Standing on the river bank watching the inky black pool break and run free. I throw a stick in and the child with me throws one in as well. We watch them float down then spin out of the current. A perplexed look crosses her face, a wondering and an opportunity to play and learn – current affairs. We throw more sticks and observe them, describing what is happening nothing more. An urge to up the stakes and race, but what to do when that pesky eddy throws a reverse current into the mix. Stones enter the picture, there are plenty to choose from. But where to throw? How big? More experimentation and my young apprentice catches on quick. Making waves and calmly enjoying the rush of success. Wet feet and cold hands our reward and some hydrology terminology experienced.
Later a mountain of dirt in a field and some tame ducks with a dog who’s instinct to herd everything boarders on OCD. Two of them scramble up negotiating feathered and furry friends. Clumps of soil are picked up and hurled backwards and forwards like snow balls. Shouts and protests make way for tentative rules with animals being completely off limits. The sods are flying and the faces smiling as they quickly weigh up the line between dusting yourself off and mud in your eye. No-one is crying and the ducks seek shelter behind the scrambling legs and flailing arms. The dog is relentless. Friendships blossoming between all creatures. It’s messy and chaotic, perfect.
Gumboots discarded, they just fill up and slow you down another lesson in mass and inertia. Running free and feeling the earth beneath feet. Resting finally in a drain to pick watercress. This is how I remember learning and how I always wanted to teach.
There are some interesting intersections brought about by my journey in education. Going from a teacher to a counsellor has seen my perspective and values shift and move and from time to time come together. But I generally only get to teach two kinds of lessons these days. I either teach juggling and unicycling to year 11 sport science classes or a one off health class on consent and negotiation for year 12’s. Never both at the same time although some of the themes of risk, fear, going one step at a time and moving at your own pace do line up.
So on Friday I will be in front of a class I have no relationship with about to launch into the realm of sex and the complexity of desire mixed with cultural and social norms, family values and gendered assumptions without any real sense of what these young people might have already experienced. Actually, that is not entirely true. Because in my privileged position as a counsellor I will know some of them, and they will know what I know. So there will be a level of extra vulnerability attached to this conversation. It is a juggling act of sensitivities to confidentiality, privacy and accepting that within the space all sorts of beliefs, values, experiences and needs will be present. I know I am there in my capacity as a counsellor but what does that actually mean to these 16-17 year old young women that a counsellor is coming in to talk with them? It really is the definition of ‘awkward’.
Talking about consent invites the polarity of coercion. Society in general still needs to grapple with gendered assumptions of power and consent. I recently stumbled on a great cartoon likening consent to having ‘a cup of tea’. There are some limits to this as an analogy but I kind of like it for its simplici-tea, it’s also gender neutral , stick figures are good for that. But it’ll be me in the hot seat Friday. So…what can I bring? I can bring a non-judgemental stance, but is that enough? I can bring an openness about the competing needs and feelings, physical, emotional responses that might all happen at once when it comes to sex. I can bring a level of ‘unshockability’ while ensuring questions and statements do not position people as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. My hope is that I can use some of my performance skills from juggling that are about setting a safe tone for exploring, renaming or relocating a sense of failure or loss of worth into something more respectful and takes into account the realities of diverse sexual experiences.
Leaving the door open for conversations at another time for those who might have more to process will be an ideal outcome. I intend not to leave a trail of guilt, self-doubt and fear. I intend to acknowledge the range of tensions and embodied realities of desire, pleasure and the contexts that can enable and disable actions or decisions. I will be intentional not to assume these young women will all be having sexual experiences or indeed be heterosexual. That to me is one way all teachers can support the well-being of LGBTIQ young people.
But perhaps more than anything to give them and experience of an adult who will not reject or shame them because they are young women talking about being/becoming sexually active – not just passive. I think that is enough things in the air for one lesson.