The first day of my “Themes in American Literature” class began with uncomfortable silence. I felt (though did not see) the collective rolling of 64 pairs of teenage eyes when I announced the theme I had chosen for the course: “Parenthood and the American Family.” I was so excited to be bringing my two roles of parent and professor together that I didn’t consider what a hard sell this topic might be. I was eager for the first class meetings, imagining awakening students to the importance and beauty of literature they probably had never seen. But I quickly found that I had more to learn than the students did.
The beginning wasn’t promising. My classrooms are usually full of debate, but these students were silent. They slumped, didn’t do the reading, and avoided eye contact. A group engaged in their own discussions on the side. Students wrote in their responses to the readings, “Because I am not a parent, I did not identify with any of this” over and over. Their writing on the literature was superficial and non-analytical and unengaged.
Overall, they let me know that they really wanted to say: “What teenager (or teenager plus a few years) wants to read what PARENTS have to say?” Parents are the enemy, the other, the ones who have to be evaded, cajoled, led, taught, ignored, informed, idealized, and, in general, dehumanized. Parents are not them; they are not parents. Parents are another species altogether. Whether they put their parents on a pedestal or under their feet, students of this age group generally don’t look at their parents eye to eye, face to face — as fully human. They didn’t seem to see me as human, either. I was one of THEM, a parent, making them do what they didn’t want to do. I dreaded going to class those days, my stomach morning-sick as I walked into the room.
Things began to change when we finally got to some contemporary stories, and read Allison Crew’s “When I Was Garbage,” a piece about teenage pregnancy, from the Breeder anthology. Breaking the quiet as I awaited responses to the text, one student said, sheepishly, “My cousin is 17 years old, and pregnant.”
Suddenly, the line between the course material and their own lives didn’t seem so dark and impenetrable. The walls between the personal and the formal classroom broke down. They began talking about friends and family members who had become pregnant, miscarried, had abortions, put children up for adoption, been adopted, and more. The class atmosphere completely changed as they moved away from the texts and into their own lives. They engaged; they questioned; they tried. Their writing became more analytical, and class discussions opened up texts in new and interesting ways.
I also became privy to secrets. I started getting notes, furtive visits to my office, and footsteps joining me as I walked across campus. I found that many students in the class were facing reproduction and family issues in their own lives. Two male students had girlfriends become pregnant, one male student’s best friend’s girlfriend had a baby this semester, and one male student was still sad about losing the baby his girlfriend had miscarried. Two female students were mourning abortions, one still cried over a miscarriage, one had given up a baby for adoption. But these students didn’t want to come forward in the class.
So, I began to see the class as existing on many levels: the surface one of the “I don’t relate to it” crowd, the vocal group that was beginning to get it, and then the quiet ones who were living it. I found it ironic that in a course that questioned the silencing of people about sex, reproduction, and the family, the students whose lives were most affected chose not to speak because of the very silencing effect we were discussing. Yet, I couldn’t “out” them. I had to respect their decisions to remain silent. The students who remained silent feared being misunderstood, and I can see why.
Despite our cultural fascination with sex, we haven’t done much to clean it up. The students still see it, deep down, as dirty and something only bad, filthy people do. When I asked them to write on the question, “Why is it so hard to put the words motherhood and sex in the same sentence?” they freaked out. Their mothers don’t have sex! To the average college student, sex and motherhood are mutually exclusive. Sex is dirty, risky, and thrilling; motherhood is clean, safe, and boring. They don’t go together. Despite feminism’s best efforts, the angel/whore dichotomy has survived the so-called sexual revolution. I say “so-called” because all it seems to have done is encourage students to do what induces the same old guilt, fear, and shame.
Regardless, college students are fascinated with sex, with attracting others, with playing with desire. College tends to be a time of intense sexual experimentation, and I would bet that most of my students were not virgins. However, the causal relationship between the two — sex making people into parents — escaped them. In their minds, sex was separate from reproduction, the act an end in itself.
Therefore, they did not often engage in mature, adult discussions about sex as a part of a potential family system before this class. In other words, they were willing to do the deed, but they were not willing to consider the consequences of their sexual activity. This course made them. Many found, after all, a connection between their lives and the texts: that they are a mere birth control failure away from becoming parents themselves.
The final evaluations show that the students learned more than they expected that first day. Many wrote something similar to, “I tried to drop this class, but I am now glad I didn’t. This has been the most important class I have taken at college.” Most students changed the way they viewed sex, reproduction, and the family. I didn’t intend the class to go in this direction, but as writing sometimes takes on a life of its own, so does a class, and as the “director” of each, my job is to let it go as it needs to go. What started as a course on the fine aesthetics of the literature of the family grew larger to encompass more of the human concerns the literature raised. Because that is where it needed to go.
My students ended up teaching me. When I offer a Themes in American Literature class again, the focus will be: “Sex, Reproduction, and the Family.” This will not be an easy course to teach, but I learned that I had better try. And keep trying. Because this course, for many of them, was the first (and for the graduating seniors, the only) thoughtful discussion they have had during their college years concerning their sexual lives. And this is a shame. We at the university need to treat them as adults capable of such discussions. We need to encourage them to read what others have written on the topic of family and sex and reproduction. We need to see them as more than simply minds to be filled but also as hearts and souls that need nurturing. And, finally, we need to recognize that they have bodies that influence what they think, how they act, and what they learn.