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A Math Teacher Writes / François Bereaud

I’m certain every teacher has heard the phrase, “You’re so lucky, you have summers off.” This statement is dumb, don’t say it. First, teachers are given a contract to do a job over an academic year. The calendar typically includes a summer break which, sure, is nice, and especially convenient if one has kids, but it’s the agreed upon schedule when the contract is signed, not some spur of the moment indulgence. Second, many, if not most, teachers work in the summer. Some teach summer school, some drive Uber, some sell short stories. Okay, well, that last one’s a stretch. Anyway, if you believe teachers are overpaid, fine, say that, but drop the summers off line.

In the summer of 1992, right before I was to get married and start a new teaching job, I returned to my old stomping grounds, the Ithaca Youth Bureau, and co-led a six week youth conservation core with my friend Ric who’d been doing outdoor education with kids for more than twenty years. Our task was to clear trails on a popular hiking area alongside a gorge. The work was demanding. Power tools were not allowed so we had to dig up and pull out thorny bushes by hand. By mid-morning, in the east coast humidity, our long shirts and pants were sweat-soaked.

We had nine high school kids on the crew, three girls and six boys. I know they were all individuals but in retrospect, they seem like caricatures from a John Hughes movie. We had two boys on the football team, a girl from the swim team – appropriately blond and named Suzie, two nerdy kids, a punky girl, a loner boy who lived in a trailer park, a girl named Wip who was as smart as her name and served as a junior leader having done the experience the year before, and Patrick, a boy with Down’s Syndrome.

The kids had little experience with work, and almost none with hard work, yet, within a week, the crew was buzzing. The kids seemed to thrive on manual labor and we were consistently ahead of schedule causing our city contact to develop more tasks for the group.

I had no experience working with someone with Down’s Syndrome and treated Patrick like everyone else, while, perhaps, keeping a slightly closer eye on him. There was no need as he was a good worker and liked to keep close to either Ric or me. His one distinguishing characteristic was that he very much valued hugs at lunch and at the end of the day. These were endearing, but oh so hot.

Trouble came toward the end of week two. A couple of the kids told us that Patrick had a thing for Suzie. His desires manifested themselves in making inappropriate comments to her and possibly even exposing himself. As Ric and I processed this information, I tried to imagine Patrick’s situation. I knew the desires, feelings, and confusions held by a fifteen year old boy, and how much harder those would be with a bit less capacity to distinguish boundaries. And how easily he could find himself in big trouble. The first step was to contact his parents which we’d do at pick up that day. For the rest of the afternoon, one of us would stay close to him. Then, Wip, who’d been eating lunch within earshot, intervened. She told us that it was, in fact, Suzie who’d come on to Patrick in a cruel sort of way. She’d said things to him he didn’t understand but whose allusions were clear. I thought Ric, normally calm and philosophical, was going to explode. He found Suzie and asked her to speak with him. I almost followed knowing how angry he was. I didn’t and, after some time, they returned. Suzie’s head was down and she didn’t speak for the rest of the day, but she didn’t quit either and we treated her as before despite the disgust we felt.

The situation seemed to be resolved except that, as a consequence, Patrick had learned a new word which he repeated frequently. Blowjob. And more blowjob, blowjob, blowjob. The other kids smirked and Suzie’s face went beet red, which was gratifying in a way, but it had to stop. When I pulled him aside, it was clear that he didn’t know what it meant. I explained that it was a very personal word that we didn’t say in public. He agreed to stop.

Yet, I couldn’t let it go. The boy had these feelings, physical and otherwise, yet none of the language for or even comprehension of some basic anatomy. I brought this dilemma up to my soon-to-be wife, who happened to work as an educator for Planned Parenthood. “Easy,” she said. Easy? She went to her son’s room (my soon-to-be stepson) and came back with a book. “Read him this, I just read it to Jarrod.” Jarrod was eight. I flipped through the pages. It was a clearly written first primer exactly on the right topics, perfect. Well, maybe. I tried to imagine how I’d arrange reading it to him – assuming parental permission of course. I couldn’t picture it. Then an idea struck.

Patrick’s parents were thrilled. They were almost apologetic about the issue. They knew Patrick needed the education but simply hadn’t found a way to do it. They looked through the book and gave their full endorsement. The bigger of the two football payers wasn’t as easy to convince.

“What? You want me to read this?”

I nodded. I figured the best way for Patrick to get the information was from one of his peers. And I wasn’t beyond playing dirty. “Look,” I told the football player, “I’ll give you a paid half hour in the hottest part of the day. If not, you can tackle the bramble patch.”

They read the book over a couple of days. It was fantastic. The football player read deliberately allowing Patrick to look at the pictures and process the information. I snooped in the area. Had cell phones been around, I would have recorded the sessions. Afterwards, as any good teacher does, I did a check for understanding. Patrick seemed to be retaining the information. When they were done, I found a private moment and explain the technical details of a blowjob to Patrick.

By the end of five weeks, we’d cleared more brush than the city had planned for us to do in six. We took the crew on a memorable canoe trip during the last week. Patrick attended, Suzie did not. We had a ceremonial last dinner at which I made a gift of the sex ed book to Patrick’s parents. I never saw any of the kids again except for Wip whose younger siblings attended my new school. She went off to college with the intent of being an outdoor educator. I’m confident she achieved that goal. I hope Patrick continued to make progress and now lives as independently as possible.

I’m a career math teacher, but for a few days one summer, I became a sex educator. And a damn good one at that.

Now, what was it you should never say to a teacher about summers?



François Bereaud teaches and writes in San Diego.


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