Mama who bore me
Mama who gave me
No way to handle things
Who made me so sad
The opening is simple, yet powerful. Young Wendla, dressed only in her slightly enticing cotton shift, climbs onto a chair, turns a sullen and confused face to the audience, and sings these quiet, melodic lines. A perplexed and pubescent girl trying to understand her growing sexuality, Wendla explores her body with her hands – hips, thighs, face, breasts – as if searching for something she knows is there but just can’t understand. It is at once sensual and tragic.
This opening moment encapsulates the story and the controversial themes of “Spring Awakening,” a rock opera adapted for the stage by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, which is currently on a tour stop in Detroit. The musical, adapted from a German play by Franz Wedekind, published in 1891, explores the extraordinary complications faced by a group of teenagers coming to terms with their own sexuality within a puritanically repressive atmosphere. With their hormones screaming at them, the only answer these children can get from their parents is something akin to “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
This edgy musical uses humor, guts, and pain to explore the inner conflict of growing up in a world of conservative strictures that constantly battle with your body’s screaming needs. In their teenage way, the boys in the show describe this conflict quite succinctly as “the bitch of living as someone you can’t stand.”
As Pagans, and especially on Beltane, we celebrate sexuality as a natural expression of life. We dance around Maypoles, with all of their phallic symbolism, and many of us celebrate the sexual union of the Goddess and God. Yet, like the young seekers in “Spring Awakening,” we do this within a larger culture that still has a very tenuous relationship with sex.
Take the character of Wendla, a role originated by “Glee” actress Lea Michele. Her opening complaints that her mother gave her no way to understand the changes exploding within her are backed up immediately when she begs to be told where babies come from.
Her mother, mortified by the question, stammers bashfully and ultimately lies to her daughter in order to escape the situation. Sex is embarrassing, after all, and what is more important than delaying this necessary conversation?
Her mother’s paralyzing embarrassment leads to Wendla’s tragic, painful death.
Like Wendla, we still live in a culture that is afraid to teach its children about sexuality. Many states and school districts have laws that prevent schools from teaching basic sex education. Yet films and television constantly push sex on them.
As they grow into adulthood within a culture that both pushes and reviles sexual expression, our teens are, like those in the musical, “trapped in the bones of a man and a child.” With their hormones tearing them apart inside, teens are trapped in a world that is too embarrassed to give them accurate information. Many, like Wendla, make ignorant sexual choices and pay the unnecessary price.
Then there’s Moritz. This poor boy, completely unable to handle the tempest within his body, finds himself likewise unable to focus on his dreary schoolwork. With no one but his cold and violent father to turn to, Moritz is lost.
His parents don’t understand the consequences of their callousness until it’s too late. They lose their son on a much deeper level than if they had merely listened to and cared for him in his time of trouble.
As an educator, I see this happen all the time. Teenagers want to get laid. We want them to learn all about calculus and Shakespeare while their bodies are screaming at them to find a date and seal the deal. Telling them that the first two pages of “Romeo and Juliet” are filled with sexual innuendo doesn’t seem to abate their desires.
Is it any wonder they’re distracted? Our reaction when they can’t pay attention? Detention. Standardized tests. Lectures on responsibility. That’s exactly what Moritz got. It didn’t help him, and it doesn’t help today’s teens.
The Pagan perspective offers a much healthier way to deal with the very real, very pressing, issues explored in “Spring Awakening.” Viewing sex as a natural part of life rather than a source of sin and mark of evil, we have the tools to freely discuss the topic with our children. The frustration and ignorance that comes from being embarrassed to discuss the topic or damned to hell if you do is not a part of our belief systems.
Especially at this time of year, sex should be discussed openly and honestly. Talk to your partner about it. Talk to your mom. Take some time this Beltane and talk to your children about this very important piece of their development.
Anyone who has known a teenager knows that they will figure it out for themselves anyway, and wouldn’t you rather they figured it out safely, with your guidance?
One option for Pagan parents is to visit their local Unitarian Universalist church. The UUs welcome all belief systems, including ours, into their congregations and warmly accept members of the GLBTQ community. Their Religious Education program includes a component called Our Whole Lives (OWL). OWL, which starts at the K-1 level and progresses to adulthood, teaches frank and age-appropriate lessons on sexuality.
If even Pagans can’t be healthy and honest about the topic of sexuality, then the misery and pain that victimizes the children in “Spring Awakening” will do the same will continue 120 years after the original play was written. Pagans are in a unique position to change this trend. Otherwise, all that has changed is the costumes.