CJ Kaplan’s son needs his dad to answer some questions about puberty. It’s a dance father and son take together.
“Dad, I need your help with my homework,” pressed my soon to be 11-year-old son, Alex.
“Sure,” I said, looking up from my half-eaten meal. “But, can I finish dinner first?”
“Yeah, but it’s got to be you. It can’t be Mom,” he insisted.
“Okay, okay. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Clearing my plate and walking into the office/play area where my kids alternately study and watch TV, I found Alex sitting on the couch holding a single piece of paper.
“I have to ask you these questions for Health Class,” he said. And without further preamble, he began.
Ah yes, Health Class. The new moniker for what we used to call “Sex Ed.” That was the class where the teacher used to pull out charts, graphs, filmstrips and animated renderings of the human reproductive systems in an effort to explain how babies were made while twenty-four 5th graders giggled uncontrollably. This section of the school year also included the day when all the girls were mysteriously spirited away to a secret underground bunker to learn about their menses while us boys got to talk openly about nocturnal emissions and ask questions like: How much masturbation is too much? The answer: It all depends on how much chaffing you can stand.
Today, Sex Ed has expanded to include personal hygiene, how to deal with bullying and how to curate your online persona. (That last one may or may not be true.)
I suppose advocating for the use of deodorant has given the school board license to use the far less incendiary Health Class in lieu of the giggle-inducing Sex Ed. But, make no mistake. They’re still talking about penises and vaginas in there.
I’m pleased to say that Alex was not unfamiliar with the material being covered in Health Class. He and I had discussed the mechanics of sex before he went away to overnight camp last summer. I didn’t want him learning about the X’s and O’s of intercourse from some kid on the tetherball court, so we sat on a bench outside a Fresh City Wraps. (He’ll never look at a Chicken Caesar Walkabout the same way again.) and I gave him the lowdown. He listened attentively, asked a few questions and then finished his mango-strawberry smoothie in relative silence. I told him that he was always welcome to come to me with any questions about sex or his body or any new development that he didn’t understand. But, he’d remained fairly mum on the subject. Until now.
Alex (reading from the paper): What do you remember most about puberty and growing up?
Me (crossing my legs and furrowing my brow in a professorial manner): Hmm. I remember that hair started showing up in strange places (pointing meaningfully to my crotch and my armpits) and that my voice started changing. I also remember that my main goal in life at the time was to see a naked woman.
Alex (laughing) Really?
[Aside: I did not tell that despite having achieved this goal it was still a primary driver for much of my life.]
Alex: What did you enjoy doing when you were my age?
Me: Pretty much the same stuff you like doing. I played all kinds of sports. I read a lot. I listened to loud music. And I liked hanging out with my friends.
Alex (nodding): Yup.
Me (to myself): Nailed that one!
Alex: What did you like and dislike about growing up?
Me: Well, I liked that I was getting taller and stronger and that I could do things that I couldn’t do when I was younger. I liked having more responsibility and staying up later and stuff like that.
What I didn’t like was that my voice sometimes cracked while it was changing, which made me sound funny. And I really didn’t like how I sometimes felt awkward when I was around kids who I thought were cooler than me. I was always afraid I was going to say the wrong thing and then everyone would think I was a bozo.
Alex: Yeah, I know what you mean.
Me: You do?
Alex: Yeah, I’ve felt that way before.
Me: Well, guess what? Everyone feels that way sometimes. So, don’t sweat it.
Alex (a little unsurely): Okay.
Me (to myself): He’s not buying it. Only partial credit on that one.
Alex: How did you get answers to your questions about puberty and about growing up?
Me: Mostly from Zayde (the name my kids call their grandfather) and then some from school like you’re getting now. I also remember there was this TV movie called My Mom’s Having A Baby that came out when I was in 4th Grade. It was very specific about how babies are made.
Alex (incredulously): And they showed it on TV?
Me: Yeah. They told us to watch it with our parents and then discuss it afterward. Even after we watched it and talked about it, I was still a little unclear on how the sperm got into the woman’s body to fertilize the egg. So, Zayde drew a picture.
Alex: He drew a picture?!?
Me: Yup. And then I was even more confused.
Me: Yeah, wow.
Alex: This is the last question.
Me: Okay, I’m ready.
Alex: What do you want me to know about growing up?
Me (after thinking for a moment): I want you to know that no matter how strange and weird you think the changes that are happening to your body and your thoughts and your dreams, it’s all perfectly normal. Okay?
Me: Now, do you need me to write those answers down on your questionnaire.
Alex (looking horrified): Jeez, Dad. My health teacher doesn’t need to know this stuff. She just wants you to sign the page so that she knows I asked you the questions.
Me: Ah. That’s probably for the best.
Last week, the entire 5th Grade at Alex’s school went on a harbor cruise to celebrate the end of elementary school. Parents were also invited on board to join in the festivities.
It was a beautiful night on the water after a long, hot day. The adults sat up on deck and enjoyed the freshening breeze while chatting amiably. Below deck, the kids gobbled snacks and danced to music that seemingly exists only to drive their parents to the classic rock stations.
As I leaned against the rail and inhaled the salty air, several parents approached me at different intervals with the same report.
“You ought to see your son,” they began. “He’s dancing up a storm down there.”
“Alex?” I replied, although he was the only son I had with me on this particular outing.
“Oh, yeah,” they insisted. “He’s a big hit.”
Soon, Alex emerged from the bad music pit to get some money from me to buy a soda. He was drenched in sweat from the top of his head nearly down to his waist. Apparently, the antiperspirant he had applied earlier was no match for “Gangnam Style” or whatever the hell they were playing down there.
“Dad,” he panted between gulps of Sprite, “they played a song I requested and then everybody made a circle around me and I danced to it.”
“So I heard.”
“I’m one of the only guys in my grade who would do something like that.”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah, I’ve got some serious moves.” And with that, he handed me his empty cup and headed back to the dance floor.
Later, I snuck down below to see some of Alex’s moves for myself and perhaps film them for his mother to enjoy later. The room was hot and crowded and the music was earsplitting. Hanging back in corner with a couple of other parents, I soon spotted Alex amongst the crowd. His dancing was frenetic—arms and legs going in various directions in and out of time to the music. Occasionally, he would look to the ceiling and sort of gyrate as if his body parts were made of rubber. But, the overwhelming impression I got from his dancing is that he didn’t care at all what people thought of it. He just did what made him happy.
As we walked back from the dock to the car after the cruise had ended, I showed him the video I had taken.
“So, where’d you get those moves?” I asked.
“We have a dance party every night at camp,” he replied. “That’s where I invented most of them.”
“Let me tell you something. I never would have had the guts to dance in front of my friends like that when I was your age.”
“Nope. And let me tell you something else. Don’t ever lose that confidence. It will serve you well.”
See, that’s the thing that I really wanted him to know about puberty. Despite all the changes, feeling good about yourself is perfectly normal too.
Photo credit: chefranden / Flickr