As a young mother who had returned to finish my teaching degree, I was shocked to hear of the news at my part time job during lunch.
It seemed impossible! It was illegal! A particular fundamentalist group was slightly misled when they circulated petitions in the local United States Post Offices around the state! They even had 35,000 signatures. They were vehemently against three seemingly innocuous things (which they claimed to somehow be related to sex education!?!):
1. Guppies in the classroom since students could be “exposed” to reproduction by watching.
2. Turning lights off in classrooms to help kids settle down at transitions between classes, claiming it was a form of “encounter group” activity since “those groups turn lights off.” (Encounter groups were a controversial issues in the late sixties.)
3. History and art books in high school libraries and classrooms which showed part or all of the human form. (These folks were especially adamant about the Statue of David.)
Defending Guppy Love in the Classroom
Although I can’t say I’ve been very active politically, this issue concerned me as an educator. I knew it was clearly illegal to circulate a petition in a federal Post Office. I also knew:
1) How much learning about science, motivation for writing, and appreciation of the beauty of God’s nature can come from fish tanks. Many adults and children even find it calming – a good state to be in when one needs to be learning.
2) Turning the lights off when changing classes had absolutely nothing to do with politics, or the “encounter groups” of the 60’s. It was an effective way of getting the students to gear down and give their attention to a new task. It had worked for generations! I couldn’t understand the idea held by the Post Office Petitioners that it was somehow encouraging inappropriate classroom behavior when the obvious function was to calm kids down and generate appropriate behavior.
3) That even if the statue of David and all the National Geographic magazines were removed from high school libraries and art classes, they could never remove all evidence of the human body since each person lived their lives in a human body. Besides that, what would be next – the museums?
A Petition to Maintain Good Classroom Teaching Methods
WELL, I had a few free days. It kept eating at my heart and soul so I found myself writing an alternative petition. It began with:
Care in Advance. Give kids a chance!
I had worked for several years before as the Administrative Assistant for the Chairman of the Psychology Department at a local University’s hospital, so I did know the “lay of the land” with professionals around the state, both regarding health and mental health. From my experience in working for the president of the American Psychological Association, I knew a number of doctors, mental health professionals, educators, and others who cared about children.
Since this was in pre-internet times, I started taking side trips to towns and cities around the great state of Oklahoma to present my case to these professionals and community leaders. I made numerous phone calls and talked to people I barely knew personally, but felt sure from their reputations that they would care about our children’s future.
As I took care of my two sons, I couldn’t help but be affected by my hopes and dreams for them. I wondered how this could affect their future, education, and lives. I asked myself what I would want for them in their classrooms.
The answer reverberated clearly that aquariums could only enrich their learning, lights out would help them with skills of calming down and focusing on the next task, and that I was determined not to communicate negative messages to them about their bodies. Focusing on these 3 issues tended to get in the way of honestly discussing sex education, which was a topic which deserved careful attention rather than these red herrings.
My travels created a wake of shock among educators and other professionals that this anti-sex education movement was disrespecting so much of the educational system as it had been for generations. A number of concerned citizens from around the state jumped at the chance to quell the attacks on these three components of most schools around the state.
It seemed to me the three items in contention were not really a part of the actual sex education argument. However, listening to the outlandish comments of the original petitioners convinced me that sex education had vital importance for our children, whether it be at school, church, or where it is mostly learned, at home. These three issues seemed to be getting in the way of the discussion.
Senate Hearings and Crank Calls
Did I mention I was a bit on the shy side? So I met with folks, encouraged them to take leadership, and then sat back and observed like a kitchen helper waiting for a cake to rise.
All this resulted in State Senate Hearings so I developed a sore ear and fingers from calling and typing so much:-) A large crowd showed up each of several days to hear testimony. I would sit in back with my list of people to testify and take notes, returning home to shore up the edges of the schedule for the next day.
Toward the end of that gruelling week an Associated Press guy started hounding me. Of course I tried to evade him and stay out of the limelight. However, before he was through, word got out that I was the author of the second petition, and had helped orchestrate the movement to bring calmness to the fervor in local Post Offices around the state.
Before I knew it, it was on local WKY and another radio station hourly, and I started getting crank calls. Someone even made a comic labeled “Communist sexiologist” but I never figured out what that meant. I just knew I wasn’t one of those! Yet I did find it rather traumatic, and my heart goes out to public servants when they are unfairly attacked.
The worst happened one day around suppertime. I got home from work and had gotten supper started. The phone rang (back then they were tethered to the wall) and I found myself trying to soothe an angry accuser. This vitriolic woman wasn’t into listening, so I did what I do best: I listened to her.
After a while, I heard my baby cry and realized he had woken up. I told the caller I had to go to check on him. She responded angrily, “You couldn’t have a child! God wouldn’t let you have a baby!” I found myself amazed and shocked that anyone could be so hardened in fundamentalist hate. I wondered what Jesus would do . . .
Looking Back on Making a Difference
As I have reflected on this point in my life, I’m still amazed that people can label others with so much hate that they don’t look on them as even human. I probably didn’t make a huge difference in furthering the cause of sex education, but I did help in holding the line against letting education slide backwards into the darkness of superstition and hate due to the misconceptions of a few who were quite willing to break time-honored laws by circulating their petitions against guppies and lights off signals in classrooms, as well as book banning to prevent the study of art.
As far as sex education goes, I’ve seen many changes over my more than four decades of teaching. My simple answer about such matters to children of all ages was that since God made people he must approve of the human body in all its variations, and it is our job to be responsible with that body.
So I never allowed children to pick on others due to any type of differences. I also explained to students that “we live in our bodies” and encouraged them to take pride in who they are and take care of that body they have. We did it with songs and stories which made the concepts of acceptance of diversity more clear not just in minds, but in their hearts.
Copyright by Hildra Tague. Obtain permission for use online or in print.