The teenagers, hired as peer educators to teach other kids like themselves, have two parts to their jobs. The first is to teach kids about safe sex. The second is to teach them about college. At this stage in the training, which is very early, none of them know much about either.
“We’re going to talk to you about college,” shouts a small, rambunctious teenager. “Because we’re so cool!” She breaks into a nervous tap dance, and turns to the girl next to her. “Hey Erica! Can you go to college if you ain’t got no money?”
“No,” says Erica.
“The answer to that is false,” is the reply, as the student, fans out her hands like a dancing showgirl, “because there’s this thing called financial aid.”
She gestures at a huge banner behind her, laboriously handwritten in rainbow magic marker. “Something you might want to do is look at the posters with the nice colors.”
As the story goes, when the nonprofit Mission Graduates decided to hire teenagers to teach other teenagers about their college options, they decided it was more efficient to just add what they wanted taught to another program. And so they partnered with a sex ed program run by Mission Neighborhood Health Centers.
The dual curriculum makes for some interesting juxtapositions. Half the educators will teach sex ed in the fall, while the other half will teach about college. In the spring, the roles will be reversed.
What this means is that over at the other side of the room, the other half of the group is deciding who will explain which reproductive anatomy. External male and internal and external female are already taken, but no one wants internal male. One of the guys at the table, a small, world-weary boy, sighs. “I’ll take it,” he says.
“OK,” he says, holding up the illustration and pointing. “This is your urethra.”
At the other side of the room, a student continues explaining college to a group of sympathetic, bored peer educators who are pretending to be the unsympathetic, bored students.
“Question!” she shouts. “Stanford, Harvard and Yale are the best schools!”
“Yes! No! Yes!” say the other teenagers.
“No,” says she replies. “The best school may not be the best for you.”
The woman leading them through their presentation is small and blonde, and has curly hair like a silent film starlet. Her nose is pierced with a large-gauge bull ring, which would make someone larger look like a thug, but which just makes Jill look like the grownup at the table.
“So,” says Jill, changing the subject. “You’re borrowing money. Big amounts of money. What happens if you don’t pay?” Jill’s teaching style is Socratic in nature. If there’s a way to answer a question by asking one, she’ll do it.
“I think they kick you out of your housing and out of the school,” says Francois.
“You don’t have to pay while you’re in school,” says Jill. “But they’ll go looking for you. They’ll call you at your work.”
“That’s what they did to my brother,” one of the kids says, quietly.
“What if you run away?” says another. “Out of the country?”
Jill looks at her. “Do you really want to run away from this country?”
She changes the subject again. “What do you want to study?” she asks the group.
“I want to be a social worker or an architecture person or an astronomer,” says Elizabeth. “I want to live in an apartment with three kids. I want to move to LA.”
“I want to be a doctor. Or a children surgeon,” says Makoda.
“I want to be a dolphin trainer/biologist/dog trainer/mommy,” says another student.
“I want to be a music star slut,” says Francois. “I want to be a radio host psychotherapist ambassador smartest person in the world with the most money.”
He gets a flustered look, suddenly. “Those English learning kids are hella rude,” he says, referring to a workshop the group did last week. “They were giggling and speaking in Spanish.”
“Why do you think that is?” says Jill, true to form.
“Because they’re rude.”
Jill pauses. “I don’t think they’re trying to be rude,” she says. “They don’t speak English very well. So what else can you do? Speak slowly. Write it down on the board. Sometimes they will be able to read it. It’s tough.”
Francois is still frustrated. “I don’ t know how to tell the children to stop talking without being rude. When I say something, they keep talking, but when she says something” — he gestures to Emily, a reed-thin, quiet girl with braces and a stocking cap — “they stop. I want them to stop talking when I tell them. I can’t stand disrespect.”
“Did you know any of the kids in that class?” Jill asks Emily.
Emily nods. “That’s one of the reasons why I translated for them,” she says quietly. “I knew they didn’t know.”
The group returns to the lesson plan. Across the table, Elizabeth has opened the black binder in front of her and is gazing at it. She’s been doing this throughout the workshop.
“Did you tell these guys?” Jill asks.
“Everyone!” Jill shouts. “Elizabeth has some news to share with all of you!”
“I got accepted to SF State,” says Elizabeth. She is beaming.
Suddenly, all sarcasm is gone. Francois extends both hands in front of him like Superman, and runs towards her. “Oh my god!” he yells. ” Jump for joy!”