Tom Perrotta and I have two things in common: New Jersey roots and novels about sex education; his latest work, The Abstinence Teacher is the only other novel, besides my own, The Sex Ed Chronicles, that I have read which covers a subject that is still considered taboo in some social circles.
The Abstinence Teacher has two main characters: Ruth Ramsey, a divorcee’ and high school sex educator who makes one inappropriate comment too many, drawing the ire of the evangelical Tabernacle church and its hell for leather Pastor Dennis, and Tim Mason, a former stoner and rock n’ roller, also divorced, turned born-again Christian and doting soccer dad. Tim is struggling to stay along the straight and narrow path, as defined for him by the very same evangelical leader who torments Ruth.
The descriptions of Ruth and Tim’s mental conflicts are fascinating. They are both searching for self-worth through someone else. Since their divorces, Ruth and Tim’s lives have taken divergent paths, but each believes that they have lost something that one might call faith. They are both close-minded, though Tim’s close-mindedness is manufactured from his relationship with the Tabernacle. It was interesting that Tim likened the fellowship of the Tabernacle to the camaraderie of the rock bands of his youth; both are closed circles that welcome loners who are taught to pity or look down on others who don’t fit in.
Tim has tried to embrace a Christian life, though his sexual desires for his ex-wife and unhappiness in his second marriage lead him to doubt his piety. Tim repeatedly returns to Pastor Dennis to reconcile his adopted faith. Tim and Carrie, his second wife, try to find sexual bliss under a church-defined set of rules; the rules for shopping, for instance, try to draw a fine line between naughty and nice.
Ruth has lived professionally by the mantra that “pleasure is good, shame is bad and knowledge is power,” however she doubts that her students are listening to her more medically accurate, age appropriate messages. In her private moments, she doubts her own sexuality, wondering if love, or just plain good sex, will elude her for the rest of her life. Her desperation reaches new heights as she seeks an old high school flame through the ‘Net.
Ruth and Tim’s paths cross at a soccer game where Tim has asked his team, including Ruth’s daughter Maggie, to join in prayer after a victory. Ruth objects, drawing further wrath from the Tabernacle faithful. Her first clash led her principal and superintendent to institute an abstinence-only sex education course that she lacks the heart to teach. Her second compromises her relationships with her two daughters: Maggie, who wants to continue to play soccer for Tim, and Eliza who uses her mother’s objections to public prayer as a means to consider evangelical fellowship for herself.
Unlike my work, The Sex Ed Chronicles, which takes place in 1980, a time before sex education had been adopted in many public schools; Teacher is based in our times. In Chronicles, I was guided by the history and politics of the late 1970’s. Teacher devotes more attention to the culture of fundamentalist Christianity than the art, science and politics of teaching sex education in public schools. In Teacher, sex education is a regular part of the school day.
In reading Teacher and Chronicles back to back, I noticed similarities. Both novels position sex educators under the belief that knowledge is power and show that sex education is too important and too difficult a subject to teach poorly in the classroom. I made the same point as an observing news reporter as Perrotta makes by getting inside Ruth Ramsey’s head. In Teacher and Chronicles, the teachers are also asked to swallow some pride. I will only say that Ruth is asked to swallow harder.
Chronicles and Teacher share concerns about abstinence-only sex education being something that is watered down and therefore, not taking too seriously-unless it is consistent with the teachings of their family or place of worship. However, sex education outside of the public schools is less consistent from student to student, than inside the classroom-and both sides of the culture wars acknowledge this point.
Then the academic questions that come from reading Teacher and Chronicles are who provides the views that will dominate, and not demonize, public school sex education? Which minority view will take center stage in a theatre where parents and students are a silent majority? Will it be activist conservatives (they are not all Christians; Orthodox Jews and Muslims share deep-seated objections to comprehensive sex education) or activist educators perceived to be liberal, or is it more appropriate to say, sexually liberated?
And, do students and school administrators really care about the material taught in those classes? There is evidence in Teacher and Chronicles that administrators care mainly about staying out of trouble that comes in the forms of negative press and parental pressures and, that most students will “learn” whatever their school system decides to put in front of them.
The Abstinence Teacher made me more concerned for the professional well-being and skin thickness of sex educators who work in settings similar to Ruth. A teacher cannot teach well when forced to suppress their own values to protect faculty colleagues from embarrassment. I likened Ruth Ramsey’s job to managing the late shift at the 24-hour convenience mart, a no-win scenario whenever you lose your cool in head-to-head or eye-to-eye combat.
For this reason, as well as Perrotta’s humorous and insightful scenes of sex re-education in our times, The Abstinence Teacher gets high marks in my grade book.