The Abstinence Teacher
Tom Perrotta has won acclaim and even some movie deals with his gently satirical novels of contemporary middle-class life. Typically, Perrotta throws together characters with divergent value systems and puts them into situations that are slightly askew variations of real-life dilemmas. The resulting stories are both funny and weirdly revelatory of American society. In The Abstinence Teacher, he does it again. The novel draws on some elements from his previous novels: a rock musician (The Wishbones, 1997), a high school setting (Election, 1998), and suburban angst and dalliance (Little Children, 2004). For this story’s catalyst, however, Perrotta takes on the “culture wars”: the conflict over divergent social values that simmers quietly in so many communities until some event brings it to the front and center of that community’s attention.
In this case, the controversy flares over sex education. A sex educator’s job is seldom easy. Students approach the subject with a mixture of embarrassment, bravado, and feigned boredom, and community reactions can present hidden pitfalls. After more than ten years of teaching the curriculum, however, Ruth Ramsey is reasonably sure she is doing a good job. She sees her mission as demystifying and “deguiltifying” the subject, arming her students with facts and a healthy attitude toward their inevitable, even if eventual, sexual experiences.
However, on the edges of her well-ordered life lurks an entity eager to challenge these assumptions. The new Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth, led by ambitious Pastor Dennis, has already protested the school’s teaching of evolution and the presence of Judy Blume books in the school library. These efforts having failed, the believers’ next target becomes sex education. One morning, Ruth is summoned to a hastily called meeting of school administrators. It turns out that she has offended a student by answering the girl’s question about why people have oral sex. Her answer, “some people enjoy it,” has been recast by the student’s Tabernacle member parents into advocacy of premarital sex. They are planning to sue.
Like many school districts, Stonewood Heights is paranoid about lawsuits. The administration has already gone into damage-control mode. Ruth is warned not to speak out in her own defense. The high school holds a giant sexual abstinence assembly led by “hot virgin” JoAnn Marlow. Over the summer, the school commits to an abstinence-only approach to sex education, which Ruth will be expected to teach.
Ruth is appalled but feels trapped. A newly single mother faced with putting two daughters through college, she needs her job. To deal with her anger, she takes up running, hangs out with her friends Randall and Gregory, and contemplates a future that suddenly looms up bleak and lonely. In this mood, she reluctantly attends yet another of her daughter Maggie’s soccer games. There she meets Tim Mason, the team’s new coach. Having volunteered initially as a way of staying involved in his own daughter’s life, he has cared enough to teach himself soccer rules and tactics and now has the team well on its way to a championship. His self-introduction to Ruth is friendly enough, but she feels both a frisson of attraction and a certain wariness.
For his part, the soccer coaching is almost the only part of Tim’s life that he is not conflicted about. His divorce from Abby’s mother was bitter but justified, coming after years of Tim’s bad behavior and drug use. He has since done a drastic turnaround, finding Jesus, joining the Tabernacle, and giving up his former vices. He has also remarried. His relationship with Carrie, his current wife, sprang more from Pastor Dennis’s urging and Tim’s own battles with lust than from genuine love or even common interests. Tim is trying to make this marriage work, but lacking the powerful engine of initial romantic love, this Deadhead ex-rock musician and Carrie, the bland, sheltered daughter of missionary parents, have little in common outside of their church connection. Tim’s job as a mortgage broker is also under siege from the downturn in the housing market. It does not help that his new life at the Tabernacle has kept him isolated from the wider web of contacts he...
(The entire section is 1755 words.)