Boomers Learned About the Birds and the Bees

Debates about sex education were headline news in the boomer era, but our generation was far from the first to be caught up in the decades-long controversy. Some historians point to the time in the 1800s when the U.S. began changing from an agrarian society to a manufacturing base as when sex education discussion — particularly, how to teach children about it — first surfaced. Before that time children observed farm animals mating as their own natural introduction to what euphemistically became known as “the birds and the bees.” Almost immediately sides were drawn as who should teach the children, when they should be taught, how it would be taught, and what would actually be conveyed to them.

Since no definitive solution was forthcoming, debates continued into the 1900s. By 1912,  the National Education Association was backing a program to train teachers about sex ed, though no official academic agenda was in place. The government got involved in the fray during World War I. Faced with widespread STD transmission among the troops, the army began making training films about the dangers of syphilis and gonorrhea. This experience led government officials to suggest that maybe sex ed should be taught in schools as a matter of national security.

By the 1920s — itself a decade known for libidinal behavior — sex ed in the form of social hygiene and health was being taught in at least a third of U.S. school districts. As World War II began in Europe, the U.S. Public Health Service stated it was an “urgent need” that sex ed be taught in schools.

After the War, the Boomer Generation was emerging. Education and health associations inside and outside the government and education circles again put forth an effort to establish nationwide training in schools. By 1955, the American Medical Association, in conjunction with the National Education Association, produced five pamphlets, referred to as “the sex education series,” that became the first national effort at standardizing information. That put boomers smack dab in the middle of a controversy that was reignited by both religious and political groups.

For the next decade sex ed in schools was labelled as everything from “smut” to “a communist plot.” This opposition coincides with the anecdotal research Mister Boomer has conducted on the subject. Namely, if, how and what boomers were taught about “the birds and the bees” in school varied greatly, depending on the state and the decade in which the boomer came of age.

Jewel Akens recorded this hit in song in 1964.

In Mister Boomer’s history, the subject isn’t complicated. As previously noted, Mister B spent his elementary school years in parochial school. Nuns weren’t exactly the type of teachers one would expect to know much about the subject, let alone teach it. Mister Boomer recalls that even the topic of the human body in sixth grade Science class was controversial. As students stared at “The Human Body” chapter title in their textbooks, the nun announced that this chapter could be read on each students’ own time. Several of the students, including Mister B, were fascinated by the clear acetate overlays in the chapter. They were the only color images in the book, and represented the organs, muscle and nervous systems. The teacher was not amused, demanding everyone close their books and repeated that it was up to each student whether the chapter would be read at home.

It wasn’t long after that, the subject of “the birds and the bees” was actually a topic in Religion class. The sum total of the discussion went like this: The nun told her students that at this point in their book, each student was supposed to ask their parents to give them “the talk.” As proof that this task was accomplished, the parent would sign the designated spot in their child’s book.

Mister B dutifully brought the book home and reluctantly opened it, explaining to his parents what his teacher had said. Immediately his mother got up from the dining room table and, walking away, said Mister B could talk with his father. Mister B’s dad, holding the book, escorted him down the hall toward his bedroom. Outside the bedroom door, he broke his silence. “If you ever have any questions, you can ask me,” he said. With that, he signed the book and gave it back to Mister B. The subject was never broached again.

Having been given “the talk,” Mister B had to learn about “the birds and the bees” the way many boomers did — on the street. Of course, misinformation ran rampant, but without any corroborating evidence, any tidbit was treated as truth. Some boomers talk of breaking into their father’s stash of Playboy magazines as their first foray into the subject. For Mister Boomer, the first “naked ladies” he saw were in the form of anatomy drawings. His neighbor’s parents were both artists and the boy brought one of their books to show around.

Other than that, the only mention of sex in elementary school came in the form of a movie that was supposed to illustrate the dangers of teen pregnancy … but, obliquely filmed with shadows and symbols to tell that story, it went over the heads of most of the kids. So much for sex ed until “health” class in high school. Even then, though, very little was said about “the birds and the bees.”

Did you have “the talk,” boomers? Was there any sex education taught in your school?

Boomers Said, “Hail to the Chief”

We’ve arrived at another Presidents’ Day on the calendar, but as any Baby Boomer can tell you, the holiday didn’t exist when boomers were young. The day, still officially called Washington’s Birthday on the federal list of holidays, was marked for February 22nd, Washington’s birthday. President Rutherford B. Hayes first signed the declaration of the holiday in 1879, but it only covered the District of Columbia. It wasn’t until 1885 that all states adopted the holiday. At that time, only four other days were nationally-recognized holidays: New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

In 1971 the Uniform Monday Holiday Act took several federal holidays and moved them to Mondays so people would have a number of long weekends throughout the year. As a result, the day is celebrated the third Monday in February. The nation’s retail industry and labor unions wholeheartedly supported the change, and it was the retail industry that brought other presidents into the picture as a way of extending their weekend sales opportunities. Today we embrace the notion of celebrating all of the country’s presidents, rather than just Washington, or Washington and Lincoln, though their images still dominate the landscape of sale ads.

In the early boomer years of the 1950s and ’60s, there was Washington’s birthday on February 22nd, and Lincoln’s birthday on February 12th. It was up to each individual state as to which of the days, or both, were official holidays. In Mister Boomer’s state, the only way the days were any different than any other day was that the post office and banks were closed. Everyone else seemed to be working, and schools were open.

Schools enjoyed teaching about arguably the country’s two most famous presidents. Starting in kindergarten, kids were taught the story of how George Washington chopped down his father’s cherry tree, and when confronted, owned up to the act by saying, “I cannot tell a lie.” As a result, Mister Boomer recalls coloring pages of the images of a hatchet, cherries, tri-corner hat and a chopped down cherry tree. These symbolic images were also fodder for drawings and art projects. By contrast, poor Abe Lincoln only had the symbol of a stovepipe hat — and it was black at that — and possibly a standing Abe Lincoln holding the Gettysburg Address.

Like the story of Columbus “discovering” a New World, the Washington cherry tree story was repeated for decades, without regard to whether the story was actually true. In fact, there is no evidence that the story is factual, at least in its entirety. Most historians agree that the story began when Parson Mason Weems published a book called, “The Life of Washington,” in 1800, one year after Washington’s death. Lacking corroborating evidence, it would appear Weems, an author and not a historian, concocted the story as a parable to teach children the virtue of honesty. Several stories in his biography are considered dubious in nature, so Weems is credited with expanding the mythology of Washington.

Recently, however, a piece of cloth that depicted the cherry tree story, made in Germantown, Pennsylvania, came up for auction. The cloth, if authentic, was made prior to the publication of Weems’ book, and before Washington died in 1799. Therefore, the story may not have originated with Weems, but existed earlier and Weems adopted it. Nonetheless, Weems did not actually write that Washington chopped down the tree; merely that he “barked” the tree (though the story says the tree was sufficiently hacked up that it probably did not survive). Taking these two items that have surfaced into consideration, that has led some historians to conclude that there may be some truth to the story after all.

Washington was a revered figure in the early days of our Republic, so it was not a far-fetched notion that his legend and myth would expand with each passing year. As far as some truth, it has been noted that the story begins when Washington, as a boy age six or seven, was given a hatchet as a birthday gift. Knowing that young boys do like to chop at things at that age, it is plausible to suppose the young Washington took a whack at a cherry tree and chipped the bark. However, it is also plausible to surmise that a boy of that age may not have the physical strength to actually chop a tree down; it would have to be a pretty small tree to fall with only a few chops from a young hand.

So, did he or didn’t he? That’s one for the historians to argue. As for boomers like Mister B, the story brings back school day memories that were synonymous with the holiday we now know as Presidents’ Day.

Were you taught the lesson of Washington’s cherry tree honesty in school, boomers? Which president’s birthday did your state celebrate?