Sex and the Second Graders
Helen’s faint, wistful query had come out of nowhere, stopping us cold, leaving us holding partially gnawed apples or cookies or unfinished sandwiches suddenly gone dry and hard to swallow.
Just moments ago our small group of seven second grade friends had been companionably eating lunch at our assigned place, one of the well-worn brown-painted wood and cement benches lining the left side, the girls’ side, of St. Agnes School’s upper playground. It was, we thought, the best bench of them all.
The central decoration, the focus and pride of our schoolyard, was an imposing outdoor shrine facing the school’s main entrance, a life-size gray cement cave or grotto sheltering a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. Tall arching trees, green shrubs and rosebushes growing along the fence line provided the shrine, and our adjacent bench, a welcome feeling of privacy and peace.
Leave it to timid, wispy-haired little Helen, youngest and smallest of our circle, to disrupt that peace. Didn’t she know that “sex” was one of those intriguing socially unacceptable words we weren’t supposed to know, and never ever supposed to say out loud, in public? Obviously not. She was so dumb!
With leftover sandwiches and snacks returned to colorful metal lunch pails, our immediate mutual instinct was to check if the coast was clear. Where was today’s playground monitor, and who was she? No way did we want our discussion to be overheard, especially by bossy, crab-faced Mrs. Baxter, the tall lady with the tight blonde perm who sometimes filled in as supervisor. Our heads swiveled back and forth as we peered through the blur of almost two hundred uniformed students: white-shirted boys in navy cord pants, girls in white middy sailor blouses worn over pleated navy skirts.
“There she is,” red-haired Millie whispered, tossing two long auburn braids behind her shoulders, “…over by the boys.” A collective sigh of relief, the coast was clear, we were safe. Today’s supervisor was popular and always amiable Sister Mary Francis, busy settling a problem on the opposite side, the boys’ side, of the playground. Sister’s billowy black floor-length habit and black veil over a starched white coif made her a formidable, highly visible presence, even against the sea of navy blue and white.
Helen’s unanswered question still hovered overhead, filling the atmosphere with a heavy uncomfortable silence. I couldn’t stand it. Somebody had to go first; it might as well be me. I swallowed the rest of my bite of apple, cleared my throat, gathered up a bit of courage, forced out an answer. “Sex means whether you’re a boy or a girl. You know, those boxes our parents mark with a pencil on school or doctor forms.” The words had barely slipped out when I knew it was too simple, too easy an explanation.
Barbara’s brown Shirley Temple curls went flying as she shook her head in disagreement. “No, sex is holding hands with a boy.” Millie, then the others chimed in. “Yuck! Who wants to do that?” “No, it’s when a boy kisses you and you kiss him back.” Suzie objected. “Well, my grandpa used to be a boy, sometimes he kisses me, and I kiss him back!” “That’s different!” “Why?” “Boys stink!” “It’s something that happens when boys and girls cuddle up too close together.” “Double yuck!” “It’s about grown-ups.” “No, sex is about teenagers, not old people, and there’s got to be kissing!” “You’re all wrong! Sex has to do with babies!”
Back and forth we went, each contribution adding to the muddle. Then Mary (the smart one) issued her opinion. “No, there’s more to it than that, lots more,” she declared in a slightly superior tone. “Sex is about grown-ups, not teenagers. A man and a lady like each other, they get married, they have children.”
A great silence followed Mary’s declaration. Well, that’s that, I thought, end of discussion. Mary, of all people, should know; she was part of a big family with lots of brothers and sisters. Besides, Mary’s father was a lawyer, and everyone knew that lawyers, and by association, their children, were extra smart.
But no, that wasn’t that, after all. After a few more silent moments somebody else, I think it was Joan, spoke up. Yes, now I remember. Joan, not to be outdone (she was oldest, after all), brought up another subject we weren’t supposed to discuss.
“Well, sometimes ladies have children without being married. What about them?” I don’t remember what Mary or anyone else answered, but Joan was on a roll, and not about to be silenced. Tucking some wayward strands of wavy dark hair behind her ears, she continued. “And besides, what about men who like men? We’ve all seen them kiss and hug. What about them? Men don’t get married to each other, and men sure can’t have children!”
A collective gasp, then another long quiet pause as we thought this over. I just knew we were all remembering the same thing. Last Friday, over blaring classroom speakers, The Office had emphatically announced a new rule: Effective immediately, nearby Buena Vista Park would be off-limits to all St. Agnes students. Parents and teachers alike were in complete agreement, The Office proclaimed.
“But why?” I asked my father later that same night. “It doesn’t make sense, it’s not fair, parks are supposed to be for everybody!” “That’s just the way it is, that park is for men only and you’re never to go there,” Papi answered, putting an uncharacteristic end to any more questions from me regarding that particular topic.
Our group drew in closer, heads touching, hands gesturing, to discuss this new topic. We were all accustomed to Middle Eastern men walking hand-in-hand, a familiar sight in mid-1940’s multicultural San Francisco. No one cared, hardly anyone noticed, except maybe tourists. But other men who did this were different, somehow; we just knew. Finally, by mutual agreement, we quietly decided that yes, sex had something to do with men, too. Still, exactly what it was none of us had any idea.
We weren’t quiet for long. Frowning, a puzzled Barbara posed a new question. “Well, if men can like men, do ladies ever like ladies?” Another explosion of opinions followed. “That’s impossible!” “Ladies don’t kiss each other!” “Why not?” Suzie again: “My aunties kiss and hug me, and each other, all the time!” “That’s different!” “Why?” “That’s crazy!” “Yuck!” “No way!” “There’s no such thing!”
By now, all caution flung aside, we were practically shouting at each other. “Well, why not?” I countered (the voice of reason). “It makes sense. It’s only fair. If men can like each other, then why can’t ladies? What’s the difference?”
Little Helen spoke up again, this time in an impressive, never-before-heard-aloud voice. “Let’s ask Sister! She’ll know! And she won’t lie to us like our parents sometimes do, because she’s a nun, and nuns can’t lie. They’d go straight to hell!”
“Good idea!” “You ask her!” “No, you do it!” “You thought of it first!” Somehow (because I was tallest?) they picked me to be spokesperson. There’s strength in numbers, they say. Or maybe it’s strength in courage. Whatever. So, hoping one or both sayings were true, I stretched out my hands to my six friends.
“There she is,” shouted Millie over the rumble of other voices celebrating their release from lunchtime constraints. “…over by the boys, next to the main stairs!”
Clinging to each other, seven sets of fingers tightly interlaced, we set out in search of Sister Mary Francis, carefully making our way through a sudden surge of students. The hand bell signaling the end of lunch and beginning of free play had rung. We hadn’t even noticed.
Sister gave us her customary warm smile as we approached. “Yes, girls? May I help you with something?”
I spoke up, body trembling, knees knocking, appallingly aware of my duty as spokesperson. “Yes, Sister, we need to ask a question. You know how… sometimes… men like other men?” I paused to gather up another bit of courage before continuing. “So… do ladies ever like… other ladies?”
Sister’s smiling face still beamed; then, as she realized what we were asking, she gasped, exhaled, stopped breathing. Paralyzed, horrified, we watched Sister’s complexion change from normal to a pale, chalky white, almost as white as her coif, then to an alarming crimson. Oh no! Was she mad at us? Was she going to yell at us? Were we in big trouble? Would we be sent to The Office? Would they call our parents? And what if Sister Mary Francis fainted, or even died? It would be our fault! Obviously, we had accidently stumbled across yet another one of those socially unacceptable questions. I felt so dumb!
At last… Sister gasped, breathing in gulps of fresh air as her complexion slowly regained its natural color. More long seconds passed before Sister forced out an answer to our question. In a dreadful high dry squeak, like the sound that comes out when you try to talk after inhaling the air from a helium-filled balloon, Sister blurted out: “Yes, it happens, but it’s very, very rare!”
“Thank you, Sister,” we chorused before scrambling away, zig-zagging through boisterous clumps of rampaging boys, back to the girls’ side, back to the security and serenity of our own designated bench by the grotto.
Could we believe her or not? We weren’t sure. We still liked and respected Sister, and she had, after all, answered our question. But nun or not, Sister Mary Francis’ reaction wasn’t very convincing or reassuring. Learning the truth about sex was obviously going to be up to us, without any adult help. Maybe next year, when we were older and smarter, when we finally reached third grade, maybe then we’d understand more about it.
Gloria Delgado, born and raised in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, is the daughter of a Mexican father and a Hawaii-born Puerto Rican mother. She and her husband live in Albany, California. One of her stories, “Savanna,” was included in the Berkeley Community Memoir Project’s recently published collection, “A Wiggle and a Prayer.” This is her third story for “Somos en escrito.”