On Film Strips and the Floor: Sex Ed Gone Wrong

Sex education at Buena High School was of course taught by the assistant football coach, Mr. McFadden.  He was assigned the freshman health class, enlightening us on topics like nutrition and hygiene, biding his time until the last bell rang and he did his real job which was shouting at sweaty fifteen-year-olds to “be a man.”  Or at least that’s how I assumed he and his Magnum PI mustache spent their afternoons.  My knowledge of football, football players and everything else within a six-mile radius of cool in mid-eighties southern California was gleaned from Sweet Valley High novels and John Hughes movies, not my actual life.

The first few days of sex ed matched the accepted script: if you have sex, you will get pregnant.  Or crabs.  Or die of AIDS which was framed as a bit of an afterthought because we still thought toilet seats were more dangerous than our classmates.  On the last day, however, with a deep sigh — as if recognizing that his sex-equals-death-and-shame message might not ensure our ability to resist the siren’s call of lust — Coach McFadden announced a film strip on contraception.

A film strip (for those of you born after 1985) was a slideshow of still images accompanied by a cassette tape. The narrator was always a serious-voiced Walter-Cronkite knock-off, intoning a script that over-used words like ‘majestic’ while describing something as pedestrian as the life-cycle of earthworms.  Whenever the narrator paused and a BEEP sounded, someone — typically an acne-encrusted member of the Audio-Visual Club — advanced to the next image in the film strip.  Film strips were usually the perfect excuse to finish our math homework, pass elaborately folded notes, or take a nap.  

I sat in the last row of the class, next to the freshman class president, a boy with a thousand-watt smile on whom I had a guilty crush, guilty because he was far too presentable for my 14-year-old self-image as an outcast.  We were relegated to the back of the class because the worst trouble we would rustle up was singing Beastie Boys lyrics.  During film strips, we were allowed to stand, leaning against the dusty unused lab tables in the back of the class so we could see over the giant hairdos of our classmates. I would stand back there in the dark, inches from my crush, staring fiercely straight ahead, imagining the witty and suggestive things that other girls — fearless girls with bright personalities and perfectly tanned legs — would whisper in this situation.

On this day, however, the topic had us all attentive; the assistant football coach himself advanced the images. The film strip cycled through a series of quaintly 1980s birth control options: diaphragms, cervical caps, gigantic vitamin-sized pills, sponges and condoms, pronounced by the narrator with perfectly round ‘o’s: “cOn-dOms.”  There were a few muffled giggles of course, but we knew we’d be assigned push-ups if we got too out of hand.  Then we reached the section on IUDs.

I have never been good with blood and body stuff; cutting my toenails makes me queasy.  As the narrator described how the device is inserted in the uterus — “you-terrrr-ussss” — I started to feel a little odd, nauseated with a back of silver sparkles around the edges of my vision.  I choked back horrified laughter, imagining what throwing up in health class would do to my already-tenuous social standing.  I was just reaching the part of my daydream where a crowd surrounded me, pointing and laughing, when something hit the back of my head.

It was the floor.  

I looked up into the bemused face of the assistant football coach, having not thrown up, but instead passed out. In high school health class. During a film strip about sex.  

I spent the rest of the year being asked if I needed a seatbelt every time I took my seat which caused me to flush a deeper shade of magenta than had heretofore been achieved by any redhead in the history of redheads, and effectively squashed my nascent crush on the class president.  

The fact that I’ve spent 14 years working for Planned Parenthood is completely unrelated, and not at all a form of compensation.


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