“She had wandered, without rule or guidance, into a moral wilderness… Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods… The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers—stern and wild ones—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.”
– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
When I was in 5th grade, my Mom received a letter from the school that detailed my need to attend the “puberty” class. This class was split between boys and girls; the male topics were all about hair growth, deodorant usage, and unexpected erections. I only know of these subjects from second-hand sources – I actually bailed due to feigned illness. I didn’t want to go because it seemed unbearably awkward and I guess my Mom let me skip to preserve my childhood for as long as possible. Flash forward to high school. Most of my sex education came from friends and the wrestling coach – Mr. Bittenbender. Mr. Bittenbender was one of those “five-decade” teachers who got a job post-WWII and refused to retire; his tenure was so long that he actually had my Dad as a student.
Well, Mr. Bittenbender taught health and prescribed to the 1950’s style of teaching – short, simple, and outdated. Sex ed to him was showing a chart of the female and male body while simultaneously yelling about STDs and Communism. There was no talk about condoms, birth control, or even intercourse; just a poster of a wiener and vagina with an old guy touting the virtues of forced sterilization. As if the Administration knew the flaw in this pedagogic method, they enforced a second layer of sex ed through English class. This sex ed was the most dirtbag of them all – The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The Scarlett Letter is a great classic but why did every single high school student have to read it? Why didn’t we read Moby Dick or A Tale of Two Cities? Why was The Scarlett Letter the absolute must read? One answer. Sex. The Scarlett Letter follows the story of Hester Prynne who is convicted of adultery and forced to wear the letter “A” on her bosom for the rest of her life. It is a tale of Puritan hypocrisy and the ability for a person to be both condemned and redeemed from their past. The book actually details how Hester rises above her label to become a revered member of society and a person sought out for wisdom. The character – who is arguably most tormented – is not the accused adulterous but rather the adulterous Pastor who keeps his secret and eventually dies from guilt.
The problem though with this profound message is that it sails over the heads of high schoolers. Nathaniel Hawthorne writes with such obscure syntax that most of his sentences drive even the most ardent teenagers to Spark Notes. Instead of reading the complicated story, students usually only get through the first part where Hester feels like crap because of her adultery. What point gets most hammered into the heads of teenagers? Sex is dangerous. Sex can destroy your life. Sex can be a devastating label. And hence this is the dirt bag sex ed which most of us had to endure. I can’t imagine a young girl going from first-hour Health to second-hour English and not feeling overwhelmed to the point of joining a monastery. Of course, sex is complicated and shouldn’t be taken lightly…but neither of these approaches did much to steer me in the right direction. I laugh now, but I wonder if a Bittenbender clone will be teaching the same stuff to my children? Will The Scarlett Letter still be used to fill holes in the curriculum?