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Inside the Classroom
Healthy Respect teachers talk about the challenges and triumphs of teaching abstinence to inner-city kids

Healthy Respect has a proven, well-researched abstinence curriculum that focuses on the positive values young people relate to: self-respect, respect for others and future success.

Yet we know that when the school bell rings and the classroom door closes, the teacher, to a large extent, is the curriculum. This is true especially when the subject is personal behavior and values.

That’s why Healthy Respect hires and trains our own teachers who believe in our curriculum and work in male-female teams in the classroom. Each team files reports after every classroom session, so new ideas can be shared and common problems solved immediately. The Healthy Respect teacher – young, dynamic and convinced of the wisdom and possibility of teen abstinence -- is a key to the success of our program. It sets us apart from other abstinence programs that rely on a school’s regular teachers to present their programs.

We spoke to two Healthy Respect teachers – Wayne Williams and Jerrilyn Montgomery – to see how they make the case for abstinence to sometimes skeptical teens in New York’s inner-city schools.

Q: The response of some high school students to abstinence must be ‘Are you kidding?’ How do you deal with that attitude?

Jerrilyn: Yes, we get a lot of disbelief at first, with kids asking is that lifestyle possible. We respond that we want to empower them, not take something away from them. We show that a healthy lifestyle is not boring or lame, and that abstinence is really in their best interest physically, emotionally, socially and academically. We help them to see that they are special, important, and everybody wants to feel special and important. Girls are more than sperm receptacles, and boys are more than animals who have to act on every urge. They are human beings, and special.

Wayne: We often hear: ‘Are you real?’ Or: ‘Well, you can always use a condom to protect yourself.’ We try to demythologize the urban legends they come with about condoms. We give them the real statistics about sexually transmitted diseases, and that condoms do not offer 100 percent protection from any of them. We also tell them that condoms do not protect the heart, do not protect reputations. Resist the pressures of teen sex, we tell them. Think for yourself about what you want for yourself and for your future.

Q: What sort of classroom methods do you use?

Wayne: I conduct a contest in which I challenge the kids to come up with the surest way for an unmarried teenager to avoid STDs and pregnancy. I put down a dollar and say that my money is on abstinence. If anyone can come up with a ‘safe sex’ method that is safer, I tell them, they can have the money. Every time someone guesses and is proved wrong, I increase the payoff. They really get interested, and they come up with all kinds of crazy ideas like a full-body condom or some magic formula that isn’t real. The great part is that when one student comes up with an idea, I ask the class if it works out to be safer than abstinence, and the other students are quick to find the faults because they want the game to keep going so they can have a chance at the money. At the end of the program, we all agree that abstinence is the only sure way to avoid sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy.

Jerrilyn: We talk about relationships a lot. They ask all about different sorts of relationships and what they mean, boyfriends, girlfriends, just friends. They especially want to know how anyone can stay abstinent if everyone around them is having sex. We role play different scenarios with boys and girls and ask at different points in the scene what different choices could be made, and what one choice would lead to instead of another choice. We give them something to think about before they get into these situations, and help them to make decisions beforehand for self-respect and healthy lifestyles. We show them ways to avoid going along with the crowd without looking lame or strange. We tell them, you have to be able to think for yourselves because we’re not going to be there all the time.

Q: What do you say to teens who tell you that they’re old enough to do what they want and don’t anyone to tell them?

Wayne: We talk about different ways of being ‘old enough,’ different kinds of maturity. There’s the physical maturity that comes with puberty, but there’s also the internal maturity that is just as important. We highlight four kinds of personal maturity: social maturity, the ability to respect others; moral maturity, the ability to decide and act based on beliefs; intellectual maturity, the ability to think things through to the end and just not make impulsive decisions; and emotional maturity, the ability to control and direct feelings in a healthy way. We role play, showing the different levels of maturity, to show how full maturity involves the whole person in his relationship to himself and others around him.

Jerrilyn: We have a formula that we always come back to. DO NO HARM. Do no harm to yourself, to others and to your future. Any time a question comes up and someone wants to know if this decision or behavior is okay, we go back to the DO NO HARM principles. It helps them keep things in perspective, and keeps everyone focused on the important things in life.