When I was in high school, sex education courses were spontaneous rap sessions with the gym teacher and usually came on the heels of a VD epidemic or rumors that a reputable young lady was "with child." So it was with a keen sense of how times had changed that I sat in the auditorium at Ballou High School in Southeast Washington Tuesday, watching students boldly confront the mayor's blue ribbon panel on teen-age pregnancy.
Using phrases like, "I laid and I paid," pregnant teen-agers were unabashedly frank and made clear to panel members that the problem was no longer a "delicate" matter. Yet, some things had not changed.
"It's hard to say 'no,' " said Joye Jackson, 16, sophomore and mother of two. "If passion hits you, you're going to do it."
The heat of passion, searing in its intensity, was still very much a part of the sexual equation. And in my view, harnessing that energy was the key to stemming the tide of teen-age pregnancy.
A different kind of passion could be felt throughout the auditorium as speakers aroused the emotions of the audience. When the only male student to address the panel said in an altar-boy tone of voice, "I think teen-age pregnancy is wrong," other boys slumped in their seats at the back of the room and huffed with disappointment through cupped hands. "Come on, be a man," one cried out.
When panelist Andre Watson noted he had heard that, instead of boys putting pressure on each other to have sex with girls, girls were now pressuring boys, the male side of the auditorium erupted in applause, hoots and howls. But when the male student said that was not true, that boys still pressure girls into having sex, the female side of the auditorium exploded in sustained cheers.
Joye Jackson, by force of personality, explained that both the boy and the girl are equally subject to sexual passions and revealed that she had not been "pressured" into having sex, nor had she pressured her boyfriend. "He wanted to, and I wanted to and we did it," she explained. "It just happened."
Indeed, it did, and does -- and the result is that Washington has one of the highest rates of teen-age pregnancy in the country, with consequences that go beyond having grandmothers as young as 29. As panel director Joyce Ladner noted, high infant mortality and a life of poverty that breeds a "cycle of despair" are directly correlated with teen-age pregnancy.
The idea behind the roving blue ribbon panel is to learn from students what influences their judgments and emotional needs -- which means, in my view, their passions.
Patterned after a congressional hearing, with student "witnesses" coming to a microphone to "testify," the Ballou High proceeding was entertaining and at times enlightening. But it seemed as though the students' passions were not being given the weight they were due. Sometimes panelists asked questions more appropriate for elementary schoolchildren, such as, "What can a man do to prevent pregnancy?" or questions that compromised students by asking them to publicly evaluate the effectiveness of sex education in their school.
D.C. school board member Calvin Lockridge, who represents the ward where Ballou High is located, came closest to the heart of the matter when he told the panel that the fact that women outnumber men in Ward 8 by as much as 11 to 1 may have something to do with the phenomenon. He wanted to know answers to such questions as: Are women using sex to keep men? Are they having babies as a means to self-fulfillment? Are men using sex as a means to self-esteem? If so, how can that passion be more constructively channeled?
Mayor Marion Barry, who introduced the panel, warned students with a down-home saying, "Everything that's good to you is not good for you." He urged the boys to "stop rappin' so hard," then led the students in a cheer of the two-letter word that he said was the key to solving the problem: N-O. The girls responded enthusiastically while the boys were more reserved.
This was not a morality play, the mayor correctly noted. The panel was making an economic judgment that the students should choose career over pregnancy. But unbridled passion allows no choice.