As a secondary school teacher of PSHE (Personal, Social & Health Education) one of the topics I have taught for the last seven years is Sex & Relationships Education (SRE). My favourite lesson, year on year, has always been the “ask it basket”. This enabled students to write their questions anonymously and unless they were completely inappropriate, I would answer them in the following week’s lesson. The reason I enjoyed this lesson so much was that it was always refreshing to see how little my students actually knew about S-E-X. As teenagers in a tough inner-London borough there was an unspoken assumption that they knew it all, yet I had the opportunity to see an innocent side usually hidden from my colleagues.
For the first couple of years I thought their questions were pretty darned hilarious. They ranged from “What is camel toe?” (it was hard work persuading them it wasn’t an STI) to “How do you make a sexual intercourse? Do they shake?” A regular that kept popping up was “Is it true that if you drink enough Dr Pepper [sometimes there was a Red Bull variation] you can’t get pregnant?” Again, I confess to having a bit of a giggle in the staff room at this one. However when the same question was written for me multiple times in every class I began to feel uneasy. And when dozens more students asked me exactly the same question a year later, I realised how un-funny it actually was.
The borough had one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the country. As teachers we would not usually be told about student pregnancies, and if a girl came back to school after a few days off it never would have occurred to us to wonder whether she had had a cold or a termination. But I remember being told in my second year of teaching that 12% of girls in our borough would be pregnant before they were 18. Even then, this statistic didn’t mean much to me. But one day I did the maths. Every class I taught had around 32 students, around half of whom were girls. This meant an average of 2 girls in each class would fall pregnant while still at school. I taught 20 different classes a week. So in the course of a year I would teach around 40 girls who would fall pregnant whilst still in childhood themselves. It was a sobering thought – especially given that it was my responsibility to teach them SRE. We covered STIs, contraception, abstinence, risky behaviour … yet numbers of students were still convinced that avoiding pregnancy was as simple as quaffing a particular soft drink.
But our teenagers will not change. They will continue to put themselves at risk rather than admit to their peers that there are things they do not know. The shame of ignorance is too much to bear – and because teenagers are, by and large, mean and sadistic creatures, the likelihood is that they will laugh and mock the student who dares to raise their hand and admit they do not know what camel toe actually is.
OK, so we know that teenagers would rather chew off their own arm than confess to being less “streetwise” than their peers. But am I the only one who still, in my mid-30s, nods and smiles rather than ask someone to explain a term they have used? The workplace is probably the worst place for this. I know how businesses work. I watch the Apprentice. Though actually the public sector is no different. Nearly all working environments are full of jargon, acronyms and specialist vocabulary and most of us must, at some point, feel that admitting ignorance is to show weakness. It’s not only at work that this happens. Other mothers at my children’s play groups happily talk about whatever all-the-rage fad is currently doing the rounds for the todder-about-town … a certain range of food; a brand of clothing; a pre-school singing class. Not wanting to be the pariah, the outcast (or in my mind, the “saddo”) who hasn’t yet caught on to that particular trend, I stay quiet rather than announce loudly: “I’ve never heard of that range of nappies! Please tell me what I’m missing out on and where I can buy them!” I want to be accepted by these women, not pitied or laughed at.
But why? Why do we feel it is more important to worry that people will think less of us, rather than trying to avail ourselves of all the information we can gather to help us live happy, safe and well-informed lives? As my students show us, ignorance is not always bliss. Ignorance is sometimes a teenage mother living on a council estate, struggling to make ends meet and wondering where it all went wrong.
So I say wear your ignorance proudly! You have nothing to lose by asking questions. It’s the not asking that will get you into trouble.
… Oh and if you don’t know what camel toe is, you only have to ask!