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A Times Valley Edition Special Report : Chapter 10: Sex Education : Street Talk Spins a Serious Message

September 19, 1993|JOHN JOHNSON | Times Staff Writer

It was Condom Day in Alex Bacos' class, which is listed in the teacher index as health class, but which Bacos prefers to call "Sex and Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll."

"Here's our erection," he said, holding up a piece of brilliant red plastic tubing. With the flair of a sleight-of-hand artist, he ripped open a package of condoms and slipped one onto the tube with a loud elastic snap.

He turned to the girls, some of whom were holding their hands over their mouths as if stifling screams.

"You'll never see a man with one this big around," he said.

This is sex ed in the leave-nothing-to-the-imagination '90s, when the whispers of the locker room have become the dialogue of the classroom.

Bacos believes that in the age of AIDS, if you're going to talk to kids about sex, you've got to speak the language. So he shies away from nothing. He will even call an erection by its street name, if doing so helps clear up a bit of adolescent anatomical confusion.

"I don't care if you call it a boner," he said. "But there is no bone in there."

There's no hint of prurience when Bacos talks about sex, because he is so earnest. This is an achievement, because at first glance one might take him for an aspiring actor. He has a dark, close-cropped beard, dresses in a casual, slick way in well-made sweaters with rolled-up sleeves and often wears sunglasses on a cord around his neck.

The 32-year-old Bacos has taught at Northridge for five years. In that time, he has become one of the most popular teachers on the faculty.

When he appears on campus, students call out his name and run to him with urgent personal problems for him to solve or to invite him to a party. No, he says, but thanks. He stands with feet wide apart, frequently running his hand through his hair, which sticks up in small tufts like a bird's plumage.

Bacos' approach to teaching, and life in general, was influenced by his twin brother, who was born with a learning disability and scorned as a child. The brother would occasionally react to the taunting violently, and Alex was left to "clean up the mess."

This has made him sensitive to others' pain. Teaching is a mission, he says. Most of the Northridge Middle School teachers share that belief, but with him, there is an almost religious fervor.

"I'm fighting for the future of society and the country against alcohol and drugs and all these forces."

Twenty years ago, Bacos said, kids were different and teachers could teach differently. They could be somewhat removed and professorial. Now, he said, he is teaching in a war zone. Maybe there are no bomb craters on the playground, but the drugs and the gangs and the shootings have invaded the classroom and left wounds on the kids that will scar up just the same.

To teach in such an atmosphere you've got to find new methods. As is the case with other teachers the kids list as favorites, there is a lot of the stage in Bacos' instructional methods. He strides rapidly from one end of the room to the other, gesticulating dramatically, pleading with the students to pay attention to his message.

"You've got to hook them," he said.

Some teachers feel too much effort is spent entertaining students these days and too little educating them. But Alex Bacos feels that these people are out of touch or, worse, uncaring. Bacos is so empathetic that when it snowed a couple of years ago, he asked the students who showed up: "What are you doing here?"

Retelling the story, he looked a little sheepish. "The anti-teacher," he said.


Bacos' curriculum ranges over drugs, gangs and growing-up issues.

Listening to students' graphic language, not infrequently punctuated by four-letter words, one might get the impression that they already know everything about sex.

But youths of this age often have an appalling amount of misinformation, Bacos said.

Bacos always asks his students, "What is sex?" to gauge just how much they know. Some of the answers are funny and some are so blatant and descriptive they could have been written by a young Henry Miller.

"When a man rocks the woman's world," said one. Another wrote: "When two people get on top of each other and start jumping up and down."

Because the students are often too shy to ask for information publicly, Bacos provides a box for anonymous questions.

"I will answer almost any question," he said. "One thing I do is tell the truth."

If they want to know why two people of the same sex would want to make love, he tells the students two of his closest friends are lesbians. The only questions he steers clear of are shock-value queries from students who want to show up the teacher. When asked about bestiality, he replies: "It's not natural, it's not normal, it's not something we need to discuss."

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