“Puberty is very serious business.” Mr. Farnsworth stood at the front of the room, knuckles planted firmly on the table, leaning forward. The cuffs of his sleeves were unbuttoned and rolled up to his elbows. His face was stern. His eyes drifted from one side of the room to the other, scanning the faces of dozens of prepubescent boys. He was all business today. “I won’t tolerate any funny business. If you talk, if you giggle, if you sneeze funny, you will leave.”
Indeed it was very serious business, as this day, this class, had been in the planning for the past two weeks. It began with a permission slip, mailed (as such business was not trusted in the hands of teenage boys) to students’ homes, to be signed by a trusted parent and/or guardian and mailed (not carried) back to Mr. Farnsworth and the powers that be.
Puberty, it seemed, was very serious business.
The permission slip itself created a new and strange tension in the Smith household. Mike caught his mother and father talking in hushed voices on more than a couple of occasions. They would hush and greet him in elevated, almost comical voices. They would give each other quiet, knowing glances over through dinner. “We knew this was coming.” He heard his mother through his bedroom walls at night, mingling in with the white noise of late night television, to which his father would sigh and gravely agee. The time had come. The secrecy and urgency made Mike very nervous, and his already overactive imagination fancied the worst of all possible scenarios. He was adopted, maybe, or they were ill, possibly dying.
It was a kind of relief, then, when it was simply a talk about masturbation.
His father took him out to lunch the Sunday before the class. They went to a brewery, the first time Mike had been in anything like a bar. It made him feel more adult. They played pinball and talked comics (their common grounds) before his father, two beers in, sat him down and began, solemnly, to talk. He started rough, stammering, searching for a place to start. “Being thirteen is weird business, man,” he tried to relate, “your body is changing. You get hair in weird places. You’re angry at everything and you don’t know why.”
Mike sat, sipping a soda, listening carefully. He avoided eye contact. He was waiting for the bad news, the adoption, the cancer, the divorce. He felt, maybe, he was in trouble, though this had no familiar signs of such a conversation.
“What I’m saying is,” his father continued, also avoiding eye contact, “is that… you won’t go to hell for masturbating.”
Mike sat, quietly stunned. He knew, vaguely, what masturbation was. His best friend, Toby, had told him about it, though he termed it in a less formal, cruder “jerking off.” Toby had older brothers, three of them, and was thus well versed in a wide variety of curse words and secret, taboo knowledge.
That was the extent of their conversation. It was short, direct, and to the point. Getting older was weird, and would involve hair, anger, and jerking off. His father opened the panel for questions. Mike had none. They played more pinball and drove home, a satisfied smile on Mike’s father’s face.
Toby’s talk was much more laid-back and casual, as his father had had it several times before. “You have probably heard all this before.” He had begun. Toby had.
And so it was Monday, third hour, Science class. The boys and girls had been separated, the girls off with Ms. Thompson for a discussion all their own. The excitement had been palpable for all students, and as many of them had had their own talks with their own parents, rumors of what were to come spread like wildfire.
The boys sat, shoulder to shoulder, steel folding chairs set up in the cafeteria (the girls had the gymnasium, which was larger and air conditioned). Two groups were separated by a wide aisle, a projector at one end, a large, white screen at the other. Mr. Farnsworth stood to the right, a thin sheen of sweat on his forehead.
“Sexual education is a requirement for sixth grade health.” He read from a paper on the table, eyes darting from it, to the boys, and back down again. “I am required, by law,” he emphasized, letting them all know that this was no fun for him, either, “to include instruction in both abstinence and contraception, and to teach with materials that are both evidence based and medically accurate.”
He stopped and let the gravity of the talk linger. “You will hear words such as penis and vagina,” he warned. There was a snicker, back and to the left, quickly squelched with a stern glare. “Once again, if you talk, giggle, or laugh, you will leave.”
Mike and Toby sat side by side. Mike had no intention of leaving; he was a stickler for the rules. Toby, on the other hand, leaning back, feet resting on the chair in front of him (and had, in fact, been the snickerer), was a different question. Mike was worried for him. He had no idea what would happen if Toby was forced to leave, but he was solemnly intent on not letting it happen.
Mr. Farnsworth nodded to the back of the room where Jerry the janitor stood, manning the projector. Lights dimmed, the hum and rattle of the spinning reels began. A large rectangle of light framed the screen before them, and there was a pop and hiss of old audio. Black specks and what appeared to be strands of hair flickered and wavered. Numbers in circles counted down from three, and the movie began.
“Your body and you.” A voice, male and official, warbled. A man in a white coat appeared. He stood in a lab, sterile and pristine. His hair was dark and severe, flattened and shimmering with gel, and he wore horn rimmed glasses of generations past. “He held a clipboard and looked up from it, seemingly surprised, and looked into the camera. “Oh! Hello there!” he chippered amicably. “My! What a fine group of young men we have here today! And tha’s exactly what you are.” He pointed and smiled, “Young men.”
He crossed the lab to stand in front of a large green chalkboard. On it was the outline of a man, side profile, naked. Inside his hips were an indecipherable labyrinth of circles and lines, all leading to and ending in a dangling penis. Toby, beside him, squirmed and snickered. Mike elbowed him, hard. He cleared his throat and sat forward, chin in his and, expectant and excited glaze over his eyes.”
“You were boys,” he continued, waving a hand over the diagram, “and you are becoming young men. Your minds and your bodies are changing in wonderful and mysterious ways. This change of boy to man is a process called puberty.” He emphasized the last word syllable by syllable.
Toby’s grin was spreading. He was clearly having a fantastic time.
“In the coming months and years, your voice will deepen, you will develop hair on your chest and armpits, and your penis will grow.” Toby chortled, hard, snorting and rocking forward. Mike glared at him alarmingly and dug his fingers into Toby’s bony shoulders. Mr. Farnsworth scanned, searching for the culprit.
“Here is a story of two boys; one, Gary, who is very much like you, and Fred, his older brother. As you watch, notice the differences in Gary and Fred. Fred has completed puberty.” Again, the breaking of the word into distinct syllables. “Notice the height, and tones of voice. Listen to the questions Gary asks his older brother. Puberty can be a very scary and awkward time, but because Gary asks questions, and will not be scared as his body changes.
The scene changed from a lab to a bathroom, with a white sink and mirror. Gary stood, shirtless, towel around his waist, next to Fred, who was shaving. Gary looked up at his brother with awe and adoration. “Are you taking Betty to the Prom?” Gary asked. He was chipper and innocent, speaking in a punctuated, almost hokey voice.
“You betcha!” his brother answered, matching Gary’s enthusiasm with his own. “I sure do like Betty, but,” he paused and studied Gary careful and solemn, “I won’t be ready to have sex for a while, even though my body is telling me to do so.” Toby rocked back and forth in his chair, hands to his face. He made small wheezing sounds between his fingers. He was, of course, not the only one, though with his huffing and convulsing, he was the worst; other boys were grinning and nudging each other, some had their hands hiding their wide grins and smiles.
The air crackled with impending laughter. Giggles were being held back like water in a dam, and that dam was breaking. Mr. Farnsworth scanned and scowled.
“When will you be ready for sex?” Gary asked. Fred seemed to consider this, holding his razor before him, gazing lazily into the air above him.
“I don’t know.” He answered, “Maybe when I’m married. But if we have sex before we’re married, you bet I’m using a condom.”
“Yes!” Fred chirped helpfully, “A form of contraception, a thin, rubber sheath that covers the penis and is effective in preventive pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.”
“Cool.” Greg cooed. I’m going to wait until I’m married.” He confided.
“Whatever is best for you, little brother.” Fred praised.
Toby rocked uncontrollably. His back lurched. He snorted and hacked, covering his giggles in wet, convulsive heaves. Mike watched with growing dread. He shook Toby’s arm and hissed at him to shush. Mr. Farnsworth was standing, walking around the far side of the table, eyeing the boys for sound and movement.
Fred continued to shave, Greg continued to admire. A brief silence passed, and Greg, innocent and naïve, said, “Gosh Fred, I want to be more like you.”
In hindsight, Mike felt the conversation itself took a very odd turn at this point, even within the discussion of sexual education. Sure, a boy admires and idolizes his older brother. Toby worshipped the ground his brothers tread upon; he listened to their music, he gleefully repeated their swear words, he was covered in their bruises. As Gary stood there, wanting to be more like Fred, he could have wanted to shave, too, or to take a lovely young lady to the Prom, or be tall and muscular, just about anything, really. What Fred said, though, fully of vigor and enthusiasm, was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and set off a chain reaction the likes Mr. Farnsworth had never seen before.
“What, you mean have a bigger penis?”
That was it. Toby howled and fell out of his chair, clutching his gut and slapping Mike on the knee hard enough to make him wince. Mr. Farnsworth made a beeline down the aisle, straight for them. Mike shushed Toby severely, turning pale with worry. Toby paid him no mind, continued to giggle, chortle, howl, and occasionally scream, “bigger penis!”
Before Mr. Farnsworth could reach them, however, the fire spread. The boys who had all been on edge, hands on their mouths, wide eyed and grinning, broke into their own fits of laughter. It continued to spread, boy by boy, until the cafeteria was a roar of preteen merriment. Greg and Fred continued to talk, oblivious to the jeering of the students before them. They had lost their credibility, and would never gain it again.
The projector stopped, the lights went on, Mr. Farnsworth demanded obedience over the unending din. He paused, uncertainly, before Mike and Toby. Toby had once seen a movie, Spartacus, with his father. In it, a gladiator had dared to fight against the Roman Empire, and, near the end, when he and his army were caught by the Romans, everybody declared that they were Spartacus, and the Romans did not know who to take.
So, too, Mr. Farnsworth, was in such a predicament; it was no longer one problem, it was dozens, and there seemed to be not stopping it. The more he roared, the redder his face became, and the harder the cacophony became (there was nothing funnier to a teenage boy than an angry adult).
“I’m going, I’m going.” Toby wheezed and stood. He slapped Mikes knee once more and edged his way past the boys to the aisle. Once there, he slapped Mr. Farnsworth on the arm and, once more, defiant, howled, “bigger penis!’
He exited the cafeteria and took a left, to the principal’s office, head held high, giggling madly.
They sat in Mike’s room later that week, at night, eating a bowl of popcorn and watching a movie. In it two teenage boys, unpopular and nerdy, made a beautiful British woman with nothing more than an old IBM computer and a lightning storm. They lay on the floor, side by side on their bellies, chins in hands. Mike loved this movie, and had a crush on the British woman.
“It doesn’t need to be that serious.” Toby said. They had not talked of the incident all week long, Mike avoided the subject to not upset his friend. Toby had been moody, though, and sullen.
“It’s a comedy, dumb ass.” Mike said and nudged Toby.
“Not the movie.” Toby sighed. He did not nudge back, or punch, which was uncharacteristic of him. “Sex, man. Sex. It doesn’t need to be that serious. At least not that serious. I have three brothers. Three. I’ve seen them shave and I’ve seen them talk to girls. I’ve even seen Bill make out. It was weird. There were sounds. But I’ve never said I wanted a penis like theirs. That’s fucking stupid.”
Mike agreed. He had thought about it. The way that conversation veered was pretty stupid.
“And look, guys and girls have sex to make babies, right? That’s why we’re here. I don’t like to think about it, but my mom and dad, they had sex. To make me, and my brothers. Your mom and dad had sex, too. And so did your grandma and grandpa, and your great-grandma and great-grandpa. Lots of people. Lots of sex. Especially in China.” As Toby talked, articulated his feelings that he had pent up all week long, his words became not louder, but more passionate. He had been mulling over it, clearly, and not that it was out in the open, it clearly made sense to him.
“It feels good, right? Bill says so. If it was painful or shitty, I don’t think there’d be so much of it. So, if it feels good, and it’s how we keep humans going, why do we need to be so shitty about it? Why can’t we fucking laugh. It’s funny. That kid saying he wanted a bigger penis was fucking funny.”
It was silent. On the screen, one of the boys’ big, brutish brother had been magically transformed into a giant talking pile of belching feces. He loved this movie, so much. “So,” Mike said softly, carefully, “what you’re saying is…” he broke off, thinking, “people need to lighten up about sex?”
Toby filled his mouth with a handful of popcorn and nodded, then slapped Mike cheerily on the back. “That’s right my man.” He said, sagely, “Lighten the fuck up. It’s only sex.”