[This is the fourth installment in a series I’m calling Ten Hours, about my trip with students to a college in upstate NY. These are a few moments of ten hours we spent on the bus that’ll hopefully give you a sense of the whole 36 hours we spent on the trip and about all the things rattling around in my brain. Enjoy!]
N and J are a relatively new couple, even by middle school standards. Though it is possible they were dating longer without detection, to teacher-knowledge they’ve been going out for about a week. N is one of the best students in the class, headed towards top-tier high schools and with an eye on MassArt (though I think she’d make a great lawyer with her keen attention to detail and perfectionism). J is a student who has come a long way, from brining liquid contraband to school in sixth grade to gaining acceptance to a local Catholic school for next year.
Let it be known that teachers have opinions of students’ relationships — who is good for who, who is hiding behind the protection of a relationship, etc. This relationship received accolades from one teacher I spoke with because she felt that N would be a good influence on J, who still needs encouragement to continue down this straighter path and is very socially-attuned.
But for me all this fell away when I saw them cuddling on the bus.
I was mildly revolted. I had a legitimately visceral reaction. I wanted to yell at them: “This is a BUS not a BEDROOM!”
Which could make me sound like the cold and heartless shrew that J seems to think I am. The only way I can explain it is that they just seem so young.
As I inhaled deeply I tried to let the rational side of my brain overtake me. They were fully clothed, surrounded by friends and teachers and were engaged in harmless cuddling. I, too, kissed my boyfriend on the bus when I was only a year older than them and no one was harmed. I exhaled.
But the ride continued and when I looked up and over several rows to see them kissing, I sharply growled, “N and J!” They stopped and readjusted. And began making furtive glances in my direction for the remainder of the trip.
On the way back N and J made a bee line for the last row of the bus. We exchanged looks throughout the five hours as I peered around my shoulder and over seats to make sure they weren’t being flagrant. As we pulled into the city, rolling past familiar skyscrapers I looked back to see the kids right in front of them had started cuddling. Again I took a deep breath. But when I turned back around I saw them close enough long enough that I shrilly called, “L and G!” They quickly pulled apart.
I’m still struggling with this. I was annoyed that, as the only teacher behind them, I had sole responsibility for deciding where to draw the line. I’m annoyed that I had a visceral reaction. I’m annoyed that we still haven’t had our sex-ed talk at school. I want my students to develop a healthy sexuality, one that is safe, consensual, enthusiastic, even, to borrow a term that was used at university trainings I attended. I don’t want them to feel shame but I can’t sit idly by while the bus becomes a bedroom. We’re supposed to cover sex and healthy relationships in late May with the students. But that is clearly too little, too late and now I’m wondering about how these bus interactions set us up for having those conversations.