Health Studies was a kind of catch-all, semester-length lecture on the perils of doing whatever it was we, as fifteen year olds, were thinking of doing. In this class we discussed “teen issues”, that is, teenage pregnancy, drugs, alcohol, self-esteem, suicide, and other such cheerful topics. The subject was probably at least partly instituted to indemnify the school against future litigation, should one or all of us end up pregnant, pot-smoking depressives, which in fact one or all of us did.
Health Studies was no doubt intended as a “frank and open” discussion of these concerns, yet this was precluded by two things: 1) the general reluctance of teens to be frank and open about anything, let alone their intimate thoughts and deeds; and 2) the presence as convenor of the forum of one Mrs Cudrow*, a teacher possessed of such disdain for her charges that her every syllable to us was accompanied by an evil glare, and not a small amount of frothy spittle.
Aside from cigarettes and alcohol, Cudrow’s abiding obsession was underage sex, particularly that resulting in pregnancy, genital warts, herpes, hepatitis, AIDS, or any combination of the above. She was dogged in her condemnation of those who went too far too soon, and refused to concede that sex could ever simply result in a good time had by all.
Probably the most infamous sex-related element of the Health Studies curriculum was the “condom lesson”. Each of us were handed two condoms, while Cudrow unwrapped one and held it up for all to see.
“This,” she announced with relish, as we cringed and bit out nails, trying not to look at the rubbery snake-skin dangling from our teacher’s fingers, “is a condom!”
She then proceeded to roll the device over her middle and pointer fingers, before fixing us with a contemptuous look, saying:
“This is how you put on a condom. You roll it gently down the shaft of the penis, all the way to the base. Then, when the boy spoofs or sprogs or comes or whatever you call it in your filthy schoolyard lingo, the semen is trapped in the reservoir at the top, preventing it from entering the vaginal canal.”
At this point, shaking with terror and desperately avoiding one another’s eyes, we were forced at Cudrow-point to follow her lead, opening our condoms and rolling them onto our fingers. This done, Cudrow did a circuit of the room, examining our technique, and offering handy hints on how to do it properly, to ensure none of the “sprog” managed to find its way into the “vaginal canal”. It is a scene burned into my memory, and one I fully expect to recount down the track to a therapist, or possibly magistrate. The net result was a low-level anxiety about condoms that, when the time came to actually use one for the first time, caused an already awkward procedure to become thoroughly nerve-racking.
Of course, the main problem with Health Studies, apart from the hectoring personality of our teacher, was its irrelevance. We already knew all the sex stuff, if not through experience, then through schoolyard rumour, innuendo, and the occasional dog-eared copy of Penthouse. As for drugs and alcohol, well, as mentioned above many, if not most, of my class went on to experiment with these substances, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, possibly in an attempt to erase the memory of Health Studies class.
These days, things are different. I expect that most kids are qualified gynaecologists by age twelve, having been brought up on a steady diet of Video Hits and Big Brother. But I bet Health Studies, or some variation on the theme, remains part of high school curriculum. I only hope it is in the hands of less malevalent educators than Mrs Cudrow. The old hag.
*Not her real name. But it's pretty close.