Just 10 hours after Paula Irwin gave birth to her first son, 9-pound, 7-ounce Anthony, she walked into the midst of a group of astonished Oakwood School juniors and seniors.
"Does she feel bad?" one of the girls whispered to her instructor, Martha Dreskin, who is also the administrative director of California Birthplace, an alternative birth center in Agoura Hills.
"Where do you keep the baby right after it's born?" another student asked.
Two bolder students edged toward Irwin, who was looking somewhat dazed, and asked, "When will your stomach be back to normal?"
A teen-ager's questions about pregnancy cannot always be answered in a science class or with textbook illustrations. To demystify the subject, Oakwood, a private, coeducational school in North Hollywood, this fall established a pregnancy and birth class.
Once a week, 15 Oakwood students--two are male--meet with Dreskin to discuss pregnancy and childbirth. The course is an elective and is graded on a pass-fail basis. Its goal, Dreskin said, is to study the birth process from conception to delivery.
"When you see a birth when you're 17 years old, it looks horrible; it looks like it hurts too much," she explained, describing some of the students' reaction to a movie of a birth. "Hopefully, what this class will do is show that birth is a normal fact of life that should be celebrated, not feared."
Oakwood's pregnancy class, the only one of its kind in the San Fernando Valley area, is not a sex-education course, Dreskin quickly added.
"The typical sex-education course is a preventive course," she said, referring to sessions that focus on how to avoid pregnancy. "This class is about having a baby, preparing for a natural, happy childbirth and only having a baby when you're ready."
Some educators believe that pregnancy has become mysterious in contemporary society because a typical family may consist of only one or two children.
"In past generations, it was commonplace for children to see their mother pregnant several times while they were growing up," said Elizabeth Winship, a Boston-based syndicated writer whose "Ask Beth" columns answer teen-agers' questions about sex. Winship is also the senior author of "Masculinity and Femininity," a health-education textbook published by Houghton Mifflin that is used at about 50 U.S. school districts.
"Now, with so many spread so far apart and with so many single-child households, it is possible for a child to grow into adulthood without ever being close to a woman during pregnancy," Winship added.
The Oakwood class began with students discussing the basics of conception and reviewing in detail the development of a fetus. A representative of Planned Parenthood spoke to the class on contraception and showed a movie of a birth.
On the day the class met Paula Irwin, students were visiting California Birthplace to see that there are alternatives to a hospital birth.
At the Birthplace, the students met women who were several weeks away from delivery. The women reviewed the physical changes they had undergone; the students asked questions and listened to fetal heartbeats.
Then the students got to see newborn Anthony Irwin. For many, it was the first time they had seen such a young baby.
One of the surprises of the course, the students said, is how their feelings about pregnancy and childbirth have changed.
"I'm not going to have children," said Kelli Gilbert. "I didn't realize that you went through so many emotional and physical changes, and I don't know if I want to go through all of that."
Junior Rhonda Long said her attitude toward pregnant teen-agers had changed dramatically after the class heard the Planned Parenthood presentation.
"I'm not saying that girls who have babies are bad people, but if you don't want to have a baby there are lots of places to go to get contraceptives," Long said.
Male Role Important
Jon Polish, one of the two males in the class, said he was beginning to realize that men have an important role during the mother's pregnancy and delivery.
Although Dreskin insists that the pregnancy class is not set up to help prevent teen-age pregnancy, she said she hopes that, once the semester ends, "they'll see that having children is worth waiting for."
In coming weeks, the students will talk about nutrition, physical activity and the father's role. They will also examine society's changing views of childbirth and discuss where births should take place.
"Most of the students have discovered that their grandparents were born at home, while their parents were born in hospitals," Dreskin said. "All of these kids and their friends were born in hospitals, but now there are more options.
"Some women want to have their babies delivered at home. Others want to have their children in a birthing center, someplace that is a midpoint between home and a hospital. This class will teach the kids that they have choices."