Notes on a Scandal, or My Only Truly Horrifying Memory from Sex Ed
WARNING: this entry might be disturbing or triggering for some readers. There will be no graphic details, but a crime was committed and will be discussed.
Nobody likes their middle school. But in retrospect, mine was actually a pretty good place. We had encouraging teachers, a nice campus, fun electives, and only one or two bomb threats in my entire three years there.
Sex education came in seventh grade. We spent half the year in science class, where Mr. Allen managed to suck all the fun and wonder out of the discovery of the natural world, and half in “Health” class, where we learned about our bodies. It wasn’t especially comprehensive: abstinence was the rule, and we never learned how birth control worked and or how to put on a condom. But it still wasn’t bad. I learned about the placebo effect, that a fever is actually a defense mechanism, and why contracting herpes is a bigger deal than contracting chlamydia.
Our Health teacher was Mrs. Moretti, a good-humored woman in her sixties. I was glad it was her: our other option was Mrs. Byers, a tough, chain-smoking woman who had taught me Cooking the previous year and yelled at me for using the wrong kind of binder. Her husband also worked at Jordan, teaching Industrial Arts, and both of them looked as if they hadn’t noticed the seventies ended. She had feathered blonde hair, he had an afro, and they dressed like they were in a educational filmstrip. There seemed something uncanny about them, especially after I heard rumors Mr. Byers threw chairs across the room when he got angry.
Still, it was a little strange to have someone so much older talking to us about changes that she hadn’t gone through in years. Mrs. Moretti must have suspected this, because after one exercise where we broke off into single-sex teams 1 and listed everything we wanted in a girlfriend or boyfriend (one boy put “soft hair” as a top priority, and a girl on my team kept insisting we put “big feet”), she invited another teacher to talk to us about it.
“It’s been a while since I’ve had to think about what I want in a husband, so I’ve brought in someone who just got married. Please welcome Mrs. Beck.”
Mrs. Beck was a tall, buxom blonde woman in her early twenties, and I knew her only by sight. She taught sixth grade English and History, but was new to the school and didn’t teach the so-called “gifted classes”. She seemed nice, but I knew nothing about her as a teacher.
“I talked about this with my husband last night,” Mrs. Beck began, “and we decided together on the ten things that matter to us most.”
Her list went from ten to one. Number ten was “attractiveness,” but when one of the girls raised her hand and said “You mean looks?” Mrs. Beck said, “Not just looks. There’s more to an attraction than that.”
Ever cynical, I rolled my eyes. If that were true, if looks weren’t that important, more boys would have liked me. Besides, it didn’t seem like there was much to the boys I knew besides looks. Girls matured faster than boys, so if we wanted someone with a personality, there weren’t many options at David Starr Jordan Middle School — or really, any middle school. Middle school boys smelled bad, were mean, and thought Pokemon was high art. There were a few nice guys, but no one I liked in that way. The romances I imagined always happened with older boys, or celebrities, or boys at another school where “Being Nice to Girls (Even The Ugly Ones)” and “Washing Your Hands After You Use the Bathroom” were part of the curriculum. 2 Mrs. Beck went on to describe some more positive qualities, and while I could see the importance of some of them, I was still skeptical. Maybe she was lying to make herself look good, or maybe she was being honest and I just wouldn’t see it until I got older. Either way, by the time she reached the top three, my mind had wandered to more interesting places, like which brother on Malcolm and the Middle was the cutest. I would never be able to remember what she had said was most important.
Time went by. I finished seventh grade, finished middle school, “fell in love” in high school, fell in love for real in college, and did find my priorities changing. Someone could be gorgeous but a terrible person, and I’d find myself less attracted to them. Exy seemed only kind of cute when we first met, but the longer we dated the more beautiful I found him. Once or twice I thought back to Mrs. Beck, and thought maybe had been telling the truth, and had been right.
Except she wasn’t. She really wasn’t.
Ten years after health class ended, one of my friends posted a news story about Mrs. Beck on Facebook. The woman who told my class what really mattered was trust and communication and intelligence had just surrendered herself to the police for having sex with a fourteen-year-old boy, one of her former sixth grade students. She would be going to jail and registering as a sex offender for the rest of her life.
I couldn’t believe it, and neither could anyone else from Burbank. My hometown is notorious only for being boring. We’d had school scandals before, but nothing like this. There was the unfortunately common response (once lampooned on South Park) that the victim, being a young boy, had “wanted it.” I heard too many jokes from men about how they wished they could have been in his place, or how fitting it was that Jordan’s school mascot was the Cougar. Did these men know any fourteen-year-old boys, I wondered. They’re still very much children, and taking advantage of one is nothing less than child rape.
It was hard to know whether I should be more horrified — she was an authority figure taking advantage of a child who had trusted her — or baffled. What could this woman in her thirties, seemingly happily married, have been thinking? Was there something wrong with her mind, some kind of chemical imbalance? There was no evidence she had raped any other students, so maybe it was less sexual compulsion and more desire. But what could she have found to desire in a middle school student? Surely nothing she had listed that day in Health class.
When I think back to that exercise, the other thing I remember is overhearing one of the boys whispering to a friend that his all-male group had lied. They didn’t care if a girl was smart or fun or nice, they just wanted someone cute. That didn’t seem fair for several reasons, and I brought it up to Mrs. Moretti before I left class.
“Jack said they made it up, they didn’t really want any of the nice things they said they did. They don’t care about anything besides how she looks. They were lying.”
“They could be lying about lying,” she said. “A lot of boys want to seem tough. They don’t want to admit to wanting something nice.”
I now think Mrs. Moretti was right, but I’ll never know for sure. I wondered the same about Mrs. Beck. But I don’t want to know anymore.
- The Burbank Unified School District was not yet comfortable acknowledging same-sex relationships. ↩
- Yes, I know middle school girls are as awkward and miserable as middle school boys. I did not know that at the time, but if I had been a boy who liked girls, I would not have wanted to date someone like me, either. ↩