Monday, May 3, 2010

The Tale of the Wooden Phallus

“Teacher, what is that?”
“Why, it’s a wooden penis!”
The student who asked me about fell over. At that point I had become pretty comfortable walking around school with a carved phallus. As second period began I hid the sculpture in my book bag (don’t want to lose the element of surprise) and began my lesson. I put up the text about HIV/AIDS that we had been studying and asked the students to recite the ABC’s of HIV prevention:
A = Abstinence
B = Be faithful
C = Condom
When we got to “C” I had them repeat “Condom” until they were shouting it. Then I reached into my bag and pulled out a package of condoms and said “what’s this?”
“Condom!” they shouted.
“Good, and what’s this?”
I pulled out the wooden penis. There were some gasps and wide eyes followed by much giggling, as expected.
Finally, someone shouted, “penis!” (pronounced “peh neesh”). I corrected their pronunciation and made the class repeat until they were shouting this, too.

We reviewed the purpose of a condom and then I asked for a volunteer to demonstrate in front of the class. First period’s volunteer was no surprise, a small kid who is smart and popular and thinks he’s cool stuff. He always wears a surfboard necklace. I was a bit surprised to see him volunteer since I’m pretty sure he had malaria yesterday, but today he seemed back to his normal, swaggering self and had no trouble sharing his “experience” with condoms for the class. When he had removed and tied the condom he illustrated proper disposal by taking it outside to toss in the latrine.

Second period’s volunteer was a girl, which was astounding considering the shyness of most female students here. I could tell she was nervous because her hands were trembling, but she was explaining in a loud clear voice. It takes an incredible amount of courage to get up and do that in front of a classroom of cocky Mozambican guys. It was definitely a “you go girl!” moment and I was feeling so proud. Then, when she picked up the wooden penis a guy in back shouted, in Portuguese, “she’s going to suck it! Suck it!” I stormed over to his desk, pointed at the door and said “get out.” I said nothing else and waited there, staring at him until he gathered his things and left. The other students booed him and he tucked his tail and hurried out the door. After that, I had no more problems with disrespect. The girl finished the condom demonstration perfectly and we all clapped for her at the end.

The condom demonstrations were part of a unit I am teaching on HIV/AIDS. It’s a good theme to kick off the second trimester of English classes since it is so relevant to my students’ lives. They inevitably know someone who has or had HIV, likely a family member or close friend. It’s possible that some of them are HIV positive. At the end of the previous class I opened it up to whatever questions they might have. Here are some examples (after we corrected the grammar):

“Can you get HIV from talking to someone?”
“Can you get HIV from greeting someone?”
“Can you get HIV from kissing someone?”
“Are there people in America who have HIV?”
“HIV came from America, right?”
“What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?”
“What percentage of Mozambican students acquire HIV?”
“Can you get HIV the first time you have sex without a condom?”
“Can married people get HIV?”
“Can you get HIV from a mosquito bite?”
“Why can’t you get HIV from a mosquito bite if you can get it from a syringe? They both prick the skin.”

Some kids still aren’t clear on the basics while others can ask pretty complex questions. A few of my students have been involved with Geração Biz, a youth HIV/AIDS activism group, but even they had some lingering questions. One of them approached me after class and said he liked this week’s lessons. My pedagogical director leads Geração Biz at the school and he was the one with the wooden penis. When I went to borrow it from his office he said they were going to laugh at me but that I was doing good work. I’m lucky to be in a school that encourages sex education and openness in talking about important issues. In this respect, Mozambican schools are ahead of many schools in America.

In class and in my blog posts I might seem pretty confident. I’ll tell you the truth. When I got up in front of class first period I was terrified. I had the condoms and the wooden penis in my book bag. I had told my pedagogical director what I was doing. There was no turning back. I had to act comfortable in front of the class so they would be comfortable too. I was nervous, my heart was fluttering in my chest, but I stood with my head high and spoke evenly. I wonder now, looking back, how many of my seemingly confident teachers were really quaking in their boots some days.

It’s hard to step outside your comfort zone, but when you succeed you feel like you can do anything. I left school that day lighter than air. I chatted freely with passers-by. I sat on the steps of the paper store and made new friends with some ladies braiding hair. I practiced my Changana in the marketplace. There wasn’t anything I couldn’t do.


  1. Clancy, That's Awesome!
    I am so proud of you!
    Keep up the good work.
    Love Dad

  2. you would totally win the 'penis' game now.

    great job with the class. impressive