What I Learned in 5th Grade About Puberty and Responsibility

Photo Credit: Flickr
Photo Credit: Flickr


It’s been about 40 or so years since I was in the 5th grade and to be honest, I don’t remember much about it.  I remember my teacher, Ms. Behrens, who was like a cross between Marlo Thomas and Gloria Steinem.  Wholesome, yet cool.

I remember becoming more and more socially stressed, but not knowing how to express it. I didn’t talk to my parents about it because, quite frankly, emotions were outside of their wheelhouse.  They could handle the practicalities of life – work hard, be fair, remain honest – but, when it came to my emotions, I was on my own.  I worried if I was pretty enough, smart enough, cool enough – if I was enough.  Generally this played out with me awkwardly trying to fit in, but here’s the thing, I was trying to fit in in a school where I was one of 6 African American kids among 500 students.  This is the place where I was first told that I was pretty, for a Black girl. So much for fitting in.  Of course, it was 1977 and things were different then, but in all honesty that still goes down today albeit maybe a bit more subtle.  Just a bit.

I matured early and by 5th grade was already wearing a bra which prompted a group of boys in my class to nickname me “pinball machine”.  Get it?  They considered themselves very clever and witty; and I laughed it off despite my discomfort. Then one day after witnessing an exchange between me and a couple of the boys, Ms. Behrens (Marlo/Gloria that I mentioned above) told the boys to knock it off and called me out into the hall for a talk while the other kids were working.  While snacking on pretzels, she explained to me that boys are stupid.  Well, she said it a little differently than that by using words like immature, puberty and emotionally lagging, but basically she was explaining why they were behaving like idiots. It was physiological. I was quiet through most of the conversation, so I guess it really wasn’t a conversation but more like a really one sided, awkward explanation. In the end she asked if I understood and I said yes, and that was that.

Embarrassed and somewhat humiliated, I returned to class feeling like it was all my fault, or my body’s fault or puberty’s fault, but certainly not the fault of the stupid boys even though I’m sure that her intent was to alleviate or at least lessen my stress.  As I returned to my desk, all eyes were on me and later at recess the most commonly asked question was “What did she say to you?”

Ms. Behrens did not have the same talk to the boys and I really don’t know why she didn’t.  Other than telling them to not call me “pinball machine”, she didn’t say anything to them at all.  Perhaps she figured boys will be boys? Perhaps she thought I was mature enough to understand the complexities of sexuality and getting older and they were not, which was probably true, but the simple act of singling me out and not them was enough to attach a stigma to me, at least in my mind.  I was 10. I was a 10 – year – old girl and I already felt like the responsibility for how boys/men responded to me – my person and my body – was mine. Furthermore, they were not even expected to understand their actions.  Granted, it would be years before I could put any of that into words, but I did understand it in a way that my 10 – year – old self could.

A side note here: considering my history of childhood sexual molestation (it had already happened by 5th grade), I’m sure that in some way I thought the actions of a grown ass man were my fault, too.

Last week Brock Turner, a 20 – year – old convicted rapist walked free after serving only 3 months of a 6 month prison sentence.  A 6 month sentence for raping a woman is bad enough, but letting a rapist out after serving only 3 months for good behavior (or any reason) is unconscionable.  The judge, a man like the boys in my 5th grade class incapable of understanding their own responsibility when reacting to women, believed that the harsh realities of prison would leave too great of a negative impact on Turner.  Therefore, he clearly believed that the victim could not only understand, but overcome the harsh reality of rape and it lasting effects on her life, after all it’s just sex.  Not only did the judge deem the defendant’s life to be more precious, but his future to be more valuable than the victim’s.  Clearly she should have known that her state of inebriation, manner of dress and just general availability could lead a man to believe that he was entitled to, as Turner’s father stated, “20 minutes of action” whether she was awake to consent to it or not.

We’re still giving men a pass, but it starts when they are boys that we believe are incapable of understanding and controlling their own thoughts and actions.  When we turn an attribute such as the emotional maturity of our daughters into a weapon with which to hold them responsible for the actions of our sons, we pile on a crap load of guilt and self-loathing as our girls pick themselves apart trying to figure out how to not only carry the unbearable load, but also how to get everything right.

And our sons?  They become useless vessels of entitlement, excuses and contempt particularly toward women who are supposed to carry their emotional, ethical and moral baggage.

I wish that Ms. Behrens had called those 5th grade boys into the hall for a similar conversation like she had with me.  She should have explained why “pinball machine” was inappropriate and that their fascination with breasts, while normal, was probably something best discussed in health class or with their parents.  Not used to objectify a classmate’s body (she probably would have had to explain what objectify meant, but that’s okay, too).  Maybe, just maybe if we had the same expectations our sons that we have of our daughters when it comes to sexuality and responsibility, we wouldn’t have any Brock Turners or the sick judge who sentenced him.


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