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In Part I of This Post:

I’d been asked by the school nurse to give my fifth grade boys the puberty talk. A couple problems, though: First, I’d never given anyone the puberty talk. Next, the nurse had asked that I refrain from discussing too much about sex while giving the talk.

Yeah right, I thought. That would be like trying to discuss the Theory of Relativity without ever mentioning E = MC 2.

Still, I felt I owed it to my students to do whatever I could to help usher them into manhood.

So I agreed.

To give the puberty talk.


Part II – The Puberty Video:

Finally the day had arrived.

It was time to give my students the talk.

The puberty talk.

Once the girls had left for the library to have their talk with the school nurse I gathered the boys around the VCR.

“Alright you guys,” I said. “You’re gonna watch a video that’ll discuss the changes you and your body will go through over the next few years. When it’s done I’ll be more than happy to answer any questions you might have. Alright?”

No response.

All the boys had that deer-in-the-headlights look in their eyes.

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This seemed a bit ironic.

When it came to discussing their favorite gross-out moments on South Park, or movie violence, or gang violence that frequently occurred in their inner-city community you couldn’t keep them quiet.

But when it came to learning about how they’d soon develop into young men, they had no idea how to respond.

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This fear of theirs.

It was the same fear I’d experienced at their age, when confronted by my parents and teachers continually bombarding me with pamphlets, instructional films, and lecture upon lecture concerning puberty.

This puberty thing.

Back when I was a kid, it seemed even bigger and scarier than The Big Bang.

And it was all happening right inside my body.

“Don’t worry,” I told my students. “Really. Maybe you’ve heard some of this before. Maybe not. But puberty is just a part of growing up. It’s nothing to be afraid of.”

A student raised his hand.

“Jose,” I said. “What’s up, my man?”

With those bewildered brown eyes fixed right on me, he asked: “Have you gone through puberty, Mr. F?”

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“Absolutely,” I said. “And look at me now. I don’t have three heads or six eyes or anything. Everything’ll be fine. Trust me. You guys just need to learn a few things to help you along the way.”

Jose and a few other boys breathed sighs of relief and flashed gentle nods.

Still others couldn’t shake that stunned look from their eyes.

“Don’t worry,” I repeated. “It’ll be all right. Trust me.” I started the video.

It went through the basics:

•    How the boys would sweat more, grow taller.
•    Their skin would become oilier, maybe causing pimples.
•    Hair would grow under their arms, on their legs, faces, and in the pubic area.
•    Their voices would crack.
•    Their penis and testicles would become bigger and sperm would begin to be produced.

The video featured these two clean-cut white kids, and an African American boy.

That was fine.

One problem though: all my students were streetwise Hispanics.

And while I wasn’t sure how well they could relate to the boys in the video, I sure could.

In particular, this one little white boy kept complaining about how, whenever in the gym locker room, he felt inadequate when comparing the size of his penis to the other boys.

“Whenever I look at those boys,” he whined, “I always wonder why they’re so much bigger than me. Will Ialways stay this size? Will my penis ever grow?”

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“Damn,” I thought. That insecure, ill-equipped little brat was me when I was his age.

With that shameful realization, my hands grew clammy. My face flush.

A few beads of sweat gathered on my brow.

It was like I was re-experiencing that earth-shattering Big Bang puberty all over again.

Right in front of my students.

B-BOOM!!

I glanced around the room, wondering whether or not any of my students had spotted my discomfort, thereby picking up on my deep, dark secret.

Coast clear.

They hadn’t noticed me at all. They were completely entranced by the video’s discussion of erections and wet dreams.

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Once the film was over, I surveyed the boys for their reactions.

A few sported wisecracking grins, but most still maintained that stunned look.

“Well,” I said, hoping for the best. “Anyone have any questions?”


Coming Soon: Part III – The Final Installment – The Q & A Session.

This story actually starts in August, just after my birthday.

It starts with Jessica’s birthday present, something Jilly had been buzzing about for almost a month.

We were just in Colorado, visiting the Red Hot Mama (Valarie) for my 26th and by the time we get back, Jessica is practically hopping around with excitement on our front step, a big card in her hand.

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Picture the Scene:

It’s that time of year when the fifth graders at my elementary school get the puberty talk.

The thing is, the school doesn’t have a regular health teacher.

That left the nurse to talk to the girls.

The fifth grade boys were another story.

Prior to this year, a senior teacher had always given the talk. Since he had his own children, he was extremely comfortable discussing puberty with alternately wise cracking, painfully shy fifth grade boys.

But that teacher had recently retired.

Which left me to give the puberty talk.

The only problem: Unlike Paulie the Penis, I’ve never given anyone the puberty talk.

“Are you sure you want me to do this?” I asked the school nurse.

The diminutive woman, with her sweet and innocent, toy-like smile said: “Don’t worry. You’ll do fine.”

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I wasn’t so sure about that.

I was convinced I’d say something wrong.

Something that would make those boys spontaneously sprout breasts and get periods, instead of growing bigger testicles and penises.

Truth be told, my puberty was a disaster.

In middle school choir, I got canned from playing Tony in West Side Story because my voice began cracking so much.

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My face became a war zone of acne.

Anything and everything would give me erections.

Even when my seventh grade earth science teacher would utter the word “Symbiosis.”

BAM

I’d get an erection.

And when it came to pubic hair, forget about it.

My genital area was a barren field.

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In the middle school locker room, I was constantly comparing that barren field to other boys whose pubic hair growth seemed more like jungles compared to mine.

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Still, traumas and all, I felt I owed it to my fifth grade boys to give them the clearest and most concise talk possible, regarding what they’d be experiencing, mentally and physically, over the next few years.

“All right,” I told the school nurse. “I’ll do it.”

“Good,” she said. “I knew I could count on you.”

She handed me a video and a shopping bag filled with packets for the boys.

Each one contained a pamphlet entitled Always Changing: Puberty and Stuff along with a stick of Old Spice Aqua Reef scented deodorant.

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“One thing, though,” said the nurse.

“What’s that?” I said.

Suddenly, worry lines appeared around the edges of her toy-like smile.

She leaned in close and said:

“Try to stay away from the sex talk. Leave that for when they go to middle school. Try to keep things strictly related to puberty—you know perspiration and…”

She paused, leaned in even closer and added: “Erections.”

It was strange to hear this sweet little toy of a woman utter the ‘E’ word in the hall of an elementary school where cute little kids sporting Spiderman and Dora the Explorer backpacks were scurrying about.

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What was even stranger, though, was the idea of having a puberty talk where I could discuss erections, but not sex.

That would be like trying to discuss Scientology without ever mentioning Tom Cruise.

“All right,” I told the nurse. “I’ll do my best.”

“Well good luck,” she said. “Now I have to get back to work.”

She left me standing in the hallway, that video in one hand, and a shopping bag chockfull of Puberty door prizes in the other.

I glanced down the hall. Facing me at the end of it was a bulletin board featuring a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. along with the words: I Have a Dream.

I had my own dream, all right.

I dreamt that my students and I could make it through the puberty talk with our sanity and all our original body parts in tact.

Coming Soon: Part II – The Puberty Video.

I will start by giving the straight facts about AA. The program helps many, and adherents attribute their sobriety to it. I take them at their word. As I see it, whatever works, works. Nevertheless, AA is clearly a religious organization, steeped in Christian theology, with many of the meetings subtly reassuring the nonbeliever that he or she will, in time, come to pray on their knees, as I was so often told.

This approach is underpinned by the Big Book chapter entitled “We Agnostics.” It relates the central AA message: The group will accept atheists and agnostics, but unless they eventually accept a higher power known as “God,” failure is guaranteed. “Actually we were fooling ourselves,” the chapter asserts, “for deep down in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God. It may be obscured by calamity, by pomp, by worship of other things, but in some form or other it is there. For faith in a Power greater than ourselves, and miraculous demonstrations of that power in human lives, are facts as old as man himself. We finally saw that faith in some kind of God was a part of our make-up, just as much as the feeling we have for a friend. Sometimes we had to search fearlessly, but he was there. He was as much a fact as we were. We found the Great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found. It is so with us.”

The same chapter later relates a story in which an alcoholic asks himself, “Who are you to say there is no God?” That, indeed is the question, or one side of the question. I might just as easily say, “Who are you to say there is one?”

The Christian roots of the AA program are well documented and continue to bloom in its Edenesque garden. I need not repeat the evidence here. It is not my duty to condemn or refute AA.  Rather, I wish only to warn agnostics and atheists that — after the short honeymoon — they will not be accepted by the program unless they accept its language, which irrefutably cannot in any way be interpreted as secular. Just as an atheist and a fundamentalist Christian would be unlikely to maintain a successful marriage, so the atheist and AA are unlikely to form a lasting bond. Exceptions exist, but the AA atheist or agnostic has a big house to build in order to house that much self-delusion.

I shall write from my experience. After much well-meaning advice from friends seeking to help me overcome my hesitation to join AA due to the “God factor,” I thought I had finally found a way around the problem of what exactly my “higher power” would be.  It would involve the infinite universe and the nothingness atheists, especially, and, to a lesser degree, agnostics, face. I would give myself over to nothingness, “turning over” my problems and thereby finding a faithless faith.

More than anything, I sought comradeship.  I found it, at first.  The key to the AA meeting is the common bond between all addicts and alcoholics.  I do not dispute that this is helpful. Indeed, AA could start and stop with that assertion, providing a truly all-inclusive safety net. However, as in all movements, the initial idea of AA was quickly reduced to dogma and a reactionary stance.

I began with the intention to find what I needed and leave out what I didn’t. I discovered what I needed at my first few meetings, which was the simple sharing of common experience.  But during the fifth meeting, the 11th Step was discussed. “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.”

While the words “as we understood Him” are often used to support the contention that AA members can believe God to be anything at all, the discussion revealed every single member as understanding God in the very same manner.  All had always believed or later came to believe in a Christian  God.  All had fallen to their knees and prayed. Others nodded their assent.  Oddly, every member understood prayer, but many could not grasp the idea of not praying: Does not compute.

When my turn to speak arrived, I simply restated that I was an atheist.  I threw the bone that I “may change my mind — who knows? — but that’s how I understand things now. I don’t see why this stance should discourage me or anyone else from seeking help here.”  I wanted to add, “By the way, I can teach the basics of meditation in ten minutes,” but I left it there, not wanting to be reprimanded for starting a philosophical debate.

My message was met with weak applause and a few askance glances. “Here,” I thought, “comes the first argument.”  The honeymoon was over.

Immediately after the meeting, I was twice pulled aside and told that I would come to find what all the others had found.  It seemed I must find it, since they had found it.  Just as I find it incomprehensible that anyone believes in a benevolent God, so they find it incomprehensible that anyone doesn’t. I could point to the Holocaust and say, “That event caused many survivors to lose faith or even conclude that God must be evil.  Isn’t that rather strange behavior from a God expecting so much attention?”  They would point to me and say, “You may go, but you’ll come back when you hit bottom again.”

Now, I must give AA its due. Through discussions not involving God, I was able to see how I had undermined myself via self-deception. This was certainly an accomplishment for which I thank AA. The problem, then, begins and ends right there. For me, such discussions were enough. Leaving God completely out of the program would allow anyone to benefit from it. Replacing faith in a higher power with the acknowledgment that the mind cannot always be trusted would achieve similar results.  No one would be excluded or made to feel they were violating the basic tenets of what amounts to faith.

I relate this to a short fling I had with Catholicism.  This occurred in my early thirties.  I found a way around every aspect of Catholicism with which I did not agree.  I discovered authors like Graham Greene, who seemed to harbor so many misgivings regarding the Church that it was nearly impossible to categorize him as Catholic. Graham himself claimed that he was a “Protestant within the Church.”  I had reached a different conclusion: “I am a Catholic even if there is no God.”  Irrational as this claim may seem, I was quite satisfied with it and myself. Eventually, I lost my ability to trick myself around the sticking points of Catholicism and my own “clever” argument.

Just about then, the child abuse scandal broke, and with it my faith finished collapsing.  It had been waiting to fall, and reassurance that the guilty priests proved the exception to the rule of good priests failed to convince me that I could, or should, restore a bridge that would crumble into the river below regardless of repair.

For AA to work, one must either completely accept its basic tenets or find some way to believe its central proposition despite one’s rejection of it, just as I had done near the end of my Catholicism. I am glad that some are able to do the latter, for many maintain sobriety within the program.

Others, like myself, may be as humble as any Christian and believe in transcendence (a scientifically proven phenomena, i.e., a literal state of mind provable by brain scans and other methods).  However, we cannot trick ourselves around praying, nor fail to detect the contradiction between AA and what we disbelieve. We cannot say, “We are not religious but spiritual.” We cannot accept the view that anyone, anything or any force watches over and protects us.

In short, those finding a home within AA meetings do well to make their beds there.  Those finding the same beds uncomfortable should resist complaining to the hotel manager and simply depart. If that person insists upon complaining, the manager will state that the traveler “shall find no better bed in the world, and you should thank God on your knees for having such a bed. Why, if you leave, you’ll come back. Until then, enjoy sleeping on beds of nails and knife-like rocks. You’ll be back, all right. You’ll return to see that this is the best and indeed only bed in the world.”  Such a traveler may remain a traveler; better to keep moving than fool oneself that a place in which one does not belong is the best and only place in the world.

I write a letter to Nikki, in my diary, each time the doctor takes a scalpel and carves out another mole.

He takes nipping strokes through my epidermis, dermis, and down to the fat, and drops the tissue—suspect for malignant melanoma—into a vile that’ll go to some lab in New Hampshire.

It feels like you appeared overnight

And before I knew what had happened

I’d let you in.

I can’t explain it, except that you’re like that.

You’re hard to push away…

*

You became this thing on a pedestal

And I tried so hard to achieve,

To reach for the goal that was presented in you.

Sometimes, what we want most is best viewed from afar.

Sometimes, it breaks your heart when you finally have it.

* *

The distance was as wide as the ocean

And no amount of convincing you otherwise

Would have changed your mind.

You’re stubborn like that.

* * *

I believe that you believe what you said

And maybe it’s harsh to think it was all

Just a well kept, well intentioned, well dressed lie,

But being cold and distant makes the memories fade faster…

And you’re beginning to fade away…slowly…like winter

One icicle at a time.

* * * *

Someday when I am older and wiser

I will be able to think of you without the sharp,

Twisting ache in my chest.

But for now, I can’t be the me you used to know

I need to learn how to be a different me

One who doesn’t miss you so much…

Because I’m stubborn like that.

I’ve been thinking about the power of fiction, or the power of good writing, to transport us to another time.

A talented writer can remove us from our dreary, repetitious lives with a well-wrought scene or a fully realized character.

Or simply a single object.

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For me, this happened recently while reading Josh Henkin’s wonderful novel Matrimony.

A main character reminisces about a cafe with a backward clock.

Simple as that and there I went.

When I was in fifth grade in Florida, my friend Greg Mullen was the coolest, most suave guy around. He had an inground pool, he belonged to a tennis club, he went scuba diving, he wore a leather jacket, his parents drove matching Volvos (the oddest looking cars on the block back in the early ’70s).