Excerpt: 'The Abstinence Teacher'
On the first day of human sexuality, Ruth Ramsey wore a short lime green skirt, a clingy black top, and strappy high-heeled sandals, the kind of attention-getting outfit she normally wouldn't have worn on a date-not that she was going on a lot of dates these days-let alone to work. It was a small act of rebellion on her part, a note to self-and anyone else who cared-that she was not a willing participant in the farce that would unfold later that morning in second-period Health & Family Life.
On the way to homeroom, Ruth stopped by the library to deliver the grande nonfat latte she regularly picked up for Randall, the Reference Librarian, a fellow caffeine junkie who returned the favor by making the midday Starbucks run. The two of them had bonded several years earlier over their shared revulsion for what Randall charmingly called the "warmed-over Maxwell Piss" in the Teacher's Lounge, and their willingness to spend outlandish sums of money to avoid it.
Randall kept his eyes glued to the computer screen as she approached. A stranger might have mistaken him for a dedicated Information Sciences professional getting an early start on some important research, but Ruth knew that he was actually scouring eBay for vintage Hasbro action figures, a task he performed several times a day. Randall's partner, Gregory, was a successful real-estate broker and part-time artist who built elaborate dioramas featuring the French Resistance Fighter GI Joe, an increasingly hard-to-find doll whose moody Gallic good looks were dashingly accentuated by a black turtleneck sweater and beret. In his most recent work, Gregory had painstakingly re-created a Parisian café circa 1946, with a dozen identical GI Jeans staring soulfully at each other across red-checkered tablecloths, tiny handmade Gauloises glued to their plastic fingers.
"Thank God," he muttered, as Ruth placed the paper cup on his desk. "I was lapsing into a coma."
"Just a few Russian infantrymen. Mint condition, my ass." Randall turned away from the screen and did a bug-eyed double take at the sight of Ruth's outfit. "I'm surprised your mother let you out of the house like that."
"My new image." Ruth struck a pose, jutting out one hip and sucking in her cheeks like a model. "Like it?"
He gave her a thorough top-to-bottom appraisal, taking full advantage of the gay man's license to stare.
"I do. Very Mary Kay Letourneau, if you don't mind my saying so."
"My daughters said the same thing. Only they didn't mean it as a compliment."
Randall reached for his coffee cup, raising it to his lips and blowing three times into the aperture on the plastic lid, as though it were some sort of wind instrument.
"They should be proud to have a mom who can carry off a skirt like that at . . ." Randall's voice trailed off diplomatically.
". . . at my age?" Ruth inquired.
"You're not that old," Randall assured her. "And you look great."
"Lotta good it does me."
Randall sipped his latte and gave a philosophical shrug. He was a little older than Ruth, but you wouldn't have known it from his dark curly hair and eternally boyish face. Sometimes she felt sorry for him-he was a cultured gay man, an opera-loving dandy with a fetish for Italian designer eyewear, trapped all day in a suburban high school-but Randall rarely complained about the life he'd made for himself in Stonewood Heights, even when he had good reason to.
"You never know when opportunity will knock," he reminded her. "And when it does, you don't want to answer the door in a ratty old bathrobe."
"It better knock soon," Ruth said, "or it won't matter what I'm wearing."
Randall set his cup down on the Wonder Woman coaster he kept on his desk, next to an autographed picture of Maria Callas. The serious expression on his face was only slightly compromised by his milk-foam mustache.
"So how are you feeling?" he asked. "You okay about all this?"
Ruth shifted her gaze to the window behind the circulation desk, taking a moment to admire the autumnal image contained within its frame: a school bus parked beneath a blazing orange maple, a bright blue sky crowning the world. She felt a sudden urge to be far away, tramping through the woods or wandering around a strange city without a map.
"I just work here," she said. "I don't make the rules."
Ruth spent most of first period in the lounge, chatting with Donna DiNardo, a Biology teacher and field hockey coach in her late thirties. Over the summer, after years of being miserably single, Donna had met her soulmate-an overbearing optometrist named Bruce DeMastro-through an internet matchmaking service, and they'd gotten engaged after two magical dates.
Ruth had been thrilled when she heard the news, partly because of the fairy-tale aspect of the story, and partly because she'd gotten tired of Donna's endless whining about how hard it was to meet a man once you'd reached a certain age, which had only served to make Ruth that much more pessimistic about her own prospects. Oddly, though, finding love hadn't done much to improve Donna's mood; she was a worrier by nature, and the prospect of sharing her life with another person provided a mother lode of thorny new issues to fret about. Today, for example, she was wondering whether it would be a hardship for her students if, after the big day, she asked them to address her as Ms. DiNardo-DeMastro.
Although Ruth felt strongly that women should keep their names when they married-she hadn't done so, and now she was stuck with her ex-husband's last name-she kept this opinion to herself, having learned the hard way that you could only lose by taking sides in matters as basic as this. She had once offended a pregnant friend by admitting-after persistent demands for her honest opinion-to disliking the name "Claudia," which, unbeknownst to her, the friend had already decided to bestow upon her firstborn child. Little Claudia was eight now, and Ruth still hadn't been completely forgiven.
"Do whatever you want," Ruth said. "The students won't care."
"But DiNardo-DeMastro?" Donna was standing by the snack table, peering into a box of Dunkin' Munchkins with an expression of naked longing. She was a heavyset woman whose body image anxieties had reached a new level of obsession now that she'd been fitted for a wedding gown. "It's kind of a mouthful, isn't it?"
"You're fine either way," Ruth assured her.
"It's driving me crazy." Donna lifted a chocolate Munchkin from the box, pondered it for a moment, then put it back. "I really don't know what to do."
With an air of melancholy determination, Donna backed away from the donut holes and helped herself to a styrofoam cup of vile coffee, into which she dumped two heaping spoonfuls of nondairy creamer and three packets of carcinogenic sweetener.
"Bruce hates hyphenated names," she continued. "He just wants me to be Donna DeMastro."
Ruth glanced plaintively around the room, hoping for a little backup from her colleagues, but the two other teachers present-Pete Fontana (Industrial Arts) and Sylvia DeLacruz (Spanish)-were ostentatiously immersed in their reading, none too eager to embroil themselves in the newest installment of Donna's prenuptial tribulations. Ruth didn't blame them; she would've done the same if not for her guilty conscience. Donna had been a kind and supportive friend last spring, when Ruth was the one with the problem, and Ruth still felt like she owed her.
"I'm sure you'll work something out," she said.
"If my name was Susan it wouldn't be such a big deal," Donna pointed out, drifting back toward the Munchkins as if drawn by an invisible force. "But Donna DiNardo-DeMastro? That's too many D's."
"Alliteration," agreed Ruth. "I'm a fellow sufferer."
"I don't want to turn into a joke," Donna said, with surprising vehemence. "It's hard enough to be a woman teaching science."
Ruth sympathized with her on this particular point. Jim Wallenski, the man Donna had replaced, had been known as "Mr. Wizard" to three decades' worth of Stonewood Heights students. He was a gray-haired, elfin man who wandered the halls in a lab coat and bow tie, smiling enigmatically as he tugged on his right earlobe, the Science Geek from central casting. Despite her master's degree in Molecular Biology, Donna just didn't look the part in her tailored bell-bottom pantsuits and tasteful gold jewelry. She was too earthbound, too well organized, too attentive to other people, more credible as a highly efficient office manager than as Ms. Wizard.
"I don't know, Ruth." Donna peered into the Munchkins box. "I'm just feeling overwhelmed by all these decisions."
"Eat it," said Ruth.
"What?" Donna seemed startled. "What did you say?"
"Go ahead. One Munchkin's not gonna kill you."
Donna looked scandalized. "You know I'm trying to be good."
"Treat yourself." Ruth stood up from the couch. "I gotta look over some notes. I'll catch up with you later, okay?"
After a very brief hesitation, Donna plucked a powdered Munchkin out of the box and popped it into her mouth, smiling at Ruth as she did so, as if the two of them were partners in crime. Ruth gave a little wave as she slipped out the door. Donna waved back, chewing slowly, her fingertips and lips dusted with sugar.
The superintendent and the Virginity Consultant were waiting outside Room 23, both of them smiling as if they were happy to see Ruth come clackety-clacking down the long brown corridor, as if the three of them were old friends who made it a point to get together whenever possible.
"Well, well," said Dr. Farmer, in the jaunty tone he only trotted out for awkward situations. "If it isn't the estimable Ms. Ramsey. Right on time."
Glancing at Ruth's outfit with badly concealed disapproval, he thrust out his damp, meaty paw. She shook it, disconcerted as always by the change that came over the Superintendent when she found herself face-to-face with him. From a distance he looked like himself-the handsome, vigorous, middle-aged man Ruth had met fifteen years earlier-but up close he morphed into a bewildered senior citizen with rheumy eyes, liver spots, and unruly tufts of salt-and-pepper ear hair.
"Punctuality is one of my many virtues," Ruth said. "Even my ex-husband would agree."
Ruth's former husband-the father of her two children-had taught for a few years in Stonewood Heights before taking a job in nearby Gifford Township. He'd recently been promoted to Curriculum Supervisor for seventh- and eighth-grade Social Studies, and was rumored to be next in line for an Assistant Principalship at the middle school.
"Frank's a good man." The Superintendent spoke gravely, as if defending Frank's honor. "Very dependable."
"Unless you're married to him," Ruth said, doing her best to make this sound like a lighthearted quip.
"How long were you together?" asked the consultant, JoAnn Marlow, addressing Ruth in that disarmingly cordial way she had, as if the two of them were colleagues and not each other's worst nightmare.
"Eleven years." Ruth shook her head, the way she always did when contemplating the folly of her marriage. "I don't know what I was thinking."
JoAnn laid a cool, consoling hand on Ruth's arm. As usual, she was done up like a contestant in a beauty pageant-elaborate hairdo, gobs of makeup, everything but the one-piece swimsuit and the sash that said "Miss Morality"-though Ruth didn't understand why she bothered. If you were determined to live like a nun-and determined to broadcast this fact to the world-why waste all that time making yourself pretty?
"Must be so awful," JoAnn whispered, as if Ruth had just lost a close relative under tragic circumstances.
"Felt like a ton of bricks off my chest, if you want the truth. And Frank and I actually get along much better now that we don't have to see each other every day."
"I meant for the children," JoAnn explained. "It's always so hard on the children."
"The girls are fine," Ruth told her, resisting the urge to add, not that it's any of your business.
"Cute kids," said Dr. Farmer. "I remember when the oldest was just a baby."
"She's fourteen now," said Ruth. "Just as tall as I am."
"This is where the fun starts." He shook his head, speaking from experience. His middle child, Andrea, had been wild, a teenage runaway and drug addict who'd been in and out of rehab numerous times before finally straightening out. "The boys start calling, you have to worry about where they are, who they're with, what time they're coming home-"
The bell rang, signaling the end of first period. Within seconds, the hallways were filled with platoons of sleepy-looking teenagers, nodding and muttering to one another as they passed. Some of them looked like little kids, Ruth thought, others like grown-ups, sixteen- and seventeen-year-old adults. According to surveys, at least a third of them were having sex, though Ruth knew all too well that you couldn't always guess which ones just from looking at them.
"Girls have to protect themselves," JoAnn said. "They're living in a dangerous world."
"Eliza took two years of karate," Ruth reported. "She made it up to her green belt. Or maybe orange, I can't remember. But Maggie, my younger one, she's the jock. She's going to test for her blue belt next month. She does soccer and swimming, too."
"Impressive," noted Dr. Farmer. "My wife just started taking Tai Chi. She does it with some Chinese ladies in the park, first thing in the morning. But that's not really a martial art. It's more of a movement thing."
The adults vacated the doorway, making way for the students who began drifting into the classroom. Several of them smiled at Ruth, and a few said hello. She'd felt okay right up to that point, more or less at peace with the decision she'd made. But now, quite suddenly, she became aware of the cold sweat pooling in her armpits, the queasy feeling spreading out from her belly.
"I was talking about spiritual self-defense," said JoAnn. "We're living in a toxic culture. The messages these girls get from the media are just so relentlessly degrading. No wonder they hate themselves."
Dr. Farmer nodded distractedly as he scanned the nearly empty hallway. His face relaxed as Principal Venuti rounded the corner by the gym and began moving toward them at high speed, hunched in his usual bowlegged wrestler's crouch, as if he were looking for someone to take down.
"Here's our fourth," said Dr. Farmer. "So we're good to go."
"Looks like it," agreed Ruth. "Be a relief just to get it over with."
"Oh, come on," JoAnn said, smiling at Ruth to conceal her annoyance. "It's not gonna be that bad."
"Not for you," Ruth said, smiling right back at her. "It's gonna be just great for you."
Some people enjoy it.
That was all Ruth had said. Even now, when she'd had months to come to terms with the fallout from this remark, she still marveled at the power of those four words, which she'd uttered without premeditation and without any sense of treading on forbidden ground.
The incident had occurred the previous spring, during a contraception lecture Ruth delivered to a class of ninth graders. She had just completed a fairly detailed explanation of how an IUD works when she paused and asked if anyone had any questions. After a moment, a pale, normally quiet girl named Theresa McBride raised her hand.
"Oral sex is disgusting," Theresa declared, apropos of nothing. "You might as well French-kiss a toilet seat. You can get all sorts of nasty diseases, right?"
Theresa stared straight at Ruth, as if daring her to challenge this incontrovertible fact. In retrospect, Ruth thought she should have been able to discern the hostile intent in the girl's unwavering gaze-most of the ninth graders kept their eyes trained firmly on their desks during the more substantive parts of Sex Ed-but Ruth wasn't in the habit of thinking of her students as potential adversaries. If anything, she was grateful to the girl for creating what her grad school professors used to call "a teachable moment."
"Well," Ruth began, "from what I hear about oral sex, some people enjoy it."
The boys in the back of the room laughed knowingly, an attitude Ruth chalked up more to bravado than experience, despite all the rumors about blowjobs being as common as hand-holding in the middle school. Theresa reddened slightly, but she didn't avert her eyes as Ruth continued with the more serious part of her answer, in which she discussed a few basic points of sexual hygiene, and described the body's ingenious strategies for separating the urinary and reproductive systems, even though they shared a lot of the same real estate. She finished by enumerating the various STD's that could and could not be transmitted through oral-to-genital contact, and recommending the use of condoms and dental dams to make oral sex safer for both partners.
"Done properly," she said, "cunnilingus and fellatio should be a lot more pleasant, and a lot cleaner, than kissing a toilet seat. I hope that answers your question."
Theresa nodded without enthusiasm. Ruth returned to her lecture, removing a diaphragm from its plastic case and whizzing it like a miniature Frisbee at Mark Royalton, the alpha male in the back row. Acting on reflex, Mark snatched the device from the air, and then let out a melodramatic groan of disgust when he realized what he was holding.
"Don't be scared," Ruth told him. "It's brand-new. For display purposes only."
It was her own fault, she thought, for not having seen the trouble brewing. The atmosphere in the school, and around town, had changed a lot in the past couple of years. A small evangelical church-The Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth-led by a fiery young preacher known as Pastor Dennis, had begun a crusade to cleanse Stonewood Heights of all manner of godlessness and moral decay, as if this sleepy bedroom community was an abomination unto the Lord, Sodom with good schools and a twenty-four-hour supermarket.
Pastor Dennis and a small band of the faithful had held a successful series of demonstrations outside of Mike's World of Video, convincing the owner-Mike's son, Jerry-to close down a small "Adults Only" section in the back of the store; the church had also protested the town's use of banners that said "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Tabernacle members had spoken out against the teaching of evolution at school board meetings, and initiated a drive to ban several Judy Blume novels from the middle-school library, including Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, one of Ruth's all-time favorites. Randall had spoken out against censorship at the meeting, and had been personally attacked in the Stonewood Bulletin-Chronicle by Pastor Dennis, who said that it should come as no surprise to find immoral books in the school library when the school system placed "immoral people" in positions of authority.
"They've given the inmates control of the asylum," Pastor Dennis observed. "Is it any wonder they're making insane decisions?"
But the good guys had won that battle; the school board had voted five to four to keep Judy Blume on the shelves (unfortunately, the books themselves had been repeatedly vandalized in the wake of this decision, forcing the librarians to remove them to a safe area behind the circulation desk). In any event, Ruth had foolishly chosen to view these skirmishes as a series of isolated incidents, storms that flared up and blew over, rather than seeing them for what they were-the climate in which she now lived.
Her second mistake was thinking of herself as invulnerable, somehow beyond attack. She'd been teaching high school Sex Ed for more than a decade and had become a beloved figure-or so she liked to think-for the unflappable, matter-of-fact candor with which she discussed the most sensitive of subjects. She believed-it was her personal credo-that Pleasure is Good, Shame is Bad, and Knowledge is Power; she saw it as her mission to demystify sex for the teenagers of Stonewood Heights, so they didn't go through their lives believing that masturbation was a crime against nature, or that oral sex was the functional equivalent of kissing a toilet seat, or worse, perpetuating the time-honored American Tradition of not even knowing there was such a thing as the clitoris, let alone where it was located. She was doing what any good teacher did-leading her students into the light, opening them up to new ways of thinking, giving them the vital information they needed to live their lives in the most rewarding way possible-and in doing so, she had earned more than her fair share of respect and affection from the kids who passed through her classroom, and some measure of gratitude from the community as a whole.
So when Principal Venuti told her that he needed to talk to her about an "important matter," she showed up at his office without the slightest sense of misgiving. Even when she saw the Superintendent there, as well as a man who introduced himself as a lawyer for the school district, she felt more puzzled than alarmed.
"This isn't a formal interview," the Superintendent told her. "We're just trying to get the facts straight."
"What facts?" said Ruth.
The Principal and the Superintendent turned to the lawyer, who didn't look too happy.
"Ms. Ramsey, did you . . . umm . . . well, did you advocate the practice of fellatio to your students?"
"Did I what?"
The lawyer glanced at his yellow pad. "Last Thursday, in sixth-period Health? In response to a question by a Theresa McBride?"
When Ruth realized what he was talking about, she laughed with relief.
"Not just fellatio," she explained. "Cunnilingus, too. I would never single out just the one."
The lawyer frowned. He was a slovenly guy in a cheap suit, the kind of attorney you sometimes saw on TV, blinking frantically, trying to explain why he'd fallen asleep during his client's murder trial. Stonewood Heights was a relatively prosperous town, but Ruth sometimes got the feeling that the people in charge didn't mind cutting a few corners.
"And you're telling us that you advocated these practices?"
"I didn't advocate them," Ruth said. "If I remember correctly, I think what I said is that some people like oral sex."
Joe Venuti let out a soft groan of dismay. Dr. Farmer looked like he'd been jabbed with a pin.
"Are you absolutely certain?" the lawyer asked in an insinuating tone. "Why don't you take a moment and think about it. Because if you're being misquoted, it would make everything a lot easier."
By now it had finally dawned on Ruth that she might be in some kind of trouble.
"You want me to say I didn't say it?"
"It would be a relief," admitted Dr. Farmer. "Save us all a big headache."
"There were a lot of witnesses," she reminded them.
"Nobody had a tape recorder, right?" The lawyer grinned when he said this, but Ruth didn't think he was joking.
"I can't believe this," she said. "Are people not allowed to like oral sex anymore?"
"People can like whatever they want on their own time." Joe Venuti stared at Ruth in a distinctly unfriendly manner. Before being named Principal, he'd been a legendary wrestling coach, famous for verbally abusing several generations of student-athletes. "But we can't be advocating premarital sex to teenagers."
"Why do you guys keep saying that?" Ruth asked. "I wasn't advocating anything. I was just stating a fact. It's no different than saying that some people like to eat chicken."
"If you said that some people like to eat chicken," the lawyer told her, "I don't think Mr. and Mrs. McBride would be threatening a lawsuit."
Ruth was momentarily speechless.
"Th-they're what?" she spluttered. "They're suing me?"
"Not just you," the lawyer said. "The whole school district."
"But for what?"
"We don't know yet," said the lawyer.
"They'll think of something," said Venuti. "They're part of that church. Tabernacle, whatever."
"They got some Christian lawyers working pro bono," Dr. Farmer explained. "These guys'll sue you for wearing the wrong color socks."
Copyright © 2007 by Tom Perrotta. All rights reserved.
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