This past weekend I finished 25 hours of training in order to teach or facilitate OWL (Our Whole Lives) curriculum for either middle school or high school students. It’s an intense, honest and complex program to present information with the core values of self worth, sexual health, responsibility, justice & inclusivity. It was created as an non-religious approach to this subject by UUA / Unitarian and UCC / Congregational denominations so that it can be used in secular settings; companion books available from UUA or UCC denominations discuss the role of faith in this context.
I attended the training for several reasons. It’s a balanced curriculum that has been taught by many organizations, including my church, and is used nationally by thousands of churches, health programs, schools and military facilities. I wish it had been available to my own children in our town; we had to provide this information through other resources. (Our children need factual and comprehensive information on this topic, but that’s a different conversation, and may be uncomfortable for many families from different faith backgrounds or traditions, yet I cannot apologize for my beliefs, many based on personal experience, around this topic.) At some point I’ll probably be a facilitator for this program in my own faith community. Additionally, the information seems invaluable in the context of graduate classes about hands-on care for different constituents such as teens or trauma victims.
Yet one of the best messages I brought home from the training wasn’t about the content of the curriculum itself. It was about working in teams, respecting different backgrounds and viewpoints, and finding ways to honor each other’s talents, strengths and approaches to facilitation. Especially within this message and value-laden context, we worked to accept variations in “body part” terminology, for instance, in order to appreciate the intention of what we were discussing together.
At the beginning of this long weekend of training, we all wrote up a covenant about how we’d work together. And one of the debates we held was about the use of language … could people use “street words” or “common discourse” for body parts in a class that deals with human sexuality, or should we stick to medical terms? For example, should we avoid “boobs” and only use “breasts?” (There were more colorful examples, but my point here isn’t about shock-value, it’s about getting past shock-value.) We wondered aloud.
Some people find the more casual or common terms to be vulgar or offensive in origin. Others habitually use them, and it’s hard to talk about those topics or body parts without slipping into vernacular language.
Of course, part of what we discussed was the necessity to be aware of our language. The words we use convey values and messages. On the other hand, we wanted people to speak freely.
In the end, though, we decided that if the words were used to refer respectfully to a body part, and weren’t used in a name-calling connotation, that people should use the words they most comfortably choose. Within this context, for the purposes of our classroom discussions, “boobs” are as okay as “breasts.”
(Note: Please understand that there is a whole educational unit about language, the categories it falls into, and when and where to use it, what’s negative, what’s neutral, what’s positive. We do want facilitators and students to consider their language for its own role conveying cultural and personal messages.)
The final agreement, when we discussed this use of language, was to “listen for the music” of the experience. This idea comes from curriculum around peace-making for younger children. (I want to give full attribution but don’t know the author of this curriculum … it’s used in some UUA / Unitarian and UCC / Congregational churches.)
The metaphor is that many notes, chords, stanzas and instruments comprise music. We don’t all have experience with specific types of music: classical, for instance. Or we’re not experts in it. If we attend such a concert, we don’t always remember all the intricacies within a song, just the sense of the music. We can’t analyze every run of chords, every interplay of wind and string, every nuance and bridge. We have to let it all stir together and form an overall impression. We have to “listen for the music” and what it means to us, what it says to us.
When we remember a classical song later, if we’re lacking an expert’s lexicon to discuss it, we recall the music’s overall impression. We discuss or consider the emotion that comes with the experience. We’re appreciating its intentions.
We sought a similar tolerance and appreciation. We might not remember every word. Or be able to agree with every statement.
We wanted to get past the use of the specific terminology to the larger conversation we’re all trying to hold together, and the information we’re sharing. We got there, but only after much discussion and agreement to use the standard of “listen for the music.” We spent a whole weekend, preparing presentations on many different units of information, organized and presented by lay teachers from all over the country, with many different professional and personal backgrounds. We all learned from each other. And it stopped being about colloquial uses of specific words, and became all about how to present and share this information so that everyone could safely talk about it and explore it and learn from it. We “listened for the music.” And we heard it.