The Abstinence Teacher

The Abstinence Teacher

by Tom Perrotta


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"Perrotta is that rare combination: a satirist with heart….Those who haven't curled up on the couch with this writer's books are missing a very great pleasure."—Seattle Times

Stonewood Heights is the perfect place to raise children: it's got good schools, solid values and a healthy real estate market. Parents in the town are involved in their children's lives, and often in other children's lives, too—coaching sports, driving carpool, focusing on enriching experiences. Ruth Ramsey is the high school human sexuality teacher whose openness is not appreciated by all her students—or their parents. Her daughter's soccer coach is Tim Mason, a former stoner and rocker whose response to hitting rock bottom was to reach out and be saved. Tim's introduction of Christianity on the playing field horrifies Ruth, while his evangelical church sees a useful target in the loose-lipped sex ed teacher. But when these two adversaries in a small-town culture war actually talk to each other, a surprising friendship begins to develop.

"Nobody renders the world of soccer moms and sprinklers and SUVs like Perrotta. He's the Steinbeck of suburbia."—Time

"Tom Perrotta is a truth-telling, unshowy chronicler of modern-day America."—The New York Times Book Review (in a front-page review)

The Abstinence Teacher illuminates the powerful emotions that run beneath the placid surface of modern American family life, and explores the complicated spiritual and sexual lives of ordinary people. It is elegantly and simply written, characterized by the distinctive mix of satire and compassion that has become Perrotta's trademark.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312363543
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 09/02/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Tom Perrotta is the author of five previous works of fiction: Bad Haircut, The Wishbones, Election, and the New York Times bestsellers Joe College and Little Children. Election was made into the acclaimed movie directed by Alexander Payne and starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick. Perrotta was nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay for the movie version of Little Children, which was directed by Todd Field and starred Kate Winslet and Jennifer Connelly. Perrotta lives with his family outside Boston, Massachusetts.


Belmont, Massachusetts

Date of Birth:

August 13, 1961

Place of Birth:

Summit, New Jersey


B.A. in English, Yale University, 1983; M.A. in English/Creative Writing, Syracuse University, 1988

Read an Excerpt

The Abstinence Teacher


Some People Enjoy It

Miss Morality

ON THE FIRST DAY OF HUMAN SEXUALITY, RUTH RAMSEY WORE A short lime green skirt, a clingy black top, and strappy high-heeled sandals, the kind of attention-getting outfit she normally wouldn't have worn on a date—not that she was going on a lot of dates these days—let alone to work. It was a small act of rebellion on her part, a note to self—and anyone else who cared—that she was not a willing participant in the farce that would unfold later that morning in second-period Health & Family Life.

On the way to homeroom, Ruth stopped by the library to deliver the grande nonfat latte she regularly picked up for Randall, the Reference Librarian, a fellow caffeine junkie who returned the favor by making the midday Starbucks run. The two of them had bonded several years earlier over their shared revulsion for what Randall charmingly called the "warmed-over Maxwell Piss" in the Teacher's Lounge, and their willingness to spend outlandish sums of money to avoid it.

Randall kept his eyes glued to the computer screen as she approached. A stranger might have mistaken him for a dedicated Information Sciences professional getting an early start on some important research, but Ruth knew that he was actually scouring eBay for vintage Hasbro action figures, a task he performed several times a day. Randall's partner, Gregory, was a successful real-estate broker and part-time artistwho built elaborate dioramas featuring the French Resistance Fighter GI Joe, an increasingly hard-to-find doll whose moody Gallic good looks were dashingly accentuated by a black turtleneck sweater and beret. In his most recent work, Gregory had painstakingly re-created a Parisian café circa 1946, with a dozen identical GI Jeans staring soulfully at each other across red-checkered tablecloths, tiny handmade Gauloises glued to their plastic fingers.

"Thank God," he muttered, as Ruth placed the paper cup on his desk. "I was lapsing into a coma."

"Any luck?"

"Just a few Russian infantrymen. Mint condition, my ass." Randall turned away from the screen and did a bug-eyed double take at the sight of Ruth's outfit. "I'm surprised your mother let you out of the house like that."

"My new image." Ruth struck a pose, jutting out one hip and sucking in her cheeks like a model. "Like it?"

He gave her a thorough top-to-bottom appraisal, taking full advantage of the gay man's license to stare.

"I do. Very Mary Kay Letourneau, if you don't mind my saying so."

"My daughters said the same thing. Only they didn't mean it as a compliment."

Randall reached for his coffee cup, raising it to his lips and blowing three times into the aperture on the plastic lid, as though it were some sort of wind instrument.

"They should be proud to have a mom who can carry off a skirt like that at ..." Randall's voice trailed off diplomatically.

" ... at my age?" Ruth inquired.

"You're not that old," Randall assured her. "And you look great."

"Lotta good it does me."

Randall sipped his latte and gave a philosophical shrug. He was a little older than Ruth, but you wouldn't have known it from his dark curly hair and eternally boyish face. Sometimes she felt sorry forhim—he was a cultured gay man, an opera-loving dandy with a fetish for Italian designer eyewear, trapped all day in a suburban high school—but Randall rarely complained about the life he'd made for himself in Stonewood Heights, even when he had good reason to.

"You never know when opportunity will knock," he reminded her. "And when it does, you don't want to answer the door in a ratty old bathrobe."

"It better knock soon," Ruth said, "or it won't matter what I'm wearing."

Randall set his cup down on the Wonder Woman coaster he kept on his desk, next to an autographed picture of Maria Callas. The serious expression on his face was only slightly compromised by his milk-foam mustache.

"So how are you feeling?" he asked. "You okay about all this?"

Ruth shifted her gaze to the window behind the circulation desk, taking a moment to admire the autumnal image contained within its frame: a school bus parked beneath a blazing orange maple, a bright blue sky crowning the world. She felt a sudden urge to be far away, tramping through the woods or wandering around a strange city without a map.

"I just work here," she said. "I don't make the rules."


RUTH SPENT most of first period in the lounge, chatting with Donna DiNardo, a Biology teacher and field hockey coach in her late thirties. Over the summer, after years of being miserably single, Donna had met her soulmate—an overbearing optometrist named Bruce DeMastro—through an internet matchmaking service, and they'd gotten engaged after two magical dates.

Ruth had been thrilled when she heard the news, partly because of the fairy-tale aspect of the story, and partly because she'd gotten tired of Donna's endless whining about how hard it was to meet a man once you'd reached a certain age, which had only served to make Ruth thatmuch more pessimistic about her own prospects. Oddly, though, finding love hadn't done much to improve Donna's mood; she was a worrier by nature, and the prospect of sharing her life with another person provided a mother lode of thorny new issues to fret about. Today, for example, she was wondering whether it would be a hardship for her students if, after the big day, she asked them to address her as Ms. DiNardo-DeMastro.

Although Ruth felt strongly that women should keep their names when they married—she hadn't done so, and now she was stuck with her ex-husband's last name—she kept this opinion to herself, having learned the hard way that you could only lose by taking sides in matters as basic as this. She had once offended a pregnant friend by admitting—after persistent demands for her honest opinion—to disliking the name "Claudia," which, unbeknownst to her, the friend had already decided to bestow upon her firstborn child. Little Claudia was eight now, and Ruth still hadn't been completely forgiven.

"Do whatever you want," Ruth said. "The students won't care."

"But DiNardo-DeMastro?" Donna was standing by the snack table, peering into a box of Dunkin' Munchkins with an expression of naked longing. She was a heavyset woman whose body image anxieties had reached a new level of obsession now that she'd been fitted for a wedding gown. "It's kind of a mouthful, isn't it?"

"You're fine either way," Ruth assured her.

"It's driving me crazy." Donna lifted a chocolate Munchkin from the box, pondered it for a moment, then put it back. "I really don't know what to do."

With an air of melancholy determination, Donna backed away from the donut holes and helped herself to a styrofoam cup of vile coffee, into which she dumped two heaping spoonfuls of nondairy creamer and three packets of carcinogenic sweetener.

"Bruce hates hyphenated names," she continued. "He just wants me to be Donna DeMastro."

Ruth glanced plaintively around the room, hoping for a little backup from her colleagues, but the two other teachers present—Pete Fontana (Industrial Arts) and Sylvia DeLacruz (Spanish)—were ostentatiously immersed in their reading, none too eager to embroil themselves in the newest installment of Donna's prenuptial tribulations. Ruth didn't blame them; she would've done the same if not for her guilty conscience. Donna had been a kind and supportive friend last spring, when Ruth was the one with the problem, and Ruth still felt like she owed her.

"I'm sure you'll work something out," she said.

"If my name was Susan it wouldn't be such a big deal," Donna pointed out, drifting back toward the Munchkins as if drawn by an invisible force. "But Donna DiNardo-DeMastro? That's too many D's."

"Alliteration," agreed Ruth. "I'm a fellow sufferer."

"I don't want to turn into a joke," Donna said, with surprising vehemence. "It's hard enough to be a woman teaching science."

Ruth sympathized with her on this particular point. Jim Wallenski, the man Donna had replaced, had been known as "Mr. Wizard" to three decades' worth of Stonewood Heights students. He was a gray-haired, elfin man who wandered the halls in a lab coat and bow tie, smiling enigmatically as he tugged on his right earlobe, the Science Geek from central casting. Despite her master's degree in Molecular Biology, Donna just didn't look the part in her tailored bell-bottom pantsuits and tasteful gold jewelry. She was too earthbound, too well organized, too attentive to other people, more credible as a highly efficient office manager than as Ms. Wizard.

"I don't know, Ruth." Donna peered into the Munchkins box. "I'm just feeling overwhelmed by all these decisions."

"Eat it," said Ruth.

"What?" Donna seemed startled. "What did you say?"

"Go ahead. One Munchkin's not gonna kill you."

Donna looked scandalized. "You know I'm trying to be good."

"Treat yourself." Ruth stood up from the couch. "I gotta look over some notes. I'll catch up with you later, okay?"

After a very brief hesitation, Donna plucked a powdered Munchkin out of the box and popped it into her mouth, smiling at Ruth as she did so, as if the two of them were partners in crime. Ruth gave a little wave as she slipped out the door. Donna waved back, chewing slowly, her fingertips and lips dusted with sugar.


THE SUPERINTENDENT and the Virginity Consultant were waiting outside Room 23, both of them smiling as if they were happy to see Ruth come clackety-clacking down the long brown corridor, as if the three of them were old friends who made it a point to get together whenever possible.

"Well, well," said Dr. Farmer, in the jaunty tone he only trotted out for awkward situations. "If it isn't the estimable Ms. Ramsey. Right on time."

Glancing at Ruth's outfit with badly concealed disapproval, he thrust out his damp, meaty paw. She shook it, disconcerted as always by the change that came over the Superintendent when she found herself face-to-face with him. From a distance he looked like himself—the handsome, vigorous, middle-aged man Ruth had met fifteen years earlier—but up close he morphed into a bewildered senior citizen with rheumy eyes, liver spots, and unruly tufts of salt-and-pepper ear hair.

"Punctuality is one of my many virtues," Ruth said. "Even my ex-husband would agree."

Ruth's former husband—the father of her two children—had taught for a few years in Stonewood Heights before taking a job in nearby Gifford Township. He'd recently been promoted to Curriculum Supervisor for seventh- and eighth-grade Social Studies, and was rumored to be next in line for an Assistant Principalship at the middle school.

"Frank's a good man." The Superintendent spoke gravely, as if defending Frank's honor. "Very dependable."

"Unless you're married to him," Ruth said, doing her best to make this sound like a lighthearted quip.

"How long were you together?" asked the consultant, JoAnn Marlow, addressing Ruth in that disarmingly cordial way she had, as if the two of them were colleagues and not each other's worst nightmare.

"Eleven years." Ruth shook her head, the way she always did when contemplating the folly of her marriage. "I don't know what I was thinking."

JoAnn laid a cool, consoling hand on Ruth's arm. As usual, she was done up like a contestant in a beauty pageant—elaborate hairdo, gobs of makeup, everything but the one-piece swimsuit and the sash that said "Miss Morality"—though Ruth didn't understand why she bothered. If you were determined to live like a nun—and determined to broadcast this fact to the world—why waste all that time making yourself pretty?

"Must be so awful," JoAnn whispered, as if Ruth had just lost a close relative under tragic circumstances.

"Felt like a ton of bricks off my chest, if you want the truth. And Frank and I actually get along much better now that we don't have to see each other every day."

"I meant for the children," JoAnn explained. "It's always so hard on the children."

"The girls are fine," Ruth told her, resisting the urge to add, not that it's any of your business.

"Cute kids," said Dr. Farmer. "I remember when the oldest was just a baby."

"She's fourteen now," said Ruth. "Just as tall as I am."

"This is where the fun starts." He shook his head, speaking from experience. His middle child, Andrea, had been wild, a teenage runawayand drug addict who'd been in and out of rehab numerous times before finally straightening out. "The boys start calling, you have to worry about where they are, who they're with, what time they're coming home—"

The bell rang, signaling the end of first period. Within seconds, the hallways were filled with platoons of sleepy-looking teenagers, nodding and muttering to one another as they passed. Some of them looked like little kids, Ruth thought, others like grown-ups, sixteen-and seventeen-year-old adults. According to surveys, at least a third of them were having sex, though Ruth knew all too well that you couldn't always guess which ones just from looking at them.

"Girls have to protect themselves," JoAnn said. "They're living in a dangerous world."

"Eliza took two years of karate," Ruth reported. "She made it up to her green belt. Or maybe orange, I can't remember. But Maggie, my younger one, she's the jock. She's going to test for her blue belt next month. She does soccer and swimming, too."

"Impressive," noted Dr. Farmer. "My wife just started taking Tai Chi. She does it with some Chinese ladies in the park, first thing in the morning. But that's not really a martial art. It's more of a movement thing."

The adults vacated the doorway, making way for the students who began drifting into the classroom. Several of them smiled at Ruth, and a few said hello. She'd felt okay right up to that point, more or less at peace with the decision she'd made. But now, quite suddenly, she became aware of the cold sweat pooling in her armpits, the queasy feeling spreading out from her belly.

"I was talking about spiritual self-defense," said JoAnn. "We're living in a toxic culture. The messages these girls get from the media are just so relentlessly degrading. No wonder they hate themselves."

Dr. Farmer nodded distractedly as he scanned the nearly empty hallway. His face relaxed as Principal Venuti rounded the corner bythe gym and began moving toward them at high speed, hunched in his usual bowlegged wrestler's crouch, as if he were looking for someone to take down.

"Here's our fourth," said Dr. Farmer. "So we're good to go."

"Looks like it," agreed Ruth. "Be a relief just to get it over with."

"Oh, come on," JoAnn said, smiling at Ruth to conceal her annoyance. "It's not gonna be that bad."

"Not for you," Ruth said, smiling right back at her. "It's gonna be just great for you."


SOME PEOPLE enjoy it.

That was all Ruth had said. Even now, when she'd had months to come to terms with the fallout from this remark, she still marveled at the power of those four words, which she'd uttered without premeditation and without any sense of treading on forbidden ground.

The incident had occurred the previous spring, during a contraception lecture Ruth delivered to a class of ninth graders. She had just completed a fairly detailed explanation of how an IUD works when she paused and asked if anyone had any questions. After a moment, a pale, normally quiet girl named Theresa McBride raised her hand.

"Oral sex is disgusting," Theresa declared, apropos of nothing. "You might as well French-kiss a toilet seat. You can get all sorts of nasty diseases, right?"

Theresa stared straight at Ruth, as if daring her to challenge this incontrovertible fact. In retrospect, Ruth thought she should have been able to discern the hostile intent in the girl's unwavering gaze—most of the ninth graders kept their eyes trained firmly on their desks during the more substantive parts of Sex Ed—but Ruth wasn't in the habit of thinking of her students as potential adversaries. If anything, she was grateful to the girl for creating what her grad school professors used to call "a teachable moment."

"Well," Ruth began, "from what I hear about oral sex, some people enjoy it."

The boys in the back of the room laughed knowingly, an attitude Ruth chalked up more to bravado than experience, despite all the rumors about blowjobs being as common as hand-holding in the middle school. Theresa reddened slightly, but she didn't avert her eyes as Ruth continued with the more serious part of her answer, in which she discussed a few basic points of sexual hygiene, and described the body's ingenious strategies for separating the urinary and reproductive systems, even though they shared a lot of the same real estate. She finished by enumerating the various STD's that could and could not be transmitted through oral-to-genital contact, and recommending the use of condoms and dental dams to make oral sex safer for both partners.

"Done properly," she said, "cunnilingus and fellatio should be a lot more pleasant, and a lot cleaner, than kissing a toilet seat. I hope that answers your question."

Theresa nodded without enthusiasm. Ruth returned to her lecture, removing a diaphragm from its plastic case and whizzing it like a miniature Frisbee at Mark Royalton, the alpha male in the back row. Acting on reflex, Mark snatched the device from the air, and then let out a melodramatic groan of disgust when he realized what he was holding.

"Don't be scared," Ruth told him. "It's brand-new. For display purposes only."


IT WAS her own fault, she thought, for not having seen the trouble brewing. The atmosphere in the school, and around town, had changed a lot in the past couple of years. A small evangelical church—The Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth—led by a fiery young preacher known as Pastor Dennis, had begun a crusade to cleanse Stonewood Heights of all manner of godlessness and moral decay, as if thissleepy bedroom community was an abomination unto the Lord, Sodom with good schools and a twenty-four-hour supermarket.

Pastor Dennis and a small band of the faithful had held a successful series of demonstrations outside of Mike's World of Video, convincing the owner—Mike's son, Jerry—to close down a small "Adults Only" section in the back of the store; the church had also protested the town's use of banners that said "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Tabernacle members had spoken out against the teaching of evolution at school board meetings, and initiated a drive to ban several Judy Blume novels from the middle-school library, including Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, one of Ruth's all-time favorites. Randall had spoken out against censorship at the meeting, and had been personally attacked in the Stonewood Bulletin-Chronicle by Pastor Dennis, who said that it should come as no surprise to find immoral books in the school library when the school system placed "immoral people" in positions of authority.

"They've given the inmates control of the asylum," Pastor Dennis observed. "Is it any wonder they're making insane decisions?"

But the good guys had won that battle; the school board had voted five to four to keep Judy Blume on the shelves (unfortunately, the books themselves had been repeatedly vandalized in the wake of this decision, forcing the librarians to remove them to a safe area behind the circulation desk). In any event, Ruth had foolishly chosen to view these skirmishes as a series of isolated incidents, storms that flared up and blew over, rather than seeing them for what they were—the climate in which she now lived.

Her second mistake was thinking of herself as invulnerable, somehow beyond attack. She'd been teaching high school Sex Ed for more than a decade and had become a beloved figure—or so she liked to think—for the unflappable, matter-of-fact candor with which she discussed the most sensitive of subjects. She believed—it was her personal credo—that Pleasure is Good, Shame is Bad, and Knowledge is Power;she saw it as her mission to demystify sex for the teenagers of Stonewood Heights, so they didn't go through their lives believing that masturbation was a crime against nature, or that oral sex was the functional equivalent of kissing a toilet seat, or worse, perpetuating the time-honored American Tradition of not even knowing there was such a thing as the clitoris, let alone where it was located. She was doing what any good teacher did—leading her students into the light, opening them up to new ways of thinking, giving them the vital information they needed to live their lives in the most rewarding way possible—and in doing so, she had earned more than her fair share of respect and affection from the kids who passed through her classroom, and some measure of gratitude from the community as a whole.

So when Principal Venuti told her that he needed to talk to her about an "important matter," she showed up at his office without the slightest sense of misgiving. Even when she saw the Superintendent there, as well as a man who introduced himself as a lawyer for the school district, she felt more puzzled than alarmed.

"This isn't a formal interview," the Superintendent told her. "We're just trying to get the facts straight."

"What facts?" said Ruth.

The Principal and the Superintendent turned to the lawyer, who didn't look too happy.

"Ms. Ramsey, did you ... umm ... well, did you advocate the practice of fellatio to your students?"

"Did I what?"

The lawyer glanced at his yellow pad. "Last Thursday, in sixth-period Health? In response to a question by a Theresa McBride?"

When Ruth realized what he was talking about, she laughed with relief.

"Not just fellatio," she explained. "Cunnilingus, too. I would never single out just the one."

The lawyer frowned. He was a slovenly guy in a cheap suit, the kindof attorney you sometimes saw on TV, blinking frantically, trying to explain why he'd fallen asleep during his client's murder trial. Stonewood Heights was a relatively prosperous town, but Ruth sometimes got the feeling that the people in charge didn't mind cutting a few corners.

"And you're telling us that you advocated these practices?"

"I didn't advocate them," Ruth said. "If I remember correctly, I think what I said is that some people like oral sex."

Joe Venuti let out a soft groan of dismay. Dr. Farmer looked like he'd been jabbed with a pin.

"Are you absolutely certain?" the lawyer asked in an insinuating tone. "Why don't you take a moment and think about it. Because if you're being misquoted, it would make everything a lot easier."

By now it had finally dawned on Ruth that she might be in some kind of trouble.

"You want me to say I didn't say it?"

"It would be a relief," admitted Dr. Farmer. "Save us all a big headache."

"There were a lot of witnesses," she reminded them.

"Nobody had a tape recorder, right?" The lawyer grinned when he said this, but Ruth didn't think he was joking.

"I can't believe this," she said. "Are people not allowed to like oral sex anymore?"

"People can like whatever they want on their own time." Joe Venuti stared at Ruth in a distinctly unfriendly manner. Before being named Principal, he'd been a legendary wrestling coach, famous for verbally abusing several generations of student-athletes. "But we can't be advocating premarital sex to teenagers."

"Why do you guys keep saying that?" Ruth asked. "I wasn't advocating anything. I was just stating a fact. It's no different than saying that some people like to eat chicken."

"If you said that some people like to eat chicken," the lawyer toldher, "I don't think Mr. and Mrs. McBride would be threatening a lawsuit."

Ruth was momentarily speechless.

"Th—they're what?" she spluttered. "They're suing me?"

"Not just you," the lawyer said. "The whole school district."

"But for what?"

"We don't know yet," said the lawyer.

"They'll think of something," said Venuti. "They're part of that church. Tabernacle, whatever."

"They got some Christian lawyers working pro bono," Dr. Farmer explained. "These guys'll sue you for wearing the wrong color socks."


AFTER LIVING the first forty-one years of her life in near-total obscurity, Ruth had been shocked to find herself transformed into a public figure—the Oral Sex Lady—a person she barely recognized. The story was first reported in the Bulletin-Chronicle ("Sex Ed Crosses Line, Family Says"), and then picked up by some larger regional papers before getting an unwelcome moment in the sun of a big-city tabloid ("Oral Sex A-OK, Teacher Tells Kids"). Ruth was contacted by numerous journalists eager to get her side of the so-called scandal, and although she was itching to defend herself—to rebut the malicious and ill-informed Letters to the Editor, to put her "controversial remarks" in some sort of real-life context, to speak out about what she saw as the proper role of Sexuality Education in the high-school curriculum—she had received strict instructions not to comment from the school district's lawyer, who didn't want her to jeopardize the "sensitive negotiations" he was conducting with the McBrides' legal team.

The gag order remained in effect during the emergency school board meeting called to address the crisis, which meant that, after issuing a terse, abject apology to "anyone who might have been offended" by anything she'd said "that might have been inappropriate," Ruth had to sit down and shut up while speaker after speaker rose to accuse her ofrecklessness and irresponsibility and even, in the case of one very angry old man, to suggest that she had more than a thing or two in common with "a certain lady from Babylon." A handful of parents spoke up on Ruth's behalf, but their support felt tepid at best—people were understandably reluctant to rally around the banner of oral sex at a school board meeting—and their statements were regularly interrupted by a chorus of boos from the Tabernacle contingent.

The bad taste from this experience was still strong in Ruth's mouth when she got to work the next morning and found a notice in her mailbox announcing a special schoolwide assembly on the subject of "Sexual Abstinence: Saying Yes to Saying No," presented by an organization called Wise Choices for Teens. At any other point in her career, Ruth would have barged into the Principal's office and told Joe Venuti exactly what she thought about Abstinence Education—that it was a farce, an attack on sexuality itself, nothing more than officially sanctioned ignorance—but she was well aware of the fact that her opinion was no longer of the slightest interest to the school administration. This lecture was damage control, pure and simple, a transparent attempt to placate the Tabernacle people and their supporters, to let them know that their complaints had been heard.

So Ruth buttoned her lip—it had become second nature—and went to the assembly, curious to see what the students would make of it. After all, Stonewood Heights wasn't the Bible Belt; it was a well-to-do Northeastern suburb, not liberal by any means, but not especially conservative, either. On the whole, the kids who grew up here believed in money, status, and fun; most of them would readily admit that they were a lot more focused on getting into a good college than the Kingdom of Heaven. They traveled, drove nice cars, wore cool clothes, and surfed the web on their camera phones. It was hard to imagine them being particularly receptive to the idea that an earthly pleasure existed that they weren't entitled to enjoy whenever and however they felt like it.

Ruth wasn't sure what kind of spokesperson she'd been expecting, but it certainly wasn't the young woman who took the stage after a warm welcome from Principal Venuti. The guest speaker wasn't just blond and pretty; she was hot, and she knew it. You could see it in the way she moved toward the podium—like a movie star accepting an award—that consciousness she had of being watched, the pleasure she took in the attention. She wore a tailored navy blue suit with a knee-length skirt, an outfit whose modesty somehow provoked curiosity rather than stifling it. Ruth, for example, found herself squinting at the stage, trying to decide if the unusually proud breasts straining against the speaker's silk blouse had been surgically enhanced.

"Good afternoon," she said. "My name is JoAnn Marlow, and I'd like to tell you a few things about myself. I'm twenty-eight years old, I'm a Leo, I'm a competitive ballroom dancer, and my favorite band is Coldplay. I like racquet sports, camping and hiking, and going for long rides on my boyfriend's Harley. Oh, yeah, and one more thing: I'm a virgin."

She paused, waiting for the audience to recover from a sudden epidemic of groans and snickers, punctuated by shouts of "What a waste!" and "Not for long!" and "I'll be gentle!" issuing from unruly packs of boys scattered throughout the auditorium. JoAnn didn't seem troubled by the hecklers; it was all part of the show.

"I guess you feel sorry for me, huh? But you know what? I don't care. I'm happy I'm a virgin. And my boyfriend's happy about it, too."

Somebody coughed the word "Bullshit," and pretty soon half the crowd was barking into their clenched fists. It got so bad that Principal Venuti had to stand up and give everyone the evil eye until they stopped.

"You probably want to know why I'm so happy about something that seems so uncool, don't you? Well, let me tell you a story."

The story was about a carefree girl named Melissa whom JoAnn had known in college. Melissa slept around, but figured it was okay,because the guys always used condoms. One night, though, when she was having "safe sex" with this handsome stud she'd met at a bar—a guy she didn't know from Adam—the condom just happened to break, as condoms will.

"The guy looked healthy," JoAnn explained. "But he had AIDS. Melissa's dead now. And I'm alive. That's reason number one why I'm glad to be a virgin."

It turned out JoAnn had a lot of reasons. She was happy because she'd never had gonorrhea, like her friend, Lori, a straight A student who didn't realize she was sick until prom night, when she discovered a foul puslike discharge on her underwear; or the excruciatingly painful Pelvic Inflammatory Disease suffered by her ex-roommate, Angela, who'd let her chlamydia go untreated, and was now infertile; or herpes, like her old rock-climbing buddy, Mitch, who couldn't walk some days because of the agony caused by the festering sores on his penis; or hideous incurable genital warts like her otherwise-cute-as-a-button neighbor, Misty; or crabs, which were not actually crabs but lice—real live bugs!—having a party in your pubic hair, like they'd done to her ex-dancing partner, Jason.

"Oh, my friends used to tease me a lot," JoAnn said. "They called me a prude and a Goody Two-Shoes. Well, you can bet they're not teasing me now."

And there was one more thing. JoAnn was glad she'd never gone through what her friend Janice had, never had to pee on a stick to discover she was pregnant by some jerk she'd met at a frat party and would never have even spoken to if she hadn't been so drunk she could barely walk; never had to drive to an abortion clinic with this same jerk, who despised her as badly as she despised him; never had to lie there in a hospital gown while some creepy doctor did his business with a vacuum hose; never had to live with the responsibility of making a baby and then not allowing it to be born.

"I can sleep at night," JoAnn declared, "and that's more than I cansay for a lot of people I know. I can sleep because I don't have any regrets. I'm a strong, self-sufficient individual, and I can look myself in the mirror and honestly say that my mind and my body are one hundred percent intact. They're mine and mine alone, and I'm proud of that."

It was standard-issue Abstinence Ed, in other words—shameless fear-mongering, backed up by half-truths and bogus examples and inflammatory rhetoric—nothing Ruth hadn't been exposed to before, but this time, for some reason, it felt different. The way JoAnn presented this stuff, it came across as lived experience, and for a little while there—until she snapped out of her trance and saw with dismay how easily she'd been manipulated—even Ruth had fallen under her spell, wondering how she'd ever been so weak as to let herself be duped into thinking it might be pleasant or even necessary to allow herself to be touched or loved by another human being. Why would you, if all it was going to do was make you vulnerable to all those afflictions, all that regret?

After a short Q&A, JoAnn concluded her talk with a slide show. Instead of the gallery of diseased genitalia that Ruth had expected, though, Stonewood Heights High School was treated to a series of photographs of JoAnn and her boyfriend vacationing on a Caribbean island. If you didn't know better, you might have thought they were on their honeymoon—two happy, attractive young people frolicking in the ocean, drinking out of coconut shells by the pool, kissing beneath a palm tree, clearly reveling in each other's company (now that she'd gotten a glimpse of JoAnn's fearsome bikini cleavage, Ruth was convinced that her breasts had indeed benefited from cosmetic surgery). The final image showed the boyfriend alone—a buff, shirtless, all-American guy—standing by the water's edge in his swimming trunks, a surfboard tucked under his arm.

"As you might imagine," JoAnn said, "it's not easy saying no to a superhot guy like Ed. But when it gets hard, I just remind myself ofmy wedding night, and how amazing it's going to be when I give myself to my husband with a pure heart, a clean conscience, and a perfectly intact body. Because that's going to be my reward, and mark my words, people—it is going to be soooo good, oh my God, better than you can even imagine."

The lights came on, and the students applauded enthusiastically, though Ruth wasn't quite sure if they were applauding for the hot sex JoAnn would have in the future or her commitment to avoiding it in the here and now. Either way, Ruth had to grudgingly admit to herself that she was impressed. JoAnn Marlow had somehow pulled off the neat feat of seeming sexy and puritanical at the same time, of impersonating a feminist while articulating a set of ideas that would have seemed retro in 1954, of making abstinence seem steamy and adventurous, a right-wing American variation on Tantric sex. It was a little scary.

But it was over. Or at least Ruth thought it was, until she walked out of the auditorium and saw Dr. Farmer and Principal Venuti and several members of the school board standing in the hallway, looking pleased and excited.

"Wasn't that extraordinary?" Dr. Farmer asked her. "What a great role model for the kids."

"Informative, too," said Venuti. "Lots of medical facts and whatnot."

The board members—there were five of them, enough for a voting majority—nodded in enthusiastic agreement, and Ruth saw that it would be useless to quibble with JoAnn's facts or find fault with the way she'd presented them. The situation had clearly progressed beyond the point where facts were of any use to anyone, so she just nodded politely and went on her way.

At least this way she had a heads-up, and didn't feel ambushed a month later when the school board announced that the high school would be revamping its Sex Education curriculum over the summer, with the help of a dynamic nonprofit organization called Wise Choicesfor Teens. Later that same meeting, it was also announced that the McBride family had decided not to file a lawsuit against the Stonewood Heights School District after all.


A PALPABLE current of electricity moved through the classroom as Ruth perched herself on the edge of the metal desk, primly crossing her legs at the ankles. Tugging at the hem of her skirt, she found herself momentarily startled—it was something that happened a lot these days—by the sight of her calves, which had been transformed by all the running she'd done over the summer. They looked lovely and unfamiliar, almost as if she'd borrowed them from a woman half her age.

She'd started exercising in late spring, at the height of the scandal, on the suggestion of her ex-husband, who thought that a vigorous aerobic workout might alleviate the tension headaches and insomnia that had left her groggy and short-tempered, in no condition to function as a teacher or a parent. He reminded her of how riding a bicycle had gotten him through the darkest days of their divorce, when he missed their daughters so much he regularly cried himself to sleep at night.

"You can't brood," he told her. "You gotta go out and do something positive."

It was the best advice he ever gave her. She started small, half-walking, half-jogging a few laps around the middle-school track, but her body responded right away. In July, she was running three miles a day at a slow, steady clip; by mid-August, a brisk five-miler no longer made her feel like she was going to throw up or die of heatstroke. She ran a 10k race on Labor Day, finishing ninth in the Women Forty and Over category. In six months, she lost twenty pounds, streamlined her entire lower body, and realized, to her delight and amazement, that she looked thinner and healthier than she had in college, where she'd majored in Psychology and minored in Doritos. The only downside to this midlife physical transformation was that it made her that muchmore conscious of the absence of a man in her life—it seemed like such a waste, having a nice body again, and no one to appreciate it.

What the running mainly did, though—she could see it more clearly in retrospect than she'd been able to at the time—was provide her with a way of working through her anger and coming to some level of acceptance of the new regime. Because as much as she would have liked to stand up for what she believed in and resign in protest, where would she have been then? She was a divorced mother with two daughters who would soon be going to college, a tenured teacher with six years to go before she qualified for a full pension. It wouldn't be easy to find another district in the area willing to hire someone with her baggage. And besides, as Randall frequently reminded her, if she quit then they would win, the forces of shame and denial, the people who'd praise the Lord if they forced her out of the classroom and replaced her with someone more compliant. Wouldn't it be better to stay put and see what happened? The Abstinence curriculum was a pilot program, part of a two-year study funded by a federal grant. When it ended, who knew what would take its place?

All of these arguments had seemed perfectly plausible to Ruth as she'd jogged around Stonewood Lake at dusk, or huffed and puffed down the bike path at the first light of dawn. But right now, looking out on a classful of ninth graders, she wondered if she'd been betrayed by the endorphins, because all she wanted to do was apologize to her students for letting them down, for allowing it to come to this.

She knew it was past time to get started, but she couldn't seem to locate her voice. The kids were watching her closely, their faces alert and curious, paying the kind of attention she would have killed for on any other day. In the back row, the minders were growing restless, exchanging glances of puzzlement and concern. JoAnn leaned in close to Dr. Farmer and whispered something in his ear. Principal Venuti cleared his throat at high volume and made a spinning motion with hisindex finger, signaling that it was time to get rolling. Ruth felt a disgustingly fake smile—an adolescent reaction to social panic that she'd never fully conquered—tugging at the corners of her mouth. It took an effort of will for her to rein it in.

"Well," she finally managed to croak, in a voice she didn't recognize as her own. "Here we are."

THE ABSTINENCE TEACHER. Copyright © 2007 by Tom Perrotta. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Table of Contents


Copyright Notice,
Part One - Some People Enjoy It,
Miss Morality,
Let's Find Out,
Who Do We Appreciate?,
Part Two - Hot Christian Sex,
Three-Legged Race,
Praise Team,
Part Three - Coach Tim's God,
So Be It,
Yusuf Islam,
God's Warrior,
A Big Day for the Lord,
Two Tims,
Part Four - Presentation of Fears,
Go Home to Your Wife,
Faith Keepers,
Good Morning,

Reading Group Guide

"Perrotta is that rare combination: a satirist with heart….Those who haven't curled up on the couch with this writer's books are missing a very great pleasure."—Seattle Times

Stonewood Heights is the perfect place to raise children: it's got good schools, solid values and a healthy real estate market. Parents in the town are involved in their children's lives, and often in other children's lives, too—coaching sports, driving carpool, focusing on enriching experiences. Ruth Ramsey is the high school human sexuality teacher whose openness is not appreciated by all her students—or their parents. Her daughter's soccer coach is Tim Mason, a former stoner and rocker whose response to hitting rock bottom was to reach out and be saved. Tim's introduction of Christianity on the playing field horrifies Ruth, while his evangelical church sees a useful target in the loose-lipped sex ed teacher. But when these two adversaries in a small-town culture war actually talk to each other, a surprising friendship begins to develop.

"Nobody renders the world of soccer moms and sprinklers and SUVs like Perrotta. He's the Steinbeck of suburbia."—Time

"Tom Perrotta is a truth-telling, unshowy chronicler of modern-day America."—The New York Times Book Review (in a front-page review)

The Abstinence Teacher illuminates the powerful emotions that run beneath the placid surface of modern American family life, and explores the complicated spiritual and sexual lives of ordinary people. It is elegantly and simply written, characterized by the distinctive mix of satire and compassion that has become Perrotta's trademark.

1.) There are numerous references to Ruth and Tim's past sexual experiences scattered throughout the novel. How do these anecdotes color the debate about sex education at the center of the narrative?

2.) Is Ruth the victim of a witch hunt, or a teacher who went too far and deserved to be reined in by her community?

3.) Is Tim Mason's faith genuine? Or is it, as his mother suggests, a crutch, something temporary that he needed to fight his addictions? What remains of his faith at the end of the novel?

4.) Is Ruth right to be upset when Tim asks the girls to pray after the soccer game? How is this different from Ruth teaching sexuality in a way that some Christian parents might find offensive?

5.) In order to keep her job, Ruth is forced to teach a curriculum she does not believe in. Discuss a time when you felt you had to sacrifice your beliefs or principles.

6.) Ruth doesn't challenge her daughter Eliza or hold back her permission when she wants to go to church with her friend from school. Can you think of other examples in The Abstinence Teacher when a character restrains him or herself from something they are very tempted to do?

7.) Can you think of something Ruth's daughters might want to do that would horrify Ruth even more than organized church-going?

8.) What do you make of the Abstinence Refresher course taught by JoAnn? Do stories of sexual regret reinforce the idea that young people should refrain from sex until marriage? Or do they simply remind us that making mistakes—both sexual and otherwise—is an essential part of growing up?

9.) Both Ruth and Tim struggle with inner conflicts that make it difficult for them to fulfill their public roles. How does this influence their encounters? Do you think there's any future for them as a couple?

10.) If Ruth, Tim and their families lived in a 1950's version of Stonewood Heights, how would their stories play out differently? What about a 1970's version?

11.) How do you think private beliefs can best be balanced with public interests like education? Who should have a say in how a community's children are taught? What happens when the community is bitterly divided?

12.) Did you feel differently about Evangelical Christianity after reading The Abstinence Teacher? Why?

14.) Despite some studies questioning their effectiveness, abstinence programs continue to be implemented. Why do you think that is?

15.) Ruth Ramsey is both a parent and a teacher in the public school system of Stonewood Heights. Do you think her own experience as a parent makes her a better human sexuality teacher?

16.) In her review of The Abstinence Teacher, critic Liesl Schillinger praises the book's objective stance toward evangelicals: "What does the author think of Pastor Dennis and his flock? Without explicitly taking sides, Perrotta does not spell it out. Instead, he gives space and speeches to proselytizers and scoffers alike, letting readers form their own conclusions." But religious scholar Stephen Prothero detects a strong bias against the Tabernacle: "Most of the evangelical characters in this book do little to upend the stereotypes that New York City writers and readers harbor about them." How do you account for this discrepancy in the views of the two critics? Which do you think is more persuasive?


1. Reviewers have noted Perrotta’s gift for creating an ensemble of characters who are flawed but innately likeable. Is there a primary protagonist in this book? What are the strengths and flaws of each character? Do you have a favourite character?

2. Perrotta writes of Ruth’s approach to Sex Ed that “She believed — it was her personal credo — that Pleasure is Good, Shame is Bad, and Knowledge is Power; she saw it as her mission to demystify sex for the teenagers of Stonewood Heights” (pp. 13-14). Discuss the way Perrotta portrays the opposing ideologies in this novel, for example Ruth’s “credo” versus the Tabernacle’s “Gospel Truth.” Does either side “win” in the end? Are these sides portrayed fairly?

3. Ruth takes public stands on sex education and religion, but in smaller matters, such as her friend’s decision to take her husband’s surname, she decides not to weigh in: “she kept this opinion to herself, having learned the hard way that you could only lose by taking sides in matters as basic as this.” (p. 6) What is your opinion on when to bite one’s tongue with friends? What is the cost to Ruth of asserting herself on the larger public debates? Are there benefits?

4. Midway through the book, Tim thinks about how he enjoys the all-inclusive community of the Tabernacle. (p. 139) Is the Tabernacle really all-inclusive? What is the significance of community in this novel?

5. Though Pastor Dennis has advised Tim to imagine Christ at his side in times of crisis, he visualizes Christ as a too-permissive friend and falls back on imagining PastorDennis instead. (p. 239) What do you think is happening here, and later when Tim hears the voice of God? (p. 354) Has the Church had an overall positive or negative impact on Tim’s life? Is it an effective solution to his addictions in the long term? Did the depiction of Tim’s religious life feel real to you?

6. What is it that really draws Ruth and Tim together? Consider what Ruth writes in the seminar about making mistakes, and worrying that when she someday lies on her deathbed she’ll be “wishing I’d lived when I had the chance.” (p. 264) What do you think Tim would think about what she says? What do you think?

7. “She’d secretly been hoping to find herself enmeshed in one of those corny ‘opposites attract’ narratives that were so appealing to writers of sitcoms and romantic comedies. The formula was simple: You brought together a man and a woman who held wildly divergent worldviews – an idealistic doctor, say, and an ambulance-chasing lawyer – and waited for them to realize that their witty intellectual combat was nothing but a smoke screen, kicked up to conceal the inconvenient and increasingly obvious fact that they were desperate to hop into bed with each other.” (p. 183) How is this book similar to this formula? How is it different? Does the romance between Ruth and Tim remind you of any other novels you’ve read?

8. At the Faith Keepers conference, Brother Biggs instructs the congregants to define and write down their “GREATEST FEAR.” (p. 342) What do you think Tim’s answer means? What did you think of this exercise? Would you be able to distill your answer into something printable on an index card?

9. A review of this book in the New York Times cites Perrotta’s “pitch-perfect ear for dialogue.” What was your favourite bit of dialogue in this book? What rang for you as the truest, or funniest, moments?

10. Were you surprised by the ending? What do you think will happen with Ruth and Tim?

11. What are your thoughts about sex education and today’s youth?

12. Perrotta is adapting this novel for film, as he did for two of his previous novels, Election and Little Children. If it were up to you, which actors would you cast in the primary roles?

Customer Reviews

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Abstinence Teacher 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 115 reviews.
shannongesq More than 1 year ago
The book is about a divorced sex-ed teacher who runs up against some evangelical Christians who do not like the way she teaches her class. It's a pitched battle - that she loses. She is forced to teach abstinence. Meanwhile, her daughter plays on a soccer team coached by one of the evangelicals. A former rock band guy who's a recovering addict. He's married to one of the flock and unhappy. He's fighting to stay sober and wondering whether the "Godly" life is truly for him. The main characters intersect and, of course, there is a romantic tension between them. It's not acted upon during the course of the book, but it is there. Overall, I liked the book. I found the ending to be unsatisfying. It wasn't that it left things open. It just seemed like the author got to a point and decided to just stop writing. 20 or so more pages would have not left an impression like he just ran out of gas and left the book on the side of the road as is.
nbNYC More than 1 year ago
I love Tom Perrotta's books. I read one of his short stories in a compilation of Best Short Stories (2005?) edited by Michael Chabon and knew I wanted to read more. I then read Little Children and this book and was not disappointed. Perrotta's writing is elegant and fluid, easy to read, and hilarious. He writes about ordinary people and his descriptions are spot on. We must be around the same age because I found myself laughing out loud at his very specific dated references. I doubt anyone will understand them twenty years from now but for those of us in their forties, it is perfect. His characters are very likable and I couldn't put the book down. I moved on to Joe College which was equally engaging and clever. The unique aspect of Perrotta's work is that his writing seems effortless, easy, light but is actually very sophisticated and often profound.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I like story line, but my problem was the ending of the book. The author, in my opinion, did a very good job with the characters. I really enjoyed Ruth and Tim. I just think he lost his focus towards the end, to me it was as if he was rushed to finish and that was his final product. In other words it climaxed but it tumbled on its way down.
ringoDR More than 1 year ago
Had to slog through a lot to get to a disappointing ending.
lindseyrivers on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I will be honest. I bought this book, without reading the description, with the hope that it would bash on abstinence only education. But I left confused. Yes, it seems through the main character that Perrota is against abstinence only education. But you can't talk about abstinence only education without bringing in religion and I just couldn't figure out where he stood. In some ways, he seemed to be poking fun at the ridiculous standards that religious zealots ask their followers to uphold, but his treatment of the preacher makes him seem sympathetic to his cause. I wasn't disappointed in the ending, as some were, but I didn't want to stop reading it either. Overall, a good read. I will definitely have to check out more Perrotta!
indygo88 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My first Tom Perrotta read, though I have at least one or two others on my shelf waiting. I wouldn't call this a gripping story so much as an exploration of relationships. And for that, I think it was fairly accurate. It's a good book to promote discussion, as it's got some controversial subject matter. There's Ruth, the local high school sex education teacher who is being pressured to tone down her subject matter & encourage abstinence. Then there's Tim, a soccer coach and an ex-substance abuser who's reforming himself via the local fundamentalist church. Their lifestyles don't in themselves clash necessarily, but when Tim initiates a prayer following a soccer game (Ruth's daughter is on the team), Ruth becomes upset and confrontational, and thus begins a rocky, but interesting relationship. There are no right's or wrong's in this book, but it does bring to light the ways in which we, as Americans, must find ways to intermingle different beliefs. The most disturbing part of this book for me was the ending, mostly because it felt unfinished. I realize you can't easily wrap up a complicated subject matter such as this, but I would've liked to have seen a little more resolution.As a side note, though I like Campbell Scott as an actor, I thought his voice was a little too dry & monotonic for this audiobook.
kalky on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really wanted to love this book, but I couldn't. Although I like Perrotta's writing overall, there's nothing effortless about this story. Along with the forced story, another problem for me was that the characters lack depth -- I never had a clear picture of any of them; they were just names on a page.Overall, I liked THE ABSTINENCE TEACHER. I won't be encouraging others to read it, but I'm not sorry I did. It has received rave reviews from many sources that I usually respect, so there's always the possibility that I would like it if I read it at a different time.
CasualFriday on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ruth is a liberal teacher whose frankness about sex during health class brings down the wrath of local fundamentalists. Tim is a recovering alcoholic/addict who gets in hot water when he spontaneously leads the girls¿ soccer team in prayer. Put them together and you have an engaging book that is perhaps a little less than the sum of its parts.This is my first Perrotta. His portrayal of suburbia is interesting enough, often funny but not uproariously so. I expected a more scathing indictment of the Bible thumpers, but if anything Perrotta is kinder to them than to Ruth. His Christians may be corny and they may not be great intellects, but they are absolutely sincere and mostly good-hearted, especially the protagonist Tim. Ruth, while unimpeachable in her principled arguments about the sex ed controversy, is portrayed as quick-tempered, unsettled and a little immature. My discomfort with this undoubtedly reflects my own beliefs on both sex and religion, which are not exactly fundamentalist.
sturlington on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Tom Perrotta is a likable writer, but I find that his books don¿t have much sticking power. For me, The Abstinence Teacher didn¿t even begin to measure up to my favorite of Perrotta¿s novels, The Wishbones, or the very engaging Little Children, his previous release.The Abstinence Teacher is set in suburban New York. A high school sex education teacher runs afoul of a local fundamentalist church and finds herself teaching an abstinence-only curriculum that she absolutely does not agree with. Then she discovers that her daughter¿s attractive soccer coach is a reformed drug addict who is a member of the same church and who stirs up a brouhaha by leading the team in prayer after a game.The main thing that irritated me about the narrative was the way it jumped around in time without much rhyme or reason. Just as I¿m settling into a scene, I¿m thrust two days into the past, or the action segues into the previous night. And the characters themselves seemed ineffectual and unable to take a strong stand on any of their supposedly closely held beliefs, or even on their attraction to each other. Which was probably the point, but I think this theme is getting a little worn out in Perrotta¿s fiction. We¿ve had the futility of modern suburban life before; let¿s move on to some new material.Which isn¿t to say that I didn¿t like the book. I actually liked it well enough while I was reading it, and I tore through it pretty fast. But when it was over, it was the literary equivalent of popcorn: not filling, not satisfying, no sticking power. I want to love Tom Perrotta as a writer, I really do, but his books just don¿t awaken that level of passion in me, no matter how much I try.
kerinlo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved this book at the start and couldn't put it down. The characters are engaging and real. Perrotta develops his characters well and gives them real life flaws that help define them on the page. As I read, I felt the plot fell a little flat. I was interested in the main characters' struggles, but they took a back seat by the end and weren't totally resolved. I like books that are open ended, but this ending was a bit unsatisfying. I am still trying to figure out if that is a good thing or a bad thing. Overall, intriguing and interesting, a book that does raise a lot of questions about sex ed and religion in the community.
speedy74 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When Ruth Ramsey, tenured sex education teacher, makes an offhanded comment in class regarding oral sex, she finds herself in the middle of a conflict regarding sex education curriculum. The result is her "retraining" as an abstinence teacher which ultimately ends in a job reassignment due to her lack of enthusiasm and questioning of the new abstinence curriculum.In addition to her problems at school, Ruth is also dealing with her role as a single parent, her daughters' new found interest in going to church, and loneliness associated with her singlehood. When her daughter's soccer coach spontaneously gathers his soccer team in a prayer of thanksgiving after a hard earned victory, Ruth's frustrations with the religious right come to a head and she works to gather support for a letter to the soccer league asking for disciplinary action against Tim, the soccer coach.Tim, on the otherhand, is dealing with his own personal issues. A former drug addict, Tim has found peace in her new faith and membership in the Tabernacle church. As the book unfolds, however, Tim experiences a crisis in his spiritual life as he works to deal with an ex-wife who does not want their daughter going to church, a lukewarm 2nd marriage, and troubles with the temptations of drugs and alcohol. Ulitmately, Tim ends up on Ruth's doorstep looking for a refuge from his life. While the book was a page turner with its complex character development and inner character conflicts, it ultimately is a disappointment. At the end of the novel, there doesn't seem to be any resolution to the miriad of conflict that the author sets in motion. Overall, this book was a reading disappointment.
Jenners26 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Story OverviewRuth Ramsey is a divorced mother with two daughters who teaches Sex Education ("Health") at the local high school in the affluent town of Stonewood Heights. Ruth is a popular teacher with the students -- known for her candidness, openness and practicality in teaching sex education. But then a newly formed Christian church in town -- Tabernacle -- and its charismatic but aggressive leader, Pastor Dennis, begin protesting Ruth's style of teaching sex ed and file a lawsuit against the school district. Plunged into a controversy she doesn't want and is mortified by, Ruth ends up being forced to teach a new curriculum based on abstinence and sanctioned by the Christian right. Angry but resigned, Ruth half-heartedly teaches the new curriculum under the watchful eye of principal, school superintendent and JoAnn Marlow, the Wise Choices for Teens liaison.But when Ruth attends her daughter's soccer game, she is furious when the coach (and Tabernacle church member) Tim Mason leads the girls in a post-game prayer. Fed up with the Tabernacle church interfering in her life again, Ruth publicly chastises Coach Mason and begins a crusade to ban prayer from the soccer field. But when Tim stops by to apologize and talk to Ruth, she is startled to find that he isn't quite the person she initially thought.Tim Mason is a divorced dad who has had a drug and alcohol addiction his whole life. It cost him his marriage, jobs, and custody of his child. But when Pastor Dennis found Tim and offered him a new chance with Jesus at his side, Tim was surprised to find that the Tabernacle church and Christianity is what he has been seeking. Supported by the church community and given a path to follow that keeps him from the temptations that have brought him down before, Tim starts to put his life together. Coaching the soccer team is his attempt to rebuild his relationship with his daughter Abby. He also remarries a fellow Christian from his church, Carrie, and attempts to live a good Christian life.As Ruth and Tim struggle with their personal demons -- Ruth with loneliness, teaching a curriculum she can't believe in, her daughters' growing interest in Christianity and Tim with his loveless marriage, sobriety and increasing disenchantment with the Church -- they forge a tenuous connection that surprises them both.My ThoughtsI have a new favorite author and his name is Tom Perrotta! I loved this book. Not only does it tackle hot topics like sex ed, the separation of church and state, religion, spirituality and morality, it does so with a wicked sense of humor. You think and you laugh -- in my mind, the best thing a book can give you. Although Perrotta is often irreverent, he is also not afraid to dig deep into Ruth and Tim's pain. I admire the author's ability to create flawed characters that are also relatable. Ruth and Tim are by no means perfect but that is why I loved them so much. They are purely human.I love that Perrotta was able to sensitively talk about divisive issues and give both protagonists an opposing viewpoint, but he was able to bring them together in a way that feels natural and believable. Although Perrotta clearly seems to be on the Ruth's "side" as far as politics, he does a wonderful job of presenting the good aspects of Christianity and what it can bring to people's lives. Having the "pro-Christian" character be a former drug addict and rock musician makes Tim's need for the church more believable than if Perrotta had chosen to have Pastor Dennis be Ruth's foil.I don't usually like to quote blurbs on the backs of books, but I thought the one on this book just captured my feelings so perfectly that I'm going to include it here: The Abstinence Teacher illuminates the powerful emotions that run beneath the placid surface of modern American family life and explores the complicated spiritual and sexual lives of ordinary people. It is elegantly and simply written, characterized by the distinctive mix of satire and compassion t
Beth350 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be terribley annoying. Perhaps it is meant to be a parody or satire - but the "born-again" self-righteousness turned me off.
meags222 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. I had read mixed reviews. I found the juxtaposition of fanatic religion and anti-religion to be interesting. While I tended to relate more to Ruth, a sex education teacher who is forced to adhere to a strict abstinence focused program, I at times was frustrated with how close minded she was. I enjoyed reading the parts about Ruth more than the parts about Tim. I found Tim to be bland and seemingly without much personality. I suppose that it might be on purpose to show how fanatic religion has taken over Tim's personality and he doesn't quite know who he is anymore. I just found it funny that both sides were evenly close minded. Overall, this book is easy to read because the characters draw you in. I give is 4 out of 5 stars.
mjanetten on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I flew through the sexual nuances of religion and suburbia¿s affect on society in The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta. At times funny and at others, very controversial and direct, this one was a winner for me, all around.
julie10reads on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Tom Perrotta has been described as a skilfull commentator on suburbia. I find that demeaning, I don¿t know why. Let¿s say instead that Tom Perrotta understands the rough terrain of family relationships.The Abstinence Teacher features Ruth, an intelligent and liberal high school sex-ed teacher forced to teach a new, abstinence-based, curriculum and Tim Mason, former rock band member and drug addict, who now rehabilitated, seeks support from the pastor of an evangelical Christian church. Tim is the soccer coach for his daughter¿s team. Ruth¿s daughter plays for the same team. Ruth¿s and Tim¿s world collide when he spontaneously asks the team to say a prayer after a stunning victory.There are some quite funny bits (like when Tim alludes to Spinal Tap and turning the dial up to 11 and the chapter called Hot Christian Sex) but it¿s not the type of book that lends itself to posting quotes. These are everyday scenarios that most of us have experienced either as child or parent and spouse. It¿s the way Mr. Perrotta reveals the characters¿ thoughts and queues the scenes that produces a wonderfully understated and entertaining story.I have seen references to a proposed film of The Abstinence Teacher with Sandra Bullock and Steve Carrell. Sure to be a funny movie. However, the book explores different kinds of relationships among blended families, colleagues and friends. I doubt the movie will do more than caricaturize these elements.I was impressed by Mr. Perrotta¿s restraint: far from ridiculing evangelical Christians (that approach would be too crude), through Tim he helps us understand what this church could offer (promise?).8 out of 10 and recommended to readers who enjoy subtle satire.
jasonpettus on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography []. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)As I've mentioned here a couple of times before, I've recently become a fairly big fan of movie-friendly author Tom Perrotta; for example, I found his breakthrough 2006 novel Little Children to be a surprisingly complex and subtle look at just what a horrific place the suburbs can be to some people, a stifling environment that squashes all yearning for something beyond the lowest common denominator as thoroughly as a Communist cultural crackdown. Ah, but then I read his latest, 2007's similarly-themed The Abstinence Teacher, and realized something I think I knew all along but that I hadn't wanted to admit to myself; that Perrotta in fact dances on that thin little line between being a good movie-friendly author and a bad one, and that even a small amount of seemingly inconsequential bad decisions on his part concerning character and story will eventually amount to one giant stinker of a book by the end, even with such a book still being 92-percent exactly like the other book that's great and that everyone loves.Like Little Children, for example, The Abstinence Teacher is also set in a repressive McMansion-happy middle-class suburb in the American Northeast; like Little Children, it's also supposed to be about a subversive sexual tension between people on opposite sides of an arbitrary issue that is arbitrarily important in this gossipy hothouse suburban environment. But see, here's a perfect example of what I'm talking about, because in Little Children Perrotta makes such a relationship work, by making the supposed opposites actually two sides of the same coin; in that book, it makes sense that the former radical-feminist academe and the former frat-boy football hero would have a charged illicit affair, because it was the Kafkaesque environment they were in that brought an end to both their individual hopes and dreams. In his newest book, though, Perrotta tries to use a Fundamentalist Christian church as the catalyst bringing two people from opposite sides of the fence suddenly and unusually together; but in this case such a thing simply doesn't work, because of the church and its actions causing a legitimate rift between anyone who falls on either side of the fence, too big to be overcome in a cutesy romantic way like Perrotta tries to do.In fact, this is the question I kept coming back to, over and over and over again as I read this novel; of why the main Christian character, former rock star and wicked addict Tim Mason, so thoroughly devotes his life to a cartoonishly evil Evangelical church to begin with. Perrotta tries to explain that it was the church who helped him overcome his addiction, and so Tim feels an irrational fear of falling off the wagon if he were to ever stray from their mustache-twirling neocon activities, but I'm not buying it; I myself am an atheist who's never been through a recovery program, and even I know that there are literally hundreds of politically moderate religious organizations out there designed specifically to help recovering addicts. (This is even a basic precept of the 12 Step Program itself; that the "higher power" at the center of the program isn't necessarily the Christian God, or indeed any personified supernatural being if you don't want it to be.) If I'm a godless heathen and still know all this, it would only be natural that a former addict going through a 12-Step-based recovery would know it all too, and know that he has plenty of alternatives besides sticking around with the Ralph Reed crowd seen here.In effect it creates this incredibly awkward literary situation for Perrotta to messily have to handle -- a supposedly "nice guy," who you're ultimately supposed to root for, who throughout the book secretly belies his moderate and humanita
Maggie_Rum on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was fun. It wasn't pure comedic gold, or a stunning historical satire. But, I enjoyed it. This book delves into abstinence only sex ed, evangelical Christianity, and separation of church and state. Yet, it is not heavy handed or depressing. The characters, if a little flat, help to move the story forward. While some may complain that the ending is to loose, I felt the ending was good.
karieh on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
¿Until she¿d seen those girls, those beautiful young athletes, sitting on the grass in the sunshine, being coerced by adults they trusted into praying to the God of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and the Republican Party ¿ the God of War and Abstinence and Shame and Willful Ignorance, the God Who loved Everyone Except the Homosexuals, Who sent People to Hell If They Didn¿t Believe In Him, and Let Murderers and Child Rapists Into Heaven If They Did, the God Who Made Women As An Afterthought, and Then Cursed Them With The Pain Of Childbirth, the God Who Would Never Have Let Girls Play Soccer In The First Place if It Had Been up to Him¿¿Had Tom Perotta hooked my brain up to some sort of mental tape recorder ¿ he couldn¿t have gotten any closer to my exact thoughts regarding the current state of organized religion in our country. So it seems a bit repetitive, then, to say that Ruth, the main character whose thought the above quote is, and I, have a bit in common.¿The Abstinence Teacher¿ takes a look at a small town version of one of the current cultural battles of our country. The Progressives against the Conservatives plays itself out in every newscast, every talk show, and every newspaper. It¿s a battle that seems destined never to be won, yet the battle is heating up and the stakes are getting higher.As agnostic who was unable to watch more than a half hour of ¿Jesus Camp¿ ¿ even under the :Know Thine Enemy¿ plan ¿ I feel Ruth¿s terror when she sees her daughters being preached to by an born-again Christian. I feel the urge that propels her to grab her daughter away from the kneeling group. I feel the fake small that hurts her face when she is forced to smile for the sake of her daughters as she interacts with shiny, happy people from another evangelical church. I feel her liberal pain as she sticks to her ideals and allows her daughters to explore a religion she does not believe in ¿ one that has eroded her job and her life.I think Perotta does a very fair job making Ruth realize that she must practice what she preaches (!) and let her daughters experiment with organized religion. As much as she disagrees with the close minded and determinedly ignorant members of the born again churches in her small town ¿ she knows that she has to rise above them and allow her children to make their own mistakes. Not that the other side would do the same, of course.Perotta also does an excellent job not making me hate Tim, the born-again soccer coach whose actions lead to Ruth¿s conflict with her daughters. He is a former drug and alcohol addict turned Jesus addict. Every day is a struggle for him as he tries to find something real in his life, something that fits. He nearly destroyed his life and his family with drugs and booze¿yet is increasingly unsure that the religion he is ingesting is any better for him.Both Ruth and Tim are deeply flawed characters. They are each searching, even in their forties to find who they really are. Is she a Sex Education teacher that doesn¿t have sex but doesn¿t believe that abstinence works? Is he a born again Christian who can¿t stop thinking about sex ¿ unless it¿s sex with his perfect Christian wife?The two main characters of this book first seem to represent the extreme sides of the religious debate in our country¿yet it soon becomes obvious that few people fit into those extremes. Even at his most religious point, Tim can¿t bring himself to hate homosexuals the way his church demands that he does. Even at her most rebellious point after dealing with the anti-information group called ¿Wise Choices¿ ¿ Ruth can¿t let go of her inhibitions or her sense of decency.The other quote from this book that seared itself into my mind was this: ¿¿it was so galling to be ¿teaching¿ today¿s prepackaged lesson, whose misleading and dangerous title she¿d scribbled on the blackboard at the beginning with a shaky, self-loathing hand: ¿THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS SAFE SEX.¿ Well, of course there wasn¿t, n
kimreadthis on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was well-written and I wanted to enjoy it, but I did not care for the ending and the characters' choices (which seemed a bit out-of-character for me at the novel's conclusion).
msbaba on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Despite its title, The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta, is not about adolescents having sex, or not having sex. It¿s a subtly satirical and witty study of religious fanaticism¿a fascinating journey into the American cultural war between the liberal left and fundamentalist Christian right. Perrotta brings these issues to life within the microcosm of a typical upper-middle-class Northeastern suburb¿the fictional town of Stonewood Heights, ¿Sodom with good schools and a 24-hour supermarket.¿ The drama plays out between two seemingly polar opposite protagonists, both in their early forties: Ruth Ramsy and Tim Mason. Ruth is a liberal-left-leaning woman who teaches sex education at the local high school. She is a divorced mother of two adolescent girls. Ruth hasn¿t had a serious relationship since her divorce, and achingly longs for another man in her life. Ruth is deeply suspicious of a new church that has been spreading its influence everywhere throughout the town. She fears this new evangelical Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth church as if it were something ¿out of a horror movie¿ like ¿Invasion of the Body Snatchers.¿ Tim is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, who found Jesus only a few years earlier after hitting rock bottom. Tim belongs to The Tabernacle and credits its pastor with saving his life. He lost everything to his former addictions¿his house, his job, his wife, and his two lovely girls. The Tabernacle is his lifeline, and no doubt, his latest addition. Tim¿s mother is right on target when she accuses him of ¿using Jesus like a substitute for drugs.¿ Tim is a genuinely good human being, brutally handicapped by an overly tenacious addictive personality, one that has taken hold of his brain and rewired it, making his recovery an extremely difficult life-long struggle. In an effort to spend more time with his older girl, Abby, Tim volunteers to coach the local girls soccer team. There he befriends Ruth¿s daughter, Maggie, one of his star players. Maggie soon begins to idealize him and view him like a father figure. Perrotta takes great care to flesh out each of his main characters. The story is told from each main character¿s opposing point of view. The author presents each character and their worlds with such detailed precision that at times readers may feel that they are being given an anthropological lesson about some exotic land that he is exploring for their benefit. The Tabernacle clashes with the town over two issues, and Ruth finds herself at the center of each. First, the church objects to the liberal manner in which Ruth conducts her sex education classes. Their arguments hold sway over the school board, and Ruth soon finds that she is being forced, against her will and her own strong moral compass, to teach a new form of Christian sexual abstinence education. Consequently, she is a seething hotbed of pent-up anger over this issue.The second clash occurs when coach Tim gathers his soccer players into an inadvertent prayer circle after a particularly successful game. Ruth sees her daughter Maggie being drawn into the prayer circle and yanks her away in a titanic fit of rage. Everyone looks on in horror as if she were out of her mind. Subsequently, Ruth tries to stir up legal action against Tim among other soccer parents, but eventually drops it after Tim comes over to her home and apologizes for his lapse in judgment. They get to know one another briefly. Ruth sees deep into this man¿s troubled soul knows that his apology is genuine. They discover that they have much in common and keep their conversation going long after it should have ended. On a primal level¿just below their own consciousness but not the readers¿each recognizes that they are strongly attracted to one another.In typical Perrotta style, the novel ends abruptly at the point where each main character makes a fateful decision that will propel them into a significant new stage of their lives. The author leaves it to the reader to decid
bnbooklady on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I had high hopes for this book, as I loved Little Children and thought the subject matter had great potential to be both hilarious and very relevant. The main story line was wonderful and had very strong satire; however, the subplots were lacking and ended up distracting from the overall effect. I would still recommend this book, but it certainly wouldn't make it onto my "favorites" list.
lauriemk on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really loved this book. I thought this was so well-written, with amazing characters. I was prepared to not like it as I really didn't like the movie "Little Children", based on another of Perrotta's books. But I found The Abstinence Teacher to be so real and well-done. Perrotta took a bunch of characters who could have so easily been cliches, and made them real, three dimensional people. I recommend this one if you like books that are basically character studies where not a lot else goes on.
mpicker0 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Decent, though I thought Little Children was better. A little too much product placement (it's the suburbs, 2007ish, we get it already), and a very abrupt and unsatisfying ending.
kingsportlibrary on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed the way this book was able to snag my interest from beginning to end. It touched on some very controversial issues regarding sex and religion in a very realistic way. Do you teach safe sex or abstinence, does teaching safe sex convey that it is OK or is it a sin. I'm sure many people have struggled with this. The characters and their emotions regarding sex and "Christianity" or religion were ones that I could relate to. Although it offered no solution to this age old dilemma it was delightfully honest.