It was toward the middle of the last class of the day when someone put together that it was, in fact, my birthday. As if that fact was not enough, the class spontaneously broke into a loud, disruptive, and wholly unnecessary rendition of the birthday song.
Here’s the thing: I don’t like being sung to. I don’t like being forced to endure the ritual. And I certainly didn’t want the massive disruption in a class that was already teetering on the edge of control, so I did what I thought was best. I held up my hands, palms up, and calmly said, “No. Please stop.”
They didn’t stop.
I repeated myself, louder and more firmly this time: “No. Please. I mean it. Please stop.”
Then a student said, “You don’t really mean that. Doesn’t no really mean yes?” The class laughed, certain of the joke; I felt like white hot lightning ran down my spine.
“Come on, Mrs. Leung. We just want to sing you Happy Birthday,” said one.
“Yeah,” said another, “you don’t really want us to stop.”
That’s when I dropped my arms and my voice. “I think we need to have a little conversation about consent.”
Immediately, the student who made the “no means yes” comment grasped what she had said and inhaled a short, sharp breath.
In the space after my declaration, a boy asked, “What does consent mean?”
Before I could answer, another student piped up, saying, “It’s like we’ve been talking about in ‘Flowers for Algernon.’ Charlie Gordon couldn’t really give consent or full permission to the doctors for the experiment. He didn’t know what they were asking him to do–and they shouldn’t have taken advantage of him.”
Then I added: “Consent means you agree fully and give permission. No only means no. Yes only means yes. Even if you think a person is really kidding when they say no, it’s so important to take them at their word. If someone tells you, “No. Stop,” then you must stop.”
After that, the class nodded thoughtfully–and asked some good questions about why I’d declined their serenade–and I was happy to explain my feelings and how much it meant to me that they had eventually listened and respected my wishes.
I hadn’t planned on teaching something so important–or so sensitive–to my students, but I know my message got through in a meaningful way. I hope that if they find themselves in a situation involving consent that they will think of Charlie Gordon and know what to do.
Can middle schoolers understand consent? In a word, yes.