This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005 Final Web Papers On Serendip

"The Talk"

Tonda Shimbo

Mr. Wilson's fifth grade class squirmed anxiously as they waited for the lecture to begin. It was the day of the dreaded "sex talk" – the day where the class is divided into boys and girls, and they each, separately, watch videos about what is about to happen to their bodies, and the bodies of their opposite-sex-peers. There was that slightly nervous, very embarrassed silence which overcame them all, as thirty-two ten-year-olds stared at their worn out Nikes, Adidas, and Mary Janes under their desks, waiting for Mr. Wilson to come back from the library with the videos. Every once in a while a paper airplane would zoom past Lizzy Nelson's ear, because in the back of the classroom Pat and Danny couldn't stand the tension.

"Alright class," Mr. Wilson's booming baritone voice entered the classroom before he did. "We're going to do things a little differently this year – maybe even a little differently than the other fifth grade classes. You're all going to stay right here for the presentation. Together."

Shocked faces glanced uncertainly around the classroom, looking for some explanation on their confused classmates' faces. Ever since the Livingston schools started giving "the talk" to its' fifth graders, they had always been separated. Adults felt that this would make the students feel more comfortable with the subject and with their rapidly changing bodies. But Mr. Wilson felt that sometimes adults go about things in a way that makes them more uncomfortable than they need to be, and the subject of sex and sexuality was one if those things.

"The school secretary, Ms. Billinger, has agreed to help me with the presentation. If any of you feel uncomfortable asking a question in class today, you may feel free to approach either of us at any time afterwards." Ms. Billinger, with her red curly hair pinned up in the back and her wrinkle-free blue skirt-suit was using one of her deathly thin white hands to pull down the projection screen at the head of the class, and another to pick the video they'd be watching out of her dark pink bag on the floor.

The students couldn't help but feel a bit unsure about the whole process. They'd been brought up the same way all that had come before them had: they were self-conscious and embarrassed about their bodies and the idea of the other gender. They had been raised to know that there were two genders – male, and female, and that they were very different not only physically, but emotionally and intellectually as well, and should be treated as such. Men were more logical. They were stronger, and excelled more in the realms of math and science. Women, on the other hand, were more emotional. They were more in tune with their own emotions as well as those of others, making them more empathetic, which aided the child-raising process, and they had better vocabularies and paid very close attention to detail. Nobody had ever told them these things explicitly, but it was more intuitive – the way the characters acted in their television shows, or in their video games all resulted in more or less the same inferences. Keeping the sexes together for an explanation of their bodily changes and a discussion about sex seemed to these thirty-two fifth graders not only shocking, but somehow morally inappropriate and most definitely unheard of.

"What is he thinking?" Mal whispered to Meghann, who was in the desk next to her. The classroom was set up in four rows facing the front, with two columns of four desks next to each other. Mr. Wilson was positioning the projector between the two columns in the center of the room. "I don't want to be in the same room with the boys for this – it's disgusting!"

"I don't think that my mom would like this very much..." Meghann replied uneasily. Meghann's mom was very involved in the PTA, and Meghann knew well that if her mom didn't like something, it meant big trouble for the person who planned it. As much as the class loved Mr. Wilson, with his comforting smile always hiding under his graying black mustache and his constant jokes (not to mention the fact that he often allowed games in the classroom as learning experiences), the entire class was skeptical of this latest decision of his. Not to mention that they were all suddenly feeling very self-conscious of their bodies and even the way they looked around the class at members of the other sex.

"Oh, and just to warn you," Mr. Wilson added as he turned off the lights and flipped on the video, "This isn't exactly the video you were expecting."

The movie began as most documentaries do. The voice of a British female with a lower and very serious voice was walking through a field of grass, asking questions to the audience about what makes an individual a male, and what makes one a female. But as she sat down on a conveniently oversized and flat-topped rock, she poses a final, startling and incredibly dumbfounding hypothesis to these fifth-graders: "Perhaps we are not male and female at all," she says very slowly, "Not simply man or woman; one or the other, but perchance gender is more like a spectrum – different degrees of masculinity and femininity, not fully one nor the other."

Sitting flabbergasted at their desks, the students' minds started whirring out of control. Some refused to believe that last sentence. Some sat like computers with too many applications running, slightly overheated and with thoughts going everywhere at once; it was too much to handle. This was exactly the reaction the parents had been worried about when Mr. Wilson proposed his idea, yet in the back of the class Mr. Wilson smiled quietly to himself. He, unlike a good deal of educators, had faith in the child's capacity to understand even the more complicated of ideas in simpler terms, and knew that once the video had completed its run time, they would be much different people than they had been before. He silently folded his hands in his lap, anxiously awaiting the discussion at the end, when his pedagogical and ideological hypotheses would be proven right or wrong by his currently stunned students.

As the screen went black and the picture of the woman faded into the background, a quote in white lettering appeared on the screen, narrated by the voice of a British male: "I was born twice: first as a baby girl ... in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy ... in August of 1974. Specialized readers may have come across me in Dr. Peter Luce's study "Gender Identity in 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodites," published in the Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology in 1975" (Eugenides, 3). As the mind-boggling quote disappeared from the screen, a balding Doctor who had been researching the genetic sources of the socially constructed ideas of sex and gender, appeared and began explaining his findings.

"Sex is not merely a product of chromosome combinations," he stated with a firm yet understanding tone. "It is the result of thousands of chemical reactions which take place in an individual's body long before they're even born. These processes, among other things, signal the secretion of certain amounts of different hormones within the body, which in turn signal the development of internal and external genitals for all sexes, and a plethora of other processes. The chances of every single one of these reactions occurring properly are extremely low, though this does not necessarily mean that dramatic external differences in sex will occur. And it is because of this – because the incredible number of procedures required to make a 'true male' or a 'true female' makes the actual existence of such genders rare, we in the department are making the argument that there are not two genders, but many."

The woman with the British accent made her best attempt to put this in simpler terms. Over the next few minutes, the screen showed a number of bright and colorful diagrams, explaining the necessity and the purposes of the different hormones. The charts documenting typical and atypical hormone levels at certain times appeared with explanation and disappeared again, and several graphic examples of proper and improper genital development were displayed visually for the students to take in. Images of chemical processes and the intricate development of the human body lay imprinted in the minds of these ten-year-olds, forcing their minds again into a whir, trying to make sense of this wealth of information that had been hitting them with the intensity of a brick wall. And there were descriptions of different more drastic results of the different chemical reactions and chromosome combinations, such as Turners/Klinefelter syndrome, 5-alpha-reductase-deficiency, true hermaphrodites, and mixed gonadal dysgenisis which floored most of the students.

It is often the case that when fifth-graders watch a movie in class – especially one taking the form of a documentary – they will tend to drone out and become preoccupied with other aspects of the classroom, or trinkets hiding in their desks. These fifth-graders – all thirty-two of them (even Pat and Danny, who were usually 'too cool' to have anything to do with class work) – sat mesmerized by the images and ideas being put before them. Though the darkness of the room and the calming lull of the narrator's voice will often close even the eyes of those with the best of intentions, thirty four pairs of eyes (including Mr. Wilson's and Ms. Billinger's) stared intently at the projection screen, thirty-four bodies at the edge of their seats.

"All that being said," the British woman continued, "some construct of gender is still critical to reproduction, and thereby the evolution and prolonging of the human race. Reproduction requires the connection of sperm and egg – the sperm is produced by the individual possessing both internal and external male genitals, and the egg is produced by the individual possessing both internal and external female genitals." She went on to diagram how the egg and sperm are produced within the body, and of course (the part where all fifth-graders feel that their shoes have become an incredible point of interest) the process of getting the egg and sperm together to form a new being. Diagrams of both limp and erect penises with a cross-section allowing one to see the travel route of the sperm, as well as those of ovaries and the vagina had their own two seconds of fame on the screen, which naturally transitioned into: "Young people like yourselves are probably starting to experience the wonders of puberty, with all its mood-swings, hormone fluctuations, and very noticeable bodily changes. These all are going to put you, as an individual, into a place where you yourself can reproduce when you get a little older."

This part of the video we all know, and additional explanation is really no longer necessary. The traditional poorly put together videos of children washing the sheets frequently because of wet-dreams, or telling a mother about a first period were of course included, allowing the ten-year olds who'd already had such experiences were comforted in knowing that they are not alone. Those who hadn't now knew what to expect. And everyone in-between could at least get a good laugh out of the cheesiness of the lines in the mini-skits.

After an hour of sitting in the dark, the British woman finally returns on her walk through the long grass to her rock, and from her exploration of sex and gender to the real world. "Even with the requirement of both egg and sperm for reproduction, the binary categorization of gender is both untrue and unnecessary. There is a whole spectrum of gender out there, and it is nothing more than the genetic luck of the draw (with sometimes a little help from inheritance) which makes your body what it is today. And now it is up to you to decide what you want to do with that initial structure, and what you want to make of it."

The lights came back on as Mr. Wilson came back to the front of the classroom, and Ms. Billinger stopped and rewound the tape. Thirty-two faces stared blank and speechless, blinking the brightness out of their eyes and trying to come back to reality themselves. Mr. Wilson thanked Ms. Billinger for her help, and she and her pink bag returned promptly to the school's main office.

"Well," started Mr. Wilson, somewhat breathlessly. The now aging, somewhat overweight elementary school teacher pushed his little ovular glasses back up on his nose so that he could see the class properly. "I know that was a lot of information to take in, and I know it's probably very different from what you've understood up until now, so take it easy. Slow down a little, and use the pieces of paper Ms. Billinger is passing around to sort of free-write your ideas about the video. I'll give you about ten minutes to get your thoughts together, and then we'll try to re-convene and have a discussion about it." He paused, looking around at the stunned looks on his students' faces. "I want us all to feel comfortable talking here, and I want to be as much a student and a teacher as each of you are students and teachers, so that we share our experiences and our knowledge to form a better understanding. Go ahead and start writing – I'm going to write as well, and we'll see what we come up with in ten minutes."

Mr. Wilson returned to his desk at the front of the room, his dark hand scribbling away on the paper with a spare Number 2 pencil. The class as a whole varied greatly as to how much and what they wrote on their page. Some had already formed comprehensive questions in their minds. For some it was a little more difficult to translate the complicated thoughts and emotions that the video had provoked within them to the page. Needless to say, however, there was a lot of evolutionary thinking occurring in Mr. Wilson's fifth-grade classroom.

At the end of the ten minutes, Mr. Wilson stood up from his desk. He wandered in front of the group of students whose expressions ranged from intent concentration, to chewing on erasers, to still blank stares at the chalkboard. Together they were able to discuss a wide variety of subjects concerning gender. Mr. Wilson had set aside the entire afternoon until second recess for discussion, and free time if they finished (by his standards) early – he thought they deserved a little break.

"Hey, if there are more than two genders, why do we only have two categories – male and female – and what are you supposed to call everyone in between – it?" Danny shot up from the back of the classroom, to Mr. Wilson's delight. This opened up an opportunity for the class to discuss the unfortunate limits of language, and the general differences between Eastern and Western languages and ways of thinking. In the East, people think in terms of the big picture. Many of the Eastern languages either don't have gender pronouns, or their pronouns are all unisex, whereas not only do Western languages have gendered pronouns, but some romance languages apply gender to inanimate objects as well. The West is a great deal more concerned with categorization than the East, who think of things in a highly complex, relation-oriented fashion (Nisbett, xvi). Mr. Wilson asked the students whose families had come from the East, and still spoke the language at home to comment on their native languages, and whether or not they'd noticed it before.

"My family's from China," Suzy perked up, unsure but excitedly. "When my older sister and I first came to school, we could never remember the pronouns like "he/she/him/her." People laughed because I'd call Mr. Jensen "she" and Ms. Billinger "he." It took me a long time to get used to it, and I still mess up sometimes, but I never really thought about why. English should have a pronoun that can be used for anybody, too – it's easier."

The discussion was able to continue like this for a good part of the afternoon until finally the ten-year-olds tired of the discussion and became distracted by the increasingly nice weather outside the classroom window. Mr. Wilson was content that they had been able to fit in questions about pads and tampons, wet dreams, unwanted erections, and delayed breast development alongside a discussion about taking gender out of the binary and into a spectrum. As he watched his students put on their spring jackets and prepare for outdoor excitement, he smiled to himself, knowing that he had done his best to better prepare at least thirty-two young minds for the real world.

Though it is written in story form, and the original intent was to make it for children about the age of those included in the story, I now think that the message should be for educators of all ages and levels of learning, as a message to what needs to happen in the way of sexual education in the schools. I added a lot of my own ideologies, not only on the subject of gender but on classroom pedagogy and ideology as well. This subject will probably end up sidelined by the majority of American society – I doubt that parents will even make as big a deal out of gender as the Scopes Monkey Trial made of Darwinism and evolution, because of the unlikelihood of it even getting into the schools in the near future, but I feel it's important and in my own personal ideal world, this would be a big deal. The Western categorization (and sometimes over-categorization) of gender has had unending and far-reaching effects on the way we think about people and the way we treat people in general. Perhaps seeing gender in this new light will take a step towards awareness; towards ending at least some sorts of discrimination, and towards a broader and fuller understanding of ourselves and the world around us.


1) Carson, Dr. Elof Axel. "Hermaphrodites, Pseudohermaphrodites, and Anomalous Sexual Morphology." University at Stonybrook, Biology 300 coursepage.

2) Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. Picadorฎ Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York New York: 2002.

3) Nisbett, Richard E. The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why. Introduction. Free Press, New York, New York: 2003

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