The great irony of Maddi’s and my student’s stories is that they were being punished for their schools’ mistake.
It’s the first day of the semester and I’m camped out in the back row of my classroom, stacks of handouts still warm from the printer, roster scratchy with edits to non-preferred names. My students are introducing themselves. They hate this part of the class, I know—though it’s as much for me as it is for them given the 100+ new faces I have to learn every 15 weeks.
One of the girls, baby-faced and still in high school, is visibly more nervous than the other students. Her belly is taut and almost comically large, like a prosthetic, on her tiny frame. She shrinks back for a moment before speaking, as if trying to distance herself from it.
“I’m taking this class because I can’t take it at my high school,” she tells us. “They don’t want me attending anymore.”
After a few murmurs and gasps, someone asks, “What about the boy?”
“Oh.” She shakes her head slightly. “He’s still there.”
My hometown, nestled in the tiny sliver of Maryland between rural Pennsylvania and West Virginia, is home to many small Christian schools. They are typically non-denominational (code for evangelical or “born-again”) and serve no more than a few hundred students each, offer mandatory courses in Bible study alongside other disciplines, and feed into nationally renowned evangelical universities like Liberty and Bob Jones.
One of these schools made the New York Times this week, and I had an inkling what the article would be about before I even started reading. Whenever my town makes the national news, it usually stands as an example of how much catching up to the 21st century rural America still has to do—there was the recent Guardian piece on the openly racist owners of a local antique shop, and the Washington Post’s coverage of conservative counties’ efforts to secede from our overwhelmingly blue state.
But this story in the Times was eerily familiar. Another local teen barred from participating in events at her Christian school because she’s pregnant. In this case, it’s her own graduation.
The Times reports that high school senior Maddi Runkles, despite her 4.0 GPA and active extracurricular involvement, will not be permitted to walk across the stage next month at Heritage Academy. Administrator David Hobbs deemed Maddi’s pregnancy “an internal issue about which much prayer and discussion has taken place,” though I have to wonder what kind of prayer leads someone to remove a bright young woman from student council.
Maddi’s story surely shocked readers on their morning subway commutes, but it didn’t shock me. I visited Heritage Academy many times as the development coordinator for one of the neighboring Christian schools, dropping off promotional materials for one event or another. It’s a modest building with an average class size of 13, located off the beaten path near the Emmanuel Baptist Temple. “Knowledge Forged in Faith,” its sign proclaims.
When I began my foray into evangelical culture, I was still a college student. My senior project for advanced reporting class was a set of two articles comparing the sex education practices of my old public high school with those of the school I now interned for. In contrast to the comprehensive sex education I had received (there’s even a picture somewhere of me gleefully putting a condom on a banana), my Christian school employer took a strictly abstinence-only approach.
Sex education classes ran for two weeks, were divided by gender, and were taught by the school’s gym teacher. Birth control methods—including proper condom use—were never discussed. When I asked the gym teacher why this was so, he explained that the school didn’t want to show students things that should be saved for marriage.
In lieu of information on safe sexual practices, the school invited counselors from a local pregnancy center’s “Sexual Integrity Team” to speak on the consequences of unsafe sex. They also showed students videos like National Geographic’s “In the Womb” series, in order to focus on more positive aspects of pregnancy.
When Christian schools deny their students the real-world advice they so desperately need, replacing it with some perfect tale that takes place in a distant adult future, no wonder there are teens like Maddi.
According to the Times, Maddi and her peers subscribe to a “nine point ‘statement of faith’ [that] declares that, ‘no intimate sexual activity be engaged in outside of the marriage commitment between a man and a woman.’” I was presented with a similar code of conduct once my internship became an actual job, stating that as an employee I would not drink alcohol, have premarital sex, or essentially do anything fun and unrelated to my activities at the nearest Megachurch, of which I was certainly a member (I was not a member). I couldn’t sign the statement in good conscience, though I worked there another two years before moving on to an institution that wasn’t preoccupied with my sex life.
The trouble, of course, is that by trying to sweep sex under the rug, you’ve conversely made everything about sex. And curious teenagers have all sorts of channels—many of them inaccurate—to get information from if their school isn’t educating them properly. The National Association of Evangelicals reported in 2009 that “80 percent of young evangelicals engaged in premarital sex,” and frankly, as long as that number isn’t 0, Christian schools need to take a comprehensive approach to their classes.
The great irony of Maddi’s and my student’s stories is that they were being punished for their schools’ mistake. But you make for an easier scapegoat when, as Juno told us, “the evidence is under your sweater.”
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.