Teacher Takes a Long View of Sex-Ed

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Susan Soule was a sex education teacher for decades before she ever had a student identify herself as gay in front of the class.

It was in the late 1990s, and by then the subject that Soule began teaching in 1973 as little more than a guarded anatomy lesson had been buffeted by the emergence of AIDS, test tube fertilization, the gay pride movement and other earthquakes of the sexuality landscape. A few days into a class discussion that Soule had led countless times before, a sophomore at Montgomery Blair High School raised her hand and matter-of-factly declared that she was a lesbian.

For a breakthrough, Soule recalled, it proved an unremarkable moment.

"She was very comfortable saying it," Soule, 55, said. "The other students were like, 'Oh? Really?' And then we moved on. It was very simple."

It has become far more common for students to assert their homosexuality from their school desks, said Soule, who now teaches the same subject at Wheaton's John F. Kennedy High School. Last week, as Montgomery County schools prepared to wrap up pilot testing on a curriculum that would open the way for deeper discussions of sexual and gender identity, Soule noted that it is not the first time official lessons are playing catch-up with the students.

"One thing that has always been true is that the kids are much more at ease with all of this than the grown-ups are," said Soule, whose 18-week Comprehensive Health class includes units on mental health, violence, addiction and infectious disease. "Nobody blinks an eye."

As one of the county's most experienced teachers of one of public education's most controversial subjects, Soule has lived her professional life in what looks to many outsiders like a maelstrom. Few other educators see their lesson plans so regularly swept up into the culture wars. Few have to talk in such graphic detail to groups of teenagers about topics that make parents cringe. And few outside the school counselor's office are as likely to receive after-class pleas for advice from kids who might be abused, addicted or pregnant.

But Soule (pronounced Sule-ay) said her years in the sex-ed trenches have been not only uplifting but also surprisingly relaxed. The secret, she said, is to rely on her unflappable students as agents of calm in otherwise ferocious debates. As clashes over birth control, homosexuality and abstinence-only instruction play out at school boards and on talk radio, Soule said, the classroom has remained serene. Or at least as serene as a room full of 10th-graders can be.

"They're always joking, but they really are good sports to each other," Soule said of her students. "They are just very good at agreeing to disagree. For me, it's always been very positive."

In an austere second-floor classroom deep within Kennedy's labyrinthine halls, the walls are a gallery of teenage angst. Posters proclaim, warn and cajole on such topics as smoking, steroids, teen pregnancy and eating disorders.

One recent afternoon, students filed into the 12:30 p.m. class with exaggerated post-lunch lethargy, dropping book bags and draping themselves across seats and aisles. But Soule, a brisk, short-haired woman who is towered over by many of her students, drove them to their feet for an exercise on substance abuse. She called out the names of drugs and medicines, from LSD to Nyquil, and had the students move to displayed notices indicating "addictive," "not addictive" or "don't know." (Hint: More are addictive than you think.)

The energy level in the room soared in response to Soule's rapid-fire questions. Midway through the class, she was answering more questions than she was asking and listening more than talking. "Can you use crystal meth to lose weight?" "LSD is the same as acid?" "My cousin has tried most of those things."

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