—code words for ‘Sex Ed’. That's what I'm talking about, a little parting gift of sorts to send us off for the summer.
The promise became a certainty the day Mr. Brown announced at the end of class that we were going to be broken out into two groups for our last class—one boys, the other girls. Oh, baby! There was a definitive buzz in the gym locker room later that day, as witnessed by a zooming increase in wedgies and towel snapping incidents. The inside scoop was that we were going to see some skin, some female skin, as in real headlights and real female mystery parts.
“OH! MY! GOD!” my inner voice screamed. “Seventh Grade is oh so great!”
Haunting memories of black-and-blue arms, headlocks, bathroom shakedowns, and female rejection evaporated for the time being. It was as if Christmas had come again. I couldn’t get any sleep the night before the big class. I was simultaneously excited and scared. Actually, it was more a case of scared of getting excited.
When the day arrived. I was up by 5 a.m., pacing my room. I had had some early warning signs for a while now that certain parts of my body were no longer under my direct control. Although unsure of what might happen, I was convinced of one thing. I couldn't afford any more humiliation. The school year had humiliated me out. After much angst, I came up with a rather simple yet dramatic precaution. I squeezed into three pair of tight underpants. Brilliant. Steel couldn’t protrude through this wall of combed cotton. With a renewed confidence I was ready for anything thrown my way.
The walk to school that day with my buddies was particularly quiet. There wasn’t one mention of “the class”. I wondered if the other guys had come as prepared as I. It was hard to tell by the way they walked but I suspected Dan the Man was prepared. There was a peculiar bulge below his belt that wrapped evenly around his waist. I began to worry if I was that obvious. Oh well, it was certainly the lesser of two possible embarrassments, and when you are in seventh grade, lesser is always better.
We had “Civics” right before “the class”. Coach Horey, our “Civics” teacher, droned on and on about God knows what. I didn’t own a watch. So I spied on the clock in the back of the room by using a mirror I had cleverly placed in my text book. My body coiled tighter with every tick of a completed minute, forty-six to be exact.
When the bell finally sounded, the boys shot out of the room, and sprinted down the pale, yellow lit, basement hallway to Mr. Brown’s class room. Heavyweights Elliott and Rugby led the way. The usual acrid stench of ammonia, mold and dried vomit that permanently emanated from the mopped, cement, hallway floor, was whisked away momentarily in the draft created by our wake. The girls remained in the “Civics” room, nervously giggling as they rearranged their seats before their special session.
I hurried to sit in the back of the room—an absolute must. Not only did I luck out with a back row seat but I was flanked by my pals Zoo and Dan the Man. Oh boy, this was going to be something. It didn’t take long for the tempo and volume of trash talking to pick up. It quickly grew into this piercing symphony of voices cackling in more octaves than a Steinway could cover.
Mr. Brown walked through the entrance pushing a film projector ahead of him. The buzz in the room faded quickly. Once cleared, he shut the door behind him. He never did that. Next, he pulled the curtain above the door window down. Holy mackerels, this was going to be better than I had ever imagined. We were going to see a film of female parts, as in moving pictures. WOW! I was so glad I had taken the proper precaution. I could really talk it up without fear of embarrassment or anything. Life at that moment was good and getting better.
“Today’s special class is about human growth and development,” he began. Some nervous snickers scattered around the room. I caught Dan the Man’s eye. We winked in cocky approval.
“I have a special film today that deals with some very important health issues but first I want to talk about the male and female body.”
“Oh God this is going to be great,” my mind raced.
And with that little introduction, Mr. Brown proceeded to place two charts on the blackboard. One had the word “MALE” in big, bold letters across the top and the other “FEMALE”. That was the only difference between the two charts. The outlines of the bodies were nondescript, like those lame silhouettes used to identify men’s and women’s restrooms. If there ever was a time for descript, this was it. There was a vague bump reference to the male genitalia and an even more vague reference to the female equivalent. Other than that, and a slight indication of breasts on the female, there was nothing else going on. They detailed fewer physical attributes than those chalk outlines police make of murder victims at a crime scene. Disappointment immediately swelled among the legions.
Mr. Brown began the lecture with his trusty, ever-present yardstick at his side.
“The man … blah, blah, blah … hairy chest … blah, blah, blah … more muscle mass … blah, blah, blah … penis … blah, blah, blah …” he spewed in a monotone voice, while pointing to the associated generic area on the male chart.
“This can’t be all,” my inner voice reasoned.
“The woman … blah, blah, blah … breasts … blah, blah, blah … clitoris … blah, blah, blah … vagina … blah, blah, blah … uterus … blah, blah, blah …” he rambled on, again pointing to the approximate positions on the female chart.
My not so subconscious mind was scrambling, "Hmm, some new words there. I’ll look ‘em up later. Can we get to the movie already?”
He continued, “When a man and woman … blah, blah, blah … marriage … blah, blah, blah … children … blah, blah, blah … erection … inserts … blah, blah, blah … vagina … uterus … orgasm … blah, blah, blah … sperm … ovary … egg … pregnant … nine months … baby … blah, blah, blah.”
“WHAT? The man does what?” My mind was unable to translate. I tried in vain to playback Mr. Brown’s words. Possibly, I had misheard them. Then the horror struck me like a bolt of lightning.
“DAD? MOM? DAD! MOM! Oh God! I don’t think so! NO WAY!”
I looked around the room to see if maybe I had it all wrong. I couldn’t tell. It was an ocean of young, blank, oily faces. My three pair of underpants were starting to cut off the circulation to my legs. My armpits were dripping perspiration like a cracked garden hose. The little washed-out color I had from being in basement lock-down all year was completely drained from my face. Up until that moment, I thought holding hands and kissing were sex. This was way too much information. I didn't sign up for this. All I yearned for was a glimpse of the secrets that hid under female clothing. Was that asking too much?
I kept returning to the math. I have three brothers. Dad forced this atrocity upon mom four times. I was feeling sick to my stomach. I didn’t hear a thing Mr. Brown said next. I was stupefied.
The film was no help either. It turned out to be about all these god-awful diseases one was destined to contract if one, for some unexplainable reason, committed these bizarre acts before marriage. Yeah right, like someone would actually do that for enjoyment.
After the movie ended, Mr. Brown opened up the floor to questions. There was only one question asked. As usual, it was asked by Arthur, the most obnoxious and oblivious of the four class brains. He inquired about the association between masturbation and the sudden onset of blindness. It was a disastrous question like this one that gave me pause to reexamine why I felt bad about Arthur's hourly hallway beatings. Besides, I already knew the answer to his question from hanging out at the park with the guys from Holy Name, the local Catholic grammar school. Arthur had better invest in a seeing-eye dog.
We were finally dismissed. I was in 3D: dumbfounded, disillusioned and disappointed. Worst of all, I was still in the dark about female anatomy. Instead of unveiling the mystery of something as important as that, I learned that some day I would have to do something really weird to an unseen female part with my part. It gave a whole new meaning to the word “partner”; after all, it was all becoming about parts. How could anyone expect me to perform something to something if I didn’t even know what that something looked like? Suppose I entered the wrong something? What then? And what about all the disgusting diseases? Holy crap! Was there no end to the madness!
Apparently, the girls got the same deal from the school nurse. It took weeks before I could look a girl in the eyes again—not that I was big with that anyway, but now I really couldn’t. I also sensed a revitalized female animosity directed at all boys. We went our separate ways for some time. Maybe in the end that was the school’s objective. If it was, it was quite effective.
I walked home from school that day by myself. I needed to be alone. It struck me that girls sure do have a lot going on down there, and that the more I learned the less I knew.
As for the revelation of dad’s indiscretions, I couldn’t talk to him for days, the dirty bastard. And regarding mom, my poor mom, I felt only sympathy. I decided to do extra chores around the house. It was my quiet way of acknowledging her unselfish sacrifice to the old man’s needs.
What I really needed was a good Mud Finnegan joke to set me straight. There'd be a summer full of them coming up shortly, thank God.