The Abstinence Teacher
By Tom Perrotta
Completed January 12, 2008
Set in the “perfect” suburb, The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta attempts to explore what happens when two forces collide – those who believe in teaching abstinence in high school versus those who believe in teaching a more “in your face” curriculum.
Ruth Ramsey has been the high school’s sex ed teacher for years, and she had always followed a more clinical, “real life” approach to her course. She believed in teaching students about birth control, masturbation, sexually transmitted diseases and the intricacies of intercourse. When one of her students complained about her class, Ruth was brought under scrutiny by the school district, led by an evangelical church who demanded that the county teach abstinence in the classroom. The church won the debate, forcing Ruth to change her pedagogy. Uncomfortable with this decision, Ruth struggled with following the rules and going with her gut.
Meanwhile, Tim Mason coached Ruth’s daughter’s soccer team. A recovering drug addict and alcoholic, Tim turned to Christ to help him recover from his addictions. He is far from perfect despite his best efforts, still longing for marijuana and beer, lusting for his ex-wife and struggling to maintain the best Christian values. Coincidentally, Tim belongs to the same church that raised issues against Ruth’s teaching methods.
Ruth and Tim, as if representing their own sides, come to head when Tim decided to lead his team to prayer after winning a game. Ruth is outraged and threatened to file a complaint against Tim for subjecting his soccer players – some of whom are not Christians – to prayer in a community league. Tim contended that it was appropriate to pray and that he did not force anyone to participate.
The premise of this book is outstanding – if only Perrotta had decided to attack the issue. He flings it out there so promisingly and then reels it in like he regretted even starting the conversation. His character development is there. He draws his characters in such a way that you feel sorry for them, root for them or just want to yell at them in disgust. But good characters can’t do it alone. They need a good plot to drive home the point. While we learn a lot about the characters’ sex lives, we really don’t learn or explore the issues about teaching sex to our children.
While I am disappointed in The Abstinence Teacher, I am not turned off by Tom Perrotta’s work. Reading other reviews have assured me that The Abstinence Teacher is not his best book. I hope my next selection will be more satisfying to me as a reader.