This March writing challenge is organized by Two Writing Teachers
"I'm gonna ask her." It's a willowy 8th grader, sitting on one of the couches in my reading room, after whispering and gigging with her friends.
"Go on, do it!" responds her friend, the girl who knows no boundaries.
"NO! Don't--jeez--just--no." The guy sitting with them raises his book protectively in front of his face.
"I mean, I want to know for sure, and I think she'll tell us-"
There's no point in pretending I can't hear them. "What do you need to ask me?" I call over.
"Um, this is kind of weird, but--can you get pregnant from, you know, swallowing sperm?"
For some reason, my initial reaction is to be proud of her for couching her question in such clinical and inoffensive language, and for seeking knowledge instead of relying on rumor and guesses. So I answer, "Well, no. Your reproductive system and your digestive system don't cross over at all."
"Wouldn't your stomach acid kill them anyway?" asks the irrepressible girl.
"Probably, but that's not really the main reason."
In my own innocence, I'm thinking of this as a question without practical application, like a small child asking if babies come out of your belly button. Clarification of half-understood knowledge. It was only later, sharing the story with some colleagues, that the full import of why they might want to know hit me.
"NO!" screeches one of my colleagues. "You are supposed to tell them, 'Yep. For sure. Even from just SEEING them.'"
But still. I would rather arm them with correct information. I would rather be unflappable in the face of questioning about the body. A few years back, an 8th grade girl told me how frustrating she found the abstinence-only sex ed classes in our district. "I have friends at the high school who got pregnant because they really thought you couldn't the first time. Or because they don't understand how birth control works. I only know that stuff because my big brother told me. What about kids who don't have anyone they can talk to about it? How are they supposed to know?"
Personally, all that knowledge was purely academic until FAR past eighth grade, but even back then, even in my middle class, suburban high school, girls were getting pregnant by our freshman year. I know our 9th grade sex ed classes covered birth control methods, and even pre-AIDS and "safe sex" PSAs, we were told that two methods were better than one. But most of what I learned about the actual changes in my body, about sex itself, about sexuality in general came from Judy Blume.
It must have been in 1979, when I was ten, that I received a boxed set of her books for a birthday . The collection included Blubber, which I read repeatedly even though I loathed it. I could relate to all sides of the story--the mean girl, the victim, the follower--and I was horrified that instead of everyone learning better, at the end the victim and the mean girl turn on the narrator. It also had Sheila the Great, which was fun. But the two that were eye openers for me were Then Again, Maybe I Won't and Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. I'm pretty sure that a good 50% of what I know about male puberty still comes from the first book. Maybe more. And Margaret asked questions I hadn't even thought of yet.
Later, I read Deenie, Iggie's House and Tiger Eyes. All of these books are remarkable because Blume was almost the only writer doing what she did. Writing about adolescents living modern lives. Addressing all the stuff that kids care about--puberty, bullying, divorce, feeling alone. Paula Danziger and Norma Klein are the others who come to mind from that era. But Judy's books were a class by themselves.
Then there were the scandalous ones--Forever and Wifey. Passed around in secret, with specific page numbers recommended. (Where did these copies come from? Possibly parents who saw Blume's name on the cover and didn't ask any further questions, or older siblings. I suppose some parents would have been cool with the books, but then why would we have been so secretive?) We didn't even know people could WRITE about that stuff.
Decades pass. I end up a reading teacher and start building a classroom library. I try bringing in old favorites, but their time, it seems, has passed. Overall, I engage in very little censorship in the books I add, and none on the books students bring in to read.
Then one day, a student is reading Forever. She got it at our school library, a modern edition with a decidedly not-1970s cover. I choke back a laugh and let her know it gets a little, um, racy. She loves it. She recommends it to her friends. A line starts to be the next reader. I buy a copy for the classroom library (and get a copy of several other Blume books too, which also fly off the shelves). The ending disappoints her, and I use it as a chance to talk about the fact that your first love probably won't actually be "forever." Her friend reads it and adds the idea that you should keep that in mind when you're deciding whether or not you're ready to have sex.
These are the girls who ask me that shocking question. Would they have trusted me with their question if they hadn't had my tacit permission to read and talk about that book? There are plenty of YA novels that address sexuality and complex social issues, but Blume's books are accessible to more readers, I think. They are straight-forward, usually include humor, and have a relatable voice even for kids who aren't "literary" minded.
Judy Blume, pushing 80, is still a revolutionary.
And no. That's not how you get pregnant. But I think a follow-up conversation is in order.