One often hears people lamenting the fact that primary and secondary school teachers are underpaid and under-respected compared to their university counterparts. The argument is persuasive: grade school and high school teachers are reaching kids at the most dynamic stages in their developmental process, thus the education and example they receive has the greatest impact, for better or worse. So why not require more training from schoolteachers than from professors, and why not give them at least an equal dose of money and prestige? In the trucking industry, drivers who carry fragile, volatile or dangerous materials make considerably more than their stable loadcarrying peers; education could be the same way, and anyone who has worked closely with nitroglyceral teenagers knows what I’m talking about. A few of my college professors made some kind of impact on my life, but they had it easy; I was knocking on the door of adulthood by the time I made their acquaintance, and I came looking to learn. Whereas the two early teachers who helped make me who I am today had a lot to overcome: Mr. Bully, who would throw candy to any of us seventh graders who could point out the gerunds in a New York Times article, and Mr. Stoia, who taught us A.P. seniors that literature is the vehicle for ideas, not for plots, and helped us to understand how beautiful those ideas could be. Unlike the impatient placeholders who were more interested in teaching discipline than understanding, great teachers do what no professor can ever do: bring the wisdom of age to people who are hellbent on rejecting the adult world.
The same can be said of writers in the Young Adult genre, who struggle, like high school teachers, to be given the respect they deserve. Yet their impact can hardly be overstated. For one example among many, there’s a generation of women who took many of their formative images of sex from the pages of Judy Blume. Even as a boy growing up in the Midwest, I got some sex tips, or at least some arousal, reading Then Again, Maybe I Won’t. (Thinking back now, I would always read it by flashlight in my closet!) But while most parents would probably be more comfortable seeing young Janie reading Young Adult novels than something like Nerve, Blume is famous for infusing her tender teen tales with a lot of raunch. Blume’s work in sex education through her novels was singularly progressive for her time, though there are a number of ideas that girls might have been better off without. The passage below, from her famous Forever, is a case in point. Boys naming their dicks? Anything you do feels good? Not what I’d teach in Men 101. (In fact, whenever I get asked now if my dick has a name, I say: You mean, The Burden?). But even if we would tinker with some of the particulars, Blume was pointing in the right direction. So here it is, just back from Memory Lane, the most dog-eared scene from what might well be the most popular and influential teen sex handbook in America.