Today is Day 15 of the shelter-in-place order in the Bay Area, a policy implemented to slow the advance of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been over two weeks now since I have physically been in the classroom; my workdays are now spent navigating virtual educational spaces and digital tools that will allow me to teach remotely. And after a long day of working from home, what does a cooped-up health educator do with her free time? Like many lately, I opt for a closet clean-out! Not only is this one of the few social distancing activities available these days, closet organization can be a great way to take a trip down memory lane.
As I shuffle through my closet, I uncover one of my old notebooks from when I was about 14 years old. Flipping past the Pooh-Bear cover, I find letters that a friend and I wrote back-and-forth between 8th and 9th grade. I know what you’re thinking, and yes, much of our scribbling is utterly cringeworthy. There is a lot of “OMG” and “ALWAYZ” scrawled throughout the pages, and we mostly wrote about our latest crushes and “who was dating who” in our class.
One passage in particular stops me in my tracks, “You won’t believe what happened tonight!”, I wrote. “Ryan called me and started getting mad at me because, in his words, I ‘wasted two months of his life.’ He said that if I wasn’t going to ‘do anything’ in the 1st place then I shouldn’t have gone out with him because I ‘SCREWED UP HIS LIFE.’ ...I wish I was the kind of girl who felt comfortable kissing, but I’m not, and someone else is suffering for it.”*
Reading my own words, in my own handwriting, it is so hard for me to imagine that I ever felt this way. I want to yell into the notebook, “You did the right thing, little Hannah! You were just setting boundaries! You have nothing to be sorry for!” Now, with the clarity of hindsight, I know that I was not alone in feeling this kind of pressure from a dating partner. And, even so, I consider myself one of the lucky ones. My story is just one of a cascade of stories from my formative years that illustrate what happens when a generation of young people grow up without formal guidance about healthy relationships.
I had incredibly supportive parents and teachers all my life, and yet, open conversations between teens and their trusted adults about sexual health and relationships were simply not part of the culture in my southern California community. Excluding one awkward hour dedicated to menstruation in 6th grade– I received exactly zero days of instruction about consent, dating, or anything else that could have been useful to the confused teenager in the Pooh-Bear notebook. Looking back, having a peer to express myself to was nice, but having a health educator facilitate nuanced discussions about relationships in a safe classroom environment would have been invaluable. Maybe I would have been inspired to get advice from my parents or a school counselor. Or maybe I would have felt reassured that I did the right thing by setting boundaries for myself. We can only guess, because that discussion never happened.
Yesterday, you heard from a student I had the opportunity to teach last fall. I love to hear from students like George who, unlike my 14-year-old self, find the confidence to advocate for themselves and others in powerful and meaningful ways. I am proud to be a health educator today because I know my students will not have to wait until adulthood to understand fundamental facts about their bodies and rights. When I think of the thousands of young people I have had the privilege of interacting with during my three years with Health Connected, I know that this generation can and will do better.
*Name has been changed in the interest of privacy.