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A Young Couple Talks About Teaching Abstinence 

An Interview With the Warrens

Zalika Warren was excited when she saw a newspaper ad seeking instructors to teach abstinence education in New York public schools. “I didn’t know they taught abstinence,” she thought. She and her husband, James Warren, quickly applied for positions with the groundbreaking Healthy Respect program. After a extensive training period, they were assigned to two schools in their hometown of Yonkers: Gorton High School, where they taught 10th graders enrolled in the Medical Magnet program, and Commerce Middle School, where they taught students in 7th grade, also Medical Magnet students. They found the classroom experience fun, fulfilling, informative and life-changing for both the students and for themselves.

In surveys after the courses, students were almost unanimous in saying that they enjoyed the classes and learned something of great value. “At the end, many of the kids were asking us not to leave, to come back,” Zalika said. “It was good to hear that we touched some lives. We can’t wait to teach again in the fall.”

The Savin It program hit close to home, they practiced abstinence while dating and working as ministers in a church in Harlem. They could tell the Yonkers students not only what to do, but what they themselves have done. Abstinence before marriage is not an impossible goal, they would say, just look at us. This happy and healthy husband and wife now have an 8-month-old daughter. They spoke with Healthy Respect about their teaching experience.

Why were you interested in teaching abstinence education?
James: We are convinced about the value of abstinence before marriage and we want to share that with young people. We challenged the kids. We actually practiced abstinence in our dating relationship. We could talk not only from the curriculum but from our experience.
Zalika: When a friend showed me the newspaper ad about Healthy Respect, I was inspired. I didn’t know there were any abstinence programs going on in New York. James and I both love working with young people, and this gave us the chance to teach something that we lived out in our own lives.

How did the students react to the abstinence message?
James: The curriculum was very effective, especially with the 7th graders. A lot of them were disappointed we weren’t staying longer to teach them for more than just a few weeks. We got more of a mixed message from the 10th graders. At that age, most had some sort of sexual experience, so we encouraged the idea of ‘secondary virginity.’ It’s not too late, we told them, to start over and live a healthy lifestyle that respects yourself and others. 
Zalika: I think the 7th graders were more open and impressionable. You could see you were talking to a lot of young people who have been thinking about having sex, and we gave them some very good reasons for waiting until marriage. I think they were inspired about staying abstinent. The 10th graders probably were more experienced and less expressive. The evaluations showed they really liked the classes though and learned something.

How did you like the Healthy Respect curriculum?
Zalika: The curriculum is very deep, very moving, and very powerful. It’s about much more than just saying ‘no’ to sex. It goes into relationships, feelings, attitudes, communication, and situations to avoid. I saw students who came into class proud and boasting about being sexually active. At the end, they were rethinking their behavior. And others, who were feeling bad about being virgins, they were the ones who were feeling proud at the end. I was grateful for the opportunity to stand up for those kids who want to wait or have waited. They haven’t even been told that waiting is an option. I told them that we did it and they can do it. Abstinence is not just a grandmother’s concept.
James: We know how powerful abstinence was in our own dating relationship. It’s not just physical benefits, avoiding diseases, though that’s a very big factor. It’s also about trust, respect, love and giving to each other, not using another person. All of these things were brought out in the curriculum.

What kind of practical advice did you give the students?
James: First, we let the kids know that abstinence is not easy. It’s challenging. But we all have challenges in life, and we should meet them with good sense and hard work. For example, Zalika and I wouldn’t be alone together when we were dating. This was especially difficult, because we were working together as ministers and had to meet all the time to prepare and study together. So we made sure our meetings were always in a public place. We wouldn’t go to movies together late at night. We wouldn’t stay in a car together. Basically, we avoided situations that would set a mood.
Zalika: We talked about respect, self-discipline, reaching goals and staying healthy. Kids today really aren’t given help to remain abstinent, and they aren’t given the credit that they can exercise self-control and make good choices.
We could tell them that if they practice abstinence it will have a positive effect in all aspects of their lives. The discipline they develop will help them when they study, when they graduate and look for a job. They will be more financially disciplined, they will have better marriages. In short, they will be happier and healthier and more successful. Those are things that everyone wants.