When I was going through puberty, my nose changed shape. I tracked down my mom and shared this alarming discovery:
“Mom, I think I need to go to the doctor. I think I’ve broken my nose! It’s been straight for as long as I can remember, but now it has a bump in it!”
She reassured me that my nose was not, in fact, broken, and that when our bodies start maturing, our facial structure also goes through some changes.
How could either of my parents have explained puberty?
“Oh, by the way, in the coming months and years, your balls will drop, and your pee-pee will develop a mind of its own and will never do as told. Your relationship with this organ will be best described as ‘love-hate.’ Also, you’ll grow hair in places you’d rather not discuss, even with your pediatrician, and your voice will sound like somebody took it out of your throat and whacked it a few times with a hammer. The bones in your nose, cheeks, and brow will swell and change shape forever, and you’ll soon discover that girls do not, in fact, have cooties. On the contrary, they have boobs. For many years after, boobs will somehow be the center of the universe. This will seem ridiculous to you because when your mind rises from its fog, you realize that they are simply sacks of fat with milk-producing glands designed to sustain new life. You cannot, of course, seek help in divining these mysteries from the people who carry them around. You will come across either as a pervert or a weirdo. So, please just bottle up your confusion and do your best to navigate, well, your whole existence while obliterated on a cocktail of hormones. Oh, and don’t screw up. After all, our family has its reputation to consider. Prayer and scripture might help, but you will feel guilty when in the middle of Philippians your mind wanders and you realize you’re thinking about boobs. Again. We’re your parents and we love you and we just wanted to give you a heads up. And remember, you can tell us anything.”
“Yeah, sure. I really want to sit down with you and go over the smorgasbord of sexual lore I’ve picked up at school. Please confirm what’s true and pluck out any misinformation. We can get some bubble gum ice cream at Baskin Robbins, watch The Goonies, and make an evening out of it. I’ve put it down in my calendar. Can’t wait.”
No one I know got a thorough briefing on puberty or sex. A man named Dr. Leeper came to David Lipscomb Middle School a few times to arrange some transparencies on the overhead projector. “Here are the different stages of sexual development for males.” A pack of 6th and 7th grade boys ran down the checklist in their heads to see how far they had progressed and how far they had to go before this affliction called puberty would desist.
“Okay, I’ve sprouted a few pit hairs and woken up horrified that I’d wet the bed at fourteen years old, but then upon closer examination, I discovered that I’m now at Step 4 on Dr. Leeper’s development chart. The horror! The horror!”
[Joseph Conrad was onto something in Heart of Darkness, but it had nothing to do with colonialism, self-worship or the depravity of man.]
One year, Dr. Leeper made the mistake of opening up the floor to questions. He may as well have chummed shark-infested waters, drawn a knife across his forearm, and jumped in. Every smart-aleck in two grades finally had his opportunity to confirm or disprove certain urban legends which I won’t discuss here.
I came out of those sex ed classes thinking that line drawings of women’s internal architecture looked like something that would grow on the ocean floor, something that looked like a vegetable but was carniverous. When we compared notes with the girls, who had endured through their own sex ed classes, we found out that they knew even less than we did.
“Vulva? Fallopian tubes? Don’t those go somewhere on an engine? Sounds like an import, maybe a Ferrari.”
All you wanted was to be cool and to avoid sticking out in any way. You don’t know what you’ve done to deserve punishment, but it must have been very bad. Puberty is a dark room where a teacher you don’t know calls on you to answer questions that you didn’t hear in the first place.
“Welcome to adulthood, children. We hope you enjoy your stay.”