Yesterday, the news invaded my classroom. I think the kids aren’t paying attention. I think the kids only care about the news as it relates to Justin Bieber. I think they aren’t listening or capable of advanced thought. Every single time I think one of those things, I sell out the ninth-graders that come traipsing through my room every day.
It started when I picked this poem to go over different ways to look at poetry:
If she says something now he’ll say
it’s not true if he says it’s not true
they’ll think it’s not true if they think
it’s not true it will be nothing new
but for her it will be a weightier
thing it will fill up the space where
he isn’t allowed it will open the door
of the room where she’s put him
away he will fill up her mind he will fill
up her plate and her glass he will fill up
her shoes and her clothes she will never
forget him he says if she says
something now if she says something ever
he never will let her forget and it’s true
for a week for a month but the more
she says true and the more he says not
the smaller he seems he may fill up
his shoes he may fill up his clothes
the usual spaces he fills but something
is missing whatever they say whatever
they think he is not what he was
and the room in her mind is open she
walks in and out as she pleases she says
what she pleases she says what she means.
It is ambiguous. I suppose that is the point. The best literature for me to teach is the kind that gives the kids enough to be interested in, but they still don’t have a clear idea of what is going on. We spend the day looking at the poem from every angle we can find, or at least that is the plan.
Yesterday, pretty immediately, someone in the back shot their hand up and did not wait for me to call on them. “Ms. Norman, this poem is about rape.” It wasn’t a question. It is rare for a fifteen-year-old to speak about anything with this kind of authority, let alone poetry. A few kids chimed in to agree with the first student and I admitted that I often read the poem that way, even if you don’t have to. I was about to launch into an explanation of other ways this poem could be read.
“Ms. Norman” another kid called, “Have you heard about that rape case in Ohio? Those guys got convicted. They have to go to jail. They are going to lose their scholarships. They were going to D-1 schools!”
“Well…”I responded, feeling the heat crawl up my neck, “maybe they are going to jail for rape because THEY ARE RAPISTS!” I yelled those last three words at my kids and watched as some of them blinked in surprise. Apparently, the thought had never occurred to them that these athletes who were convicted of rape, were in fact rapists.
It is a strange thing about looking into the face of a 15-year-old, to really see who they are. You still see the small child that their mother sees. You see the man or woman they will be before they graduate. They are babies whose innocence you want desperately to protect. They are old enough to know better, even if no one has taught them.
I realized then that some of my kids were genuinely confused. “How can she be raped?” they asked, “She wasn’t awake to say no.” These words out of a full fledged adult would have made me furious. I did get a good few minutes in response on victim blaming and why it is so terrible. But out of the face of a kid who still has baby fat, those words just made me sick. My students are still young enough, that mostly they just spout what they have learned, and they have learned that absent a no, the yes is implied.
It is uncomfortable to think that some of the students you still call babies have the potential to be rapists. It is sickening, it is terrifying, but it is true. It is a reality we have to face. My students have lived in a world for fifteen years where the joke “she probably wanted it” isn’t really a joke, they need to unlearn some lessons that no one will admit to teaching them.
Standing in front of my classroom and stating that a woman’s clothing choice is never permission to rape her should not be a radical act. But only a few heads nodded in agreement. Most were stunned, like this was a completely new thought. The follow up questions were terrifying in their earnestness. “Ms. Norman, you mean a woman walking down the street naked is not her inviting sex? How will I know she wants to have sex?” A surprisingly bold voice came out of a girl in the back “You’ll know when she says, you want to have sex?!”
If you want to keep teens from being rapists, you can no longer assume that they know how. You HAVE to talk about it. There is no longer a choice. It is no longer enough to talk to our kids about the mechanics of sex, it probably never was. We have to talk about consent, what it means, and how you are sure you have it. We have to teach clearly and boldly that consent is (in the words of Dianna E. Anderson) an enthusiastic, unequivocal YES!
What came next, when the idea of a clear yes came up, is the reason I will always choose to teach freshmen. They are still young enough to want to entertain new ideas. When we reversed the conversation from, “well she didn’t say no,” to “she has to say YES!” many of them lit up. “Ms. Norman,” they said, “that does make a lot more sense.” “Ms. Norman,” they exclaimed, “that way leaves a lot less confusion.” When one of the boys asked, well what do you want me to do, get a napkin and make her sign it, about four girls from the back yelled, YEAH!
What happened in Steubenville makes me sick, but we are kidding ourselves if we think that it is not representative of what is happening in basement parties after the homecoming game all across America. Our kids want to talk about it. They need to talk about it. We need to have conversations about consent that are not centered around what should have been done, but are instead centered on what will be done in the future. Our teens can handle it, I promise they can.
A strong understanding of consent as an enthusiastic and unequivocal yes is essential to reversing the culture that our teens have grown up in. The amazing thing is the way my students responded to the conversation. Our students want a better way, it is our responsibility to show it to them, even if it is scary, especially when it might make us uncomfortable.
Our students are paying attention. They do care about what is going on in the world. They do listen and are capable of advanced thought. I am done selling out the ninth-graders that traipse through my room every day. The news will no longer invade my classroom, instead I will invite it.