PASADENA — "Miss Lauderdale is going to talk to you about human reproduction," Jim Robinett announced Monday morning to a bunch of 11- and 12-year-olds at Washington Middle School. They exploded into nervous titters as the school nurse appeared, lugging plastic models of the male and female anatomy.
"Without reproduction, you wouldn't be here today," Robinett continued, straining to be heard above the din. "The human race would die out. Now, listen up. This is a chance to learn about your bodies without all the street talk."
With that, Teri Uyemura's sixth-graders, who have been herded in with Robinett's adjoining sixth-grade class for the morning, settled in for a lecture that would explain ova, menstruation, penis and other unfamiliar words. While most of the children knew the slang terms for these organs and functions, many were hearing the scientific names for the first time.
"How do you spell vagina ?" asked an earnest, pre-pubescent male voice from the back of the room.
As do most children their age, Uyemura's sixth-graders already have some inkling about sex, either from home, their friends or comments overheard on the street. In the Pasadena Unified School District, sex education actually starts in the fifth grade, with a simple lecture on the bodily changes that come with the onset of adolescence.
But Marybeth Lauderdale, the school nurse at Washington Middle School in Northwest Pasadena, says her sixth-graders' knowledge is often faulty or incomplete.
"Our school's different from a lot of others because many of our students don't live with a parent, they live with a grandparent or other relative who's so busy they don't even think about explaining it," Lauderdale says.
The obvious harvest of this ignorance is unplanned babies. Lauderdale says several 13-year-olds at Washington have become pregnant in recent years, although she knows of no pregnancies now.
As she lectured, Lauderdale was forced to stop periodically to shush the class, which erupted in hoots or sheepish giggles when confronted with close-ups of the male or female sex organs. "They use laughter as a defense mechanism because it's embarrassing to them," Lauderdale says.
But the words did sink in. Students often come up to her after the lectures with questions they are too embarrassed to ask during class. Can you get pregnant if you only do it once? How does the fetus go to the bathroom? If a pregnant woman smokes, will the baby be born liking cigarettes?
The last question prompted a mini-lecture the next day on the dangers of smoking, drinking or doing drugs while pregnant.
In a nod to parental discretion, Uyemura had sent home notices the week before, explaining that the class would learn about reproduction Monday and Tuesday. Parents who didn't want their children there could keep them at home.
But Lauderdale had a full house both days. After explaining the human reproductive system and fetal development, she showed an educational video called "Journey to Birth."
Then it was time for an oral drill.
"What is the name of the muscular organ where the baby grows and develops?" Lauderdale asked.
"Stomach!" bellowed a boy who had been following intently.
"No, that's where food is digested," Lauderdale said patiently. She kept going around the room until she received the correct answer: the uterus.
Sex education "needs to start earlier," Lauderdale said Monday afternoon. "(Students) would benefit from more information."
In the seventh grade, students learn in detail about AIDS, parenting, sexually transmitted diseases and birth control, with "a very strong section on abstinence," says Patricia Lachelt, coordinator of health education and health services for the school district.
But in the sixth grade, Lauderdale isn't supposed to discuss birth control unless a student brings it up first. The reasoning is that sixth-graders shouldn't be engaging in sexual activity. So the nurses just explain reproduction and then recommend abstinence as the best way to avoid pregnancy.
"If they ask me about the pill, I just say it stops ovaries from producing," Lauderdale says. "If the question gets too heavy, I refer it back to the parent."
Students in Uyemura's class appeared most fascinated by pregnancy and birth, perhaps because it was a familiar experience. Many of them had watched their pregnant mothers acquiring larger and larger bellies; suddenly going off to the hospital for a few days and, presto, arriving home with a new little brother or sister.
So the conversation soon meandered away toward chromosomes, in-vitro fertilization, Siamese twins and multiple births.
Jaime Solorzano, who had a copy of the Guinness Book of World Records on his desk, buried his nose in it, then shot his hand into the air and announced that a woman once gave birth to nine children, only two of whom lived. The class digested this tidbit in respectful silence.
Jaime himself greeted most of the lecture with interest.