SUSAN BANKOWSKI is a health educator by vocation -- she has a master's degree from Harvard -- and by avocation. She's committed to warning teen-agers about the dangers of risky behavior because she admits to being a wild child once herself and, by the look of her, it wasn't that long ago. She's so hip, and hip-looking, she could be wandering the halls of your local high school, and no one would be the wiser.
But as associate director for Campaign for Our Children, a Baltimore teen pregnancy prevention initiative, she works on mass media campaigns -- commercials and billboards -- and doesn't get much chance to look a classroom full of skeptical teens in the eye.
Recently, Bankowski ventured into an urban middle school to take the temperature of a group of eighth-graders. According to national statistics, many of them will have sex in the next year, and many are doing some heavy-duty fooling around now.
Bankowski is not in the classroom to talk about sex, though she makes sure to let slip that she didn't have sex with her boyfriend in high school, even though all her friends were having sex with theirs. Instead, she is there to talk about communication, which is what teens should be doing with their parents or an adult they trust before they have sex.
As part of her classroom presentation, Bankowski asks the kids to write down, anonymously, the questions about sex, relationships and marriage they would ask their parents if they could get up the nerve -- and if they were sure their parents wouldn't freak out.
The results would break your heart.
Not only do the questions Bankowski collects demonstrate how little these 14-year-olds know about sex, they also reveal how much they want to hear from their parents. Not from their friends, not from older brothers and sisters, not from teachers. These are the questions teens would ask their parents.
"How many times do you have sex?"
"Does it make you feel more of a person?"
"Is there a way to have sex without getting your partner pregnant?"
"Is it OK to have sex before you are married?"
"After I get married, I can have sex without your permission, right?"
"Why do people have sex?"
"The questions scream that these kids want their parents to talk to them, but not just about sex," says Bankowski. "A lot of the questions are about values and relationships and marriage and how you know when you are in love.
"It isn't all, 'How do you do it, and when can I start?' "
Bankowski says she is never surprised to hear what teens are thinking. But as a health educator, she is alarmed by the number of questions about sexually transmitted diseases. The questions demonstrate that these kids, who have had sex education since at least sixth grade, don't know what STDs are, don't know how they can be prevented and don't have any idea of the silent damage they can do to their bodies.
"These kids are being wronged," she says. "They are heading into high school, and they are clueless. If this happens to them, it can ruin their lives."
The teens have lots of other questions, too, and the ones they ask about homosexuality show a level of confusion that could so easily be removed in a conversation with an understanding parent. The kids are confusing strong feelings of friendship with homosexual tendencies.
They also want to know why adults never talk about masturbation. Is it wrong, or what? (One teen asked: "Can masturbation kill you?") They don't know how birth control works or when a girl can get pregnant. They want to know what all this talk about PMS means. Some of them asked what "puberty" means.
It is clear from their questions that the level of misinformation, disinformation and uninformation is dangerously high among teen-agers on the brink of high school, dating and all that that can mean. One teen asked why condoms don't feel good, indicating that, for one child at least, sexual activity has begun.
But the questions also demonstrated how much these teens want to hear from us on matters of the heart.
"If marriage is so special, why is there infidelity?"
"Why did you get married?"
"How do you know if you love someone for sure?"
"Was waiting for sex a value of yours? How did you learn your values?"
"Someone asked me out today. What do you think about that?"
"At first, did your mother like dad?"
"Do marriage and values improve life?"
Remember. These were middle-schoolers, 13- and 14-year-olds. Parents of this age group are still worried about homework. They don't want to believe that their children -- with one foot in childhood and the other in adolescence -- are thinking about sex.
But they are thinking about sex. Some of them are having it. But they all want to hear from us about sex and its risks and its rewards. They want to know what love feels like and how relationships work.
They want to hear from their parents. And they want to hear from us now.