Matt Meagher and Erik Haschel (l.-r.) listen to Elias Reisman read from "Cootie Shots." W. Evan Golder photo.
"When I was a kid," says National Public Radio's Marty Goldensohn, "I could never figure out why there had to be two of every animal on the ark. No one would ever tell me. I wondered, was it so God could have spares, like a spare giraffe, in case one giraffe got hurt or sick?"
Goldensohn was in Indianapolis in April to receive an award for his Saturday radio show, "Been There, Done That." Also in Indianapolis that weekend, a fifth- and sixth-grade class at First Congregational UCC was studying gender identity as part of its human sexuality course, "Our Whole Lives" (OWL), developed by the UCC and the Unitarian Universalists. These nine girls and boys will never be perplexed about why Noah chose two of every animal—or about a host of other sexually-related questions.
During the 27 sessions, which this church stretches over three years, the students will cover such topics as sexual images in the media, up-to-date sexual information, acceptance of diversity, values clarification and decision-making skills. All of this is set in the context of four "core values:" self worth, sexual health, responsibility, and justice and inclusivity—along with faith.
"This is life-saving, life-affirming information," says Ann Hanson, the UCC's minister for children, families, and human sexuality advocacy. "It is much more crucial than a soccer camp. It teaches values and skills that these children will draw upon all of their lives. That's why the program is named Our Whole Lives."
Following Sunday morning worship, the five boys and four girls gather in a small classroom with three adult teachers. After pizza and pop, the girls settle sedately on one side of the room while the boys alternate between the chairs on the other side and sprawling on the floor. This particular class features a story, a skit, and a quiz about definitions of gender-identity words that would challenge many adults.
The congregation took about three years to prepare for this program. Two parents in particular, Sue Ellen Braunlin and Carolyn Meagher, moved the process along. After an assessment of various Christian curricula, many meetings of the Christian education committee, an open congregational meeting, and some rewriting of the course material, the church council voted to proceed. The teachers were among 500 nationwide who received extensive training coordinated by UCC national staff.
Even so, some members opposed it and some families refused to allow their children to participate in any of the age-level classes, which range from grades pre-K through 12.
"I was very supportive," says the Rev. Dick Clough. "Our culture often has a very unhealthy approach to sexuality. The OWL curriculum considers sexuality as one of God's gifts to us, a true blessing from a loving creator, something to be celebrated."
Despite the children's ages and the separate sitting arrangement, the course material this Sunday elicited no giggling or apparent embarrassment.
"In the beginning I was embarrassed lots of times," says Matt Meagher, 11, "but I got used to it. Now I know what to expect."
Eleven-year-old Erik Haschel agrees, and adds, "Now I think the class is cool, and that's all I need to know."
Two of the nine children are not from church families. "I just think it's so important for them to learn the right values about sex now rather than later, when they'll learn stuff from their friends," says Julie Haschel, a mother who brings her son.
Basic to OWL is that parents are the primary sexual educators of their children. Here, the parents whose children participate report more open conversations at home. "The children learn all this stuff and then are encouraged to go home and talk with their parents," says Susan Tyler. "And if you can talk about sexuality issues with your child, then you can talk about anything."
Asked what they had learned that was important, the children's responses vary. "Not to judge people by the way they look or act," says Anne Lootens, 12. "To respect other people's feelings," says Erik. "To understand different gender roles," says Tesia West, 11, "and not to be taken in by stereotypes."
This session's skit, taken from the book "Cootie Shots," features a boy in preschool who paints his nails bright orange to celebrate the letter "N." "I couldn't wait for school to be over so I could go to Scouts and show everyone how neat my nails looked," he says. "Then my dad showed up."
The dad, clearly embarrassed, tries to talk his son into removing the nail polish. The boy refuses. The dad argues that the other Scouts might make fun of him. "No!" says the boy. "I'm not gonna take it off!"
The skit ends with the dad painting his nails orange, too. "If my son is going to Scout Camp wearing orange nail polish, then so am I," he says.