Bisexuals and Circumcisions

Someone tell me this is a mistake.

I really enjoy language, so when my class pulls around to triangles or polygons or tetrahedrons I make a point of dissecting the roots and prefixes. Nothing special. I’m pretty sure this is SOP for math classes nowadays.

“So what’s polytheism then?”

“What are some other tri- words?”

“Guess how many troops a Roman centurion commanded?”

This only becomes dicey when we hit binomials in Algebra and circumcenters in Geometry.

I ask the question knowing full well what kind of box I’m opening up.

“What other words start with bi- ?”

Inevitably someone from the back throws out “bisexual” as some sort of pot-stirrer. The class then goes a little berzerk.

A few years ago, I would’ve issued a diffusive, somewhat collaborative laugh and said, “Okay, okay, okay, any other words?”

The last two years I’ve switched course a bit and played it humorlessly, acted like there is absolutely nothing funny about the word “bisexual.” Which isn’t to say I come down hard on the kid who popped off. (Next to blushing, I’m pretty sure that’s the worst play here.) I just treat the term with as much gravity as I would if she had suggested “bicycle” or “binoculars.”

I act humorless. I compliment the student on her recall. “Right,” I say. “A bisexual is someone who is attracted to two genders.” And then I move on to another suggestion.

I just … well … I know there’s a difference between sexual harassment, which is an ongoing problem at my school and in my classes, and sexual curiosity, which legitimately affects all my students. (I mean, it’s not like their teacher isn’t still affected.) Obviously, I should discourage the former. Less obvious, however, is the extent to which I should encourage the latter.

More than anything here I’m trying to maintain my permanently impermanent status in my kids’ lives as an adult who isn’t quite an Adult, the difference being one of age & wisdom vs. authority & intractability.

Someone tell me the best way to handle this.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. I think both ways you mention are just fine. If you move them quickly on to another word, they get their giggles and move on. No biggie. And if you compliment without humor and point out that the word is correct and why and move on, you take the fun out of the word and it’s done. I don’t think there’s any kind of sexual harassment going on in either way to handle it. Or in the part of the student who mentions the word if they’re doing it to be funny and not pointedly saying it to make another student uncomfortable.

  2. Neither approach leaves me feeling slimey, like I would if I had thrown a desk through my shared wall. I guess it’s just hard for me not to feel like someone’s getting taken advantage of in these situations, getting played, and that maybe that someone is me. Even more than a method-check, I need someone to tell me how best to unclench in these situations. The answer to everything else these days seems to be, “Get more experience.” That probably goes double here.

    Thanks for weighing in, Anna.

  3. This reminds me of my first year when I was teaching the Greek Columns – I’m up there in front of the class saying, “Look – the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns get increasingly complex in that order. I don’t know how you’re going to remember the order, but that’s how you can identify them.” One of my more thoughtful students then noticed a lovely acronym that makes them pretty easy to remember. I not only laughed, but shared it with my other classes. No big deal, or so I thought.

    Two weeks later I have a student insinuating that this was sexual harassment in a meeting with my supervisor. Thank god my supervisor didn’t take it seriously, and that the girl never came out and accused me…but it was close.

    Sometimes, it’s just not worth it.

  4. We started a set of roots today and I picked “sex” as the first one. You know, grab their attention, start with the jokes, and get them going into this with a smile. Sex – six. Here’s the first word on the list of derivatives:
    sexennial – (annus – year) – six-year period or celebration

    Yeah, that’s right, that word is what you get when sex meets annus and my sixth period called it to my attention. “Well, that’s an unfortunate combo,” I said. They are just words and I often treat the situation the same way you did, Dan. I must admit that I did laugh today. It was funny and something I never noticed before for some reason. Sometimes it’s just about humor, not harassment or curiosity or anything other than cracking a joke. Then we moved on. NEXT!

    Sexagenarian. Nowhere near as funny.

  5. Dan, I think you handled this one just fine. I think it’s normal that some kids are going to get tee-heeing about it, but you presented it matter-of-factly, and the next time it’s brought up, kids are going to remember it.

    You’re also correct to understand your role as a young male teacher, not quite one of them, but not quite one of the more seasoned teachers in your building. At almost 40, I’ve lost some of that generational link with my kids, but it’s been replaced by the wisdom I’ve gained in being able to connect with them in other ways, too. It’s definitely a trade-off, but one that inevitably happens. I’m just sorry that I’m not able to put my 9th grader in your math class.

  6. I was just wondering about your use of word humorlesly. Or, this in particular:

    “… acted like there is absolutely nothing funny about the word “bisexual.””

    Well, there isn’t anything funny about it. The word itself isn’t funny, at least not any more than any other word. In fact, I don’t see why you would react to that word any differently than you do to any other that they offer. Polygamy, polyteist, polygon, polymer, or bigotry, bisexual, bigon. Each fulfills the purpose equally well. It is entirely possible that I am not aware of all the nuances of classroom etiquette and life, but these things don’t seem to be a big deal to me.

  7. By “… acted like there is absolutely nothing funny … ” I meant, “… exaggerated the fact that there is absolutely funny … ” Gone are the days when the mention of any sort of sexuality would send me tittering, but my kids are still very much in the throes of it. I’m not exactly sure of the best approach (though Stephen and Todd offer some good cautionary tales). I’m positive, though, that standing in front of my kids, insisting firmly, “That word itself isn’t funny, at least not any more than any other word,” would be a tough sell.

  8. First off, I encounter this every time I teach what “bisect” means in Geometry. I had never thought of the possibility that it would be a problem to define the word “bisexual” in this context, but then again I’ve never had a kid raise her hand and say it straight out. (No pun intended.) I like how you’re handling it.

    What I have noticed is that when I don’t have any discomfort about various words coming up, then there’s less of a draw for students to go off about them. I also tend to ask for suggestions with roots like “-scribe” and “-gon” but more directly present “bicycle – two wheels, bisect – two sections” and let them draw the rest of the conclusions they want on their own. Then I can proceed straight to trisect, tricycle, and triceratops. Yeee!

  9. Dan,
    I need to figure out a way to express myself properly outside mathematics :) I did not even try to imply that you should tell them that the word isn’t funny. I was just trying to say that from my perspective your reaction need not be any different than when they say a bicycle, so you did exactly what I would have done: nothing. On the other hand my student population is usually slightly more adult (I haven’t taught freshmen in a while).

  10. You COULD go, “bisexual? Hmm… I’m not familiar with that word. What does it mean, exactly? Could you explain it to the class?” *evil grin* I am definitely NOT serious, but it would be funny.