Jeane Stockheim was born in 1913. When she was 4, she marched with her mother in her first Women’s Suffrage rally on Broadway. From there, she went on to a career in nursing and teaching, with an emphasis on sex education. While working as a Red Cross nurse, she earned a BS in public health from NYU and an MA in maternal and child care from Columbia, all while married and raising two children. But her lasting contribution came later on, in the sixties and seventies, when she played a part in getting the city schools to teach kids the real facts of life. Robert Kolker spoke with Stockheim from her home in Florida, where she was preparing to celebrate her 100th birthday.
You were a Red Cross nurse through the war years and then a married mother of two. Why did you change careers to teach sexual education in the schools?
When I was growing up, if I asked my mother where babies came from, I got slapped and told “Nice little girls don’t talk about such things.” So as I went into public health, I saw the teens becoming pregnant and the girls asking questions. Their mothers said babies came from Macy’s, or they came from a seed planted under the mother’s heart. I felt that information should be given to children as part of the systems of the body — along with the gastrointestinal, the pulmonary. I mean, there’s nothing to be ashamed of!
Your first teaching job was in the early sixties in a parochial school in Jamaica, Queens. That must have been something.
I was trying to teach childcare and home nursing. But the nun sat in on my classes to make sure that I didn’t say anything about how babies came into the world. One nun in my class, I was told specifically that she was there to make sure I didn’t say anything [about] reproduction or the anatomy of male or female organs.
What about your first public school?
My first was Girls’ High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant. I went there because a friend of mine was there and she couldn’t take it anymore. She left. The classrooms were dangerous. I came in and said sarcastically to these girls, “You may remain seated. You don’t have to rise.” The next minute there were three or four on the floor fighting with each other. And I looked at them and I said, “Girls, you may fight nicely.” They looked at me as though I was something from outer space. So they got back in their seats again.
I wasn’t in danger, because I was accepted as somebody who was just different. Teaching a different kind of skill. I was trying to teach basic skills so that they could get jobs when they graduated in the health-care industry. But the equipment at Girls’ High School was absolutely horrible. The bathroom was in the basement, and that’s where they used to congregate and smoke. There was no equipment. There were a couple of old broken beds and old mattresses, and so I went down to the principal, and I said, “How am I going to teach nursing if I don’t have the beds and mattresses?” He said, “You have to wait.” I ran upstairs, saw the garbage trucks down below, and I took the four mattresses and pulled them to the window and I threw them out the window. They called me “the nurse with the flying mattresses.”
How did the girls react when you talked about sex?
Their reaction was to tell me some of the names that they came up with — they gave me twenty names for the vagina! Oh, they had such words. I mean, you never heard such expressions. The girls were beautiful, but they were so lacking in understanding and many of them didn’t know how to read and write. They can’t read and they’re in the eleventh grade and they’re graduating high school and so they’re being pushed through with no skills.
It wasn’t long before you were counseling young girls who were pregnant.
The girls were not aware that they had committed anything wrong. They felt that it was an accident. And he didn’t know anything about condoms. They knew nothing about birth control. They didn’t know anything about Planned Parenthood. In fact, one of the students who I had taught came to my door one night to tell me she was pregnant. It was in the sixties. She was 17. I said to her, “Come tomorrow.” And instead of going to lunch hour I took her to Queens General and got her declared an “Emancipated Minor” so she could have an abortion done at Queens General Hospital. They went on to have second babies, some of them. I had a girl who was having her second and she was only 15 years old. Fifteen years old and welfare was taking care of her!
How did you get involved with sex ed citywide?
I met [legendary teachers’ union chief] Albert Shanker when I got my full teaching license. His family came from the same place in Russia as mine, and we both spoke very fluent Yiddish. I said to him, “We have all these pregnant girls that are dropping out of school, because they can’t be in school.” I said, “Can’t we start sex education in these schools? Because, really, these girls all go on welfare.” He says, “All right.” So I had a conference with [Planned Parenthood founder] Al Guttmacher, who had been my teacher at Sinai Hospital School of Nursing, and with [Planned Parenthood medical director] Mary Calderone. And that’s how we introduced sex education with schoolteachers in New York City.
Later on, I started the Cyesis program. Cyesis is a Greek word meaning pregnancy. And you couldn’t put down pregnancy on a girl’s chart in the Board of Education. So the word was Cyesis. These girls were pregnant, and they couldn’t go to school at that time. So they were put on a homebound status. I told them about childcare, and as I was an instructor for the Red Cross, I had a chest and I had all the equipment, the dolls to show them, to practice on.
It was hard work teaching vocational skills, hard work teaching mother and child care. But valuable. At least some of these girls who took those courses, it stayed with them so they could take care of parents or they could get a job as a caregiver. Many of them went into nursing. Like Pope Francis just said, we take care of the poor, the needy, and the less-important.
Did you ever learn what happened to the girls you taught?
My husband had to go to the hospital once, and I called Harlem Hospital’s nursing division. It was 10 o’clock at night, and I said “This is Mrs. Stockheim, my husband was in an accident, can I come over?” she said, “Mrs. Stockheim, this is Bertie! Remember me, I was one of your students!” And she got nurses around the clock and they saved his life.