Our Students Like Sex Then/Now

Jennifer Polish

 

She squeezes her almost-green eyes shut tightly, and I feel a blush creeping into my cheeks when I smile a little too warmly at the adorable folds of skin that scrunch up near her temples. She flinches playfully, and I am glad her eyes are closed and she cannot see my blush.

 

“I know, I know they’re… doing things – I just – nope, don’t need to see it!”

 

I laugh, my voice dipping a few octaves. “Ah, come on – when I was their age, my first girlfriend and I were fucking all over our high school. First really out lesbian couple in the school and all that, coming out with a bang – ”

 

She holds out her hands to cut off my rather punny couplet of puns, shaking her head vigorously. Her message is clear: No more, no more! I trail off, grinning and relenting in my teasing.

 

We’ve talked about fucking before: she is not squeamish about sex. Just… squeamish about the high school students I teach and that we’re talking about having sex. Or, you know, even kissing.

 

 

October 31st. My sophomore year in high school. I am wearing a black skirt and pink t-shirt. My favorite teacher – of course I’m desperate for her — comes up to me, her heels ringing in the crowded hallway and right through my teenaged heart.

 

“You’re rocking that skirt, Jenn,” she says, and fire tears through my core as I watch her eyes sweep me up and down behind her rectangular Ray-Bans.

 

I forget to respond until her eyes lock into mine and remind me that I might want to say words.

 

“Yeah, uh, you know,” I stumble, my thumbs searching for my belt loops and awkwardly collapsing when there is nothing on my skirt to hook into. “Halloween costume.”

 

She raises a perfectly shaped eyebrow and cocks her head to the side.

 

“Yeah? What are you supposed to be?”

 

I bounce on the balls of my sneakered feet and flop my hands up and down from my sides. “Myself in a skirt!”

 

She laughs and then winks.

 

I have never been quite so turned on.

 

“And pink!” she notices, her fingertip coming within inches of my chest.

 

I nod, my throat way too tight to force words out.

 

She’s still laughing as she touches my upper arm and walks away.

 

 

My fourteen-year-old students do kiss. They kiss, they write about kissing, they read about kissing. They write, read, and do much more than kissing.

 

And sometimes, they tell me about it.

 

It’s before class and some of them are giggling together; some of them are playing cards; some of them are so into their phones that I’ll have to call for their attention two or three times before they emerge; some of them are reading alone, completely absorbed; some of them are shouting in Spanish and glancing at me furtively, happily, to see if I mind. I raise an eyebrow and smirk a bit, and they carry on laughing.

 

Until I hear a few of them say something that brings me back to when I was their age – to when I was fourteen – and I call from across the room.

 

“Did someone say fan fiction? Who said fan fiction?”

 

A stream of giggling erupts and a handful of my girls turn around.

 

“What fandom we talkin’ about?” I ask them as they bound over, teaming with excitement, to my chair in the corner of the room.

 

“Miss, you read City of Bones? Jace and Clary aren’t brother and sister, right, they can’t be!”

 

I laugh. “They are though,” I say, and screams of “I told you!” crop up.

 

“But Miss, it’s not that nasty, right? You watch Supernatural? They’re brothers, and people ship them!”

 

“Wincest,” I say, high-fiving the one who’d brought it up.

 

“Oh my god, she knows!” a few of my girls titter to each other. I grin.

 

“Miss, you have Wattpad? You can read anything on there, look, you wanna see?”

 

We’re scrolling through, stopping every half second for someone to show me a favorite story of theirs, and one of my students says, like she’ll burst if she doesn’t tell me, “Miss, we were doing a project in school where we had to write a different ending to The Outsiders, and we were shipping Ponyboy and Johnny. But – ”

 

She giggles and can’t finish telling me. Her friend takes her by the waist and moves her aside, finishing her thought for her.

 

“Some of it we couldn’t give into our teacher though, because it was like, you know, sexual. But would you read it anyway?”

 

My eyebrow goes up and she laughs and puts her hands up. “It’s not all sexy, Miss, there’s other stuff, too.”

 

“Yeah, sure, send it over – you know I read all your guys’ writing.”

 

They head back to their seats, excited, slapping hands together and working on their phones to send me what they’re written.

 

We start class.

 

I still have their google doc invitation marked as unread in my inbox. I do plan to read it, as promised. But not yet. Because maybe some things make me squeamish, too.

 

I wish to the gay goddesses that it didn’t.

 

 

There’s a mirror behind the family’s computer. Anyone in the kitchen or on the couch can see everything I google, every picture I look at. Whether I’m checking my PocoMail account or typing up homework.

 

So I get clever. I hop onto fanfiction.net quick, smooth. I google “Seven Janeway femslash” furtively.

 

I open four, five, ten stories at a time. One-shots are ideal, but if I’ve read the author or done a quick skim and it looks good, I’ll open all the chapters of a longer fic, too. For each, I quickly select all and hit control and c. I switch into an untitled WordPerfect document. I lick sweat off the top of my lip. With an easy command, I throw up all the stories, all the multi-chapter adventures and all the one-shot smuts, into one long document.

 

One long document that looks, to any parental unit or curious older sister who might glance at the mirror behind me that reveals the computer screen, like my A.P. U.S. homework or that essay I’m supposed to be writing.

 

I speed read. I erase as I go, holding down the delete key, creating a scrolling effect that’s rough on the brain but easier on the eyes. I devour story after story.

 

I learn the answer to the horrendous question, “how do lesbians have sex?” (To combine my real education with my school education, my answer might be, “Let me count the ways.”)

 

I learn that the women who are powerful on T.V. don’t have to have their stories neatly tied to men in the end.

 

I learn which kinds of stories I will minimize and eagerly anticipate until my parents go to bed. Which kinds of scenes will make me cum. Which kinds of things I might want one day. (One day soon, apparently, but I don’t know that yet.) Which kinds of things I wish I could see on screen. (I do not have the audacity to google anything more explicitly gay than femslash. I do not yet know why I am reading these stories every day and night.)

 

I do not yet know.

 

But I am learning a lot.

 

He bounds up to me after class, on our last day of the year, his thick tufts of hair – a kind of neon green, this week – Harry Potter-esque, going haywire in all directions.

 

“Look what I got at Callen Lorde, Jennifer!” He’s beaming with excitement as he thrusts his key ring up to my face. My eyebrow arches, and his friend – girlfriend? I never have figured out if they’re dating or not, and I don’t want to pry – rolls her eyes and smirks behind him.

 

“A condom case!” he almost squeals, beaming, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet. Sure enough, a small, clear, hard plastic case is dangling from his key chain, encasing one of those classic New York City condoms.

 

I’m disoriented for a second – I haven’t used condoms, except for fun, in years – and then I grin, my mind spinning as I glance to see if my supervisor is anywhere around.

 

She isn’t.

 

I take the case he’s proffering into my hands and nod, lips puckered, impressed. “Super cool! Better than keeping it in your wallet, right?” He grins.

 

“You know that if and when you wanna use it that it’s got an expiration date, right? You’ve gotta check for that.”

 

He furrows his brow and turns incredulously to his (girl)friend and her bestie. They all look similarly confused.

 

“Condoms expire?” they all explode in near unison.

 

I hope to the almighty Zarquon that there is curiosity, not panic, in their questions.

 

“Yep,” I tell them. “Yeah, they do.” I flip his case over and we all squint down at the stamped little date on the back of the NYC wrapping. “It’s super important that you check, okay? Gotta only use good ones.” They nod solemnly, promising. “So if there’s one thing you learned from me this year, most important thing, right – ”

 

“Condoms expire!” they proclaim again, this time as a statement squeezed out of their laughter.

 

My supervisor walks in, and my students look at me knowingly, mid-giggles.

 

“I thought I’d find you with a cluster of students,” she tells me, smiling. “Hard to say goodbye, huh?” she asks them.

 

“Yeah,” one of my girls says, her smile shaping her words. “Just talking about what we learned this year.”

 

At which we all laugh. My supervisor chuckles, shakes her head, and walks out.

 

My students and I look at each other with amused meaning. She didn’t hear us! It’s still our secret!

 

And then the kids lose it, hysterical, just like I used to when I was fourteen (and still do – all the time). They promptly collapse on the floor, shaking with laughter. I double over, too.

 

Happy that I told them, happy he felt comfortable showing me, happy we’re having such a good time with it.

 

Enjoying my last moments with these bright-eyed kids as my students, but, balancing on stilettos while belly-laughing with them, I’m angry underneath. Angry that they knew without my prompting that other authority figures would find it uncomfortable – wrong – objectionable – that I am talking with my students so casually about condoms. Angry that they’re fourteen years old and no one had told them that condoms expire. Angry that they knew how to cope by being silent. By hiding.

 

And, to be fair to them, by laughing. By sharing secrets together.

 

And maybe that’s good, the secrets part, the laughter. Because they’re learning about community. Community that I didn’t start learning about until years after I came out. Community that I didn’t feel like I needed – community that I didn’t know existed. And who even knew if I was queer, anyway (did I even know the Q word that slips so easily out of some of their mouths when I was their age?)?

 

 

I am sixteen years old, and I am kissing her in the back of a movie theater.

 

Shopgirl is playing somewhere in the front of the room, providing the glow that’s dimly lighting her face. It is my first rated R movie. I had been nervous about buying the tickets, but now I am nervous about how soft her lips are and how I can taste popcorn and promises on her mouth.

 

We pause, and I sit back in my seat. I breathe out, hard. “Wait, am I gay now? Like, forever?” I ask myself silently.

 

I try to avoid the answer. I try to avoid acknowledging what everyone else – except the people who count – have known for years from my carpenter boots, tool belt, wide stance, deep voice around women, deep, deep longings (if only someone would have told me they were crushes) for women, etc. etc. etc. (I have always been quite the stereotype).

 

I don’t need an answer. Not now, anyway.

 

I kiss her again. And again.

 

And again.

 

 

I routinely announce opportunities for queer internships to my entire class. I am out – almost relentlessly – and some of my fourteen-year-olds take full advantage. Asking me about parents, relationships, sex, places to go that won’t be dominated by white cis gays, places they don’t need to be over 21 to meet people, and what exactly does the Q mean, anyway?

 

Others just stare at me with big eyes when I talk about my girlfriend, about the Queer Resource Center I’ve been working to open at CUNY Queens College.

 

And sometimes, the ones with the biggest eyes are the ones who come out hardest.

 

“Miss, can you help us apply to that Brooklyn Museum LGBT thing?”

 

I look up at two of my girls and gesture for them to sit with me. I grab a small computer by the screen and swing it over to me. I do a quick search for the program they’re talking about, flip the screen so we can all see it, and read off the requirements. I clear my throat and swallow before the last one.

 

“It says that all applicants should identify as LGBT or Q.” I pause and look up at their faces. “Now, you haven’t got to say anything right now if you don’t want to, but I want to make sure you know that they’re only recruiting queer teens if you do decide to apply, okay?”

 

And there is no preamble. No hesitation. They both just start telling me about being bi, about trying to come out to their parents, about how thrilled they were when I told them they could work somewhere – get paid to work somewhere – where other people are “like them.”

 

I grin softly. I nod as I listen to them.

 

I do not cry, even though I want to.

 

 

There is not a surface of my high school that we do not have sex on. It’s the wide open secret that no one keeps.

 

Almost as wide open as my legs.

 

I don’t talk about sex with anyone but her. Mostly because people only refer to lesbian sex with fish jokes and questions about who wears the pants.

 

I never pay attention to the sexuality parts of health class. Nothing seems relevant to me.

 

Because nothing is.

 

The sex we have all across the school – the sound of metal clanking on metal as our backs slam into locker after locker – is not in our health textbooks, and it is not discussed in class.

 

Except in the whispers that I ignore, because I know without asking that my orgasms are better than theirs.

 

 

“Babe, you’re starting an LGBTQ Center at your school, and you won’t even walk into one?” She’s laughing at me, but not unkindly. I stumble and I figure I should say words.

 

But I know I don’t need to.

 

Because.

 

Her grip on my hand is encouraging.

 

Her grip on my hand is supportive.

 

Her grip on my hand is affectionate.

 

Her grip on my hand is understanding.

 

(She doesn’t get frustrated with me, not ever, for my anxiety, my depression, my bipolar.)

 

Her grip on my hand is pulling me off of West 13th Street and into the NYC LGBT Center.

 

There are more youth of color than we both expected, and I find myself glancing around to see if any of my students are here.

 

I don’t get many second glances, but a handful of the kids check her out.

 

I smile. I shuffle awkwardly, my stride stilted. I follow her.

 

I am at once comfortable and not comfortable here. It is queerer than I expected, and that feels great. Welcoming. But I am never comfortable – quite the opposite – in any new social situations.

 

My thumbs live in my belt loops when she lets go of my hand to drink her coffee.

 

I wonder if we’ll bump into any of my students here.

 

I kiss her deeply, and I hope that we do.