It was Condom Day in Alex Bacos' class, which is listed in the teacher index as health class, but which Bacos prefers to call "Sex and Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll."
"Here's our erection," he said, holding up a piece of brilliant red plastic tubing. With the flair of a sleight-of-hand artist, he ripped open a package of condoms and slipped one onto the tube with a loud elastic snap.
He turned to the girls, some of whom were holding their hands over their mouths as if stifling screams.
"You'll never see a man with one this big around," he said.
This is sex ed in the leave-nothing-to-the-imagination '90s, when the whispers of the locker room have become the dialogue of the classroom.
Bacos believes that in the age of AIDS, if you're going to talk to kids about sex, you've got to speak the language. So he shies away from nothing. He will even call an erection by its street name, if doing so helps clear up a bit of adolescent anatomical confusion.
"I don't care if you call it a boner," he said. "But there is no bone in there."
There's no hint of prurience when Bacos talks about sex, because he is so earnest. This is an achievement, because at first glance one might take him for an aspiring actor. He has a dark, close-cropped beard, dresses in a casual, slick way in well-made sweaters with rolled-up sleeves and often wears sunglasses on a cord around his neck.
The 32-year-old Bacos has taught at Northridge for five years. In that time, he has become one of the most popular teachers on the faculty.
When he appears on campus, students call out his name and run to him with urgent personal problems for him to solve or to invite him to a party. No, he says, but thanks. He stands with feet wide apart, frequently running his hand through his hair, which sticks up in small tufts like a bird's plumage.
Bacos' approach to teaching, and life in general, was influenced by his twin brother, who was born with a learning disability and scorned as a child. The brother would occasionally react to the taunting violently, and Alex was left to "clean up the mess."
This has made him sensitive to others' pain. Teaching is a mission, he says. Most of the Northridge Middle School teachers share that belief, but with him, there is an almost religious fervor.
"I'm fighting for the future of society and the country against alcohol and drugs and all these forces."
Twenty years ago, Bacos said, kids were different and teachers could teach differently. They could be somewhat removed and professorial. Now, he said, he is teaching in a war zone. Maybe there are no bomb craters on the playground, but the drugs and the gangs and the shootings have invaded the classroom and left wounds on the kids that will scar up just the same.
To teach in such an atmosphere you've got to find new methods. As is the case with other teachers the kids list as favorites, there is a lot of the stage in Bacos' instructional methods. He strides rapidly from one end of the room to the other, gesticulating dramatically, pleading with the students to pay attention to his message.
"You've got to hook them," he said.
Some teachers feel too much effort is spent entertaining students these days and too little educating them. But Alex Bacos feels that these people are out of touch or, worse, uncaring. Bacos is so empathetic that when it snowed a couple of years ago, he asked the students who showed up: "What are you doing here?"
Retelling the story, he looked a little sheepish. "The anti-teacher," he said.
Bacos' curriculum ranges over drugs, gangs and growing-up issues.
Listening to students' graphic language, not infrequently punctuated by four-letter words, one might get the impression that they already know everything about sex.
But youths of this age often have an appalling amount of misinformation, Bacos said.
Bacos always asks his students, "What is sex?" to gauge just how much they know. Some of the answers are funny and some are so blatant and descriptive they could have been written by a young Henry Miller.
"When a man rocks the woman's world," said one. Another wrote: "When two people get on top of each other and start jumping up and down."
Because the students are often too shy to ask for information publicly, Bacos provides a box for anonymous questions.
"I will answer almost any question," he said. "One thing I do is tell the truth."
If they want to know why two people of the same sex would want to make love, he tells the students two of his closest friends are lesbians. The only questions he steers clear of are shock-value queries from students who want to show up the teacher. When asked about bestiality, he replies: "It's not natural, it's not normal, it's not something we need to discuss."
One cool Wednesday in December, Bacos introduced a new subject, menstruation, to his students, who sat in rapt, expressionless attention, like house cats watching birds in the trees outside. "Ladies, menstruation is your monthly period when you will bleed from your vagina. It's not a great thing, but you will learn to live with it."
He offered the boys a bit of advice on how to impress girls. "Guys, if you want women to dig you, women like men who understand pain. They do not like to hear, 'Oh, you're on the rag."' Everyone laughed nervously. "Men are pigs," he continued. "You should be understanding. Most men aren't."
Bacos is an unabashed feminist. "In my opinion," he said, "what a woman has inside of her is the center of the universe."
He curls his forefinger over inside his thumb, making a tiny hole. "This is the size of the cervix. The next time you're bagging on your mother, remember, that woman went through more physical pain than anyone ever will for you."
Despite such lessons, one doesn't have to search far to discover that raw sexism lives on school campuses. On the day of the annual Green and Gold flag-football game, a group of eighth-grade boys sat in a rickety metal grandstand and harassed the cheerleaders, who were doing their first public performance. "Take off your skirt," a boy in baggy pants shouted at the nervous girls in colorful pleated skirts and sweaters.
After a few pointed references to the girls' genitalia, the boy stood up and told the 100 or so students on the grandstand that one of the girls had shown him her chest. "They were just mosquito bites," he said, to laughter.
The cheerleader walked off the field in tears.
Bacos' frank, freewheeling teaching style should not be mistaken for a freewheeling attitude about sex. He advocates delaying sex, telling students the act will not be outlawed before they reach adulthood.
"You should not be having sex yet. Wait, wait, wait," he said. "It is so much better."
It's difficult to gauge how many students on campus are heeding his advice.
Ryan Hunter, a tall, blond boy who has been getting calls at home from several girls each night since the fifth grade, said most of the students are already having sex, an assertion that other students dispute. The more common observation is that it's not until the eighth grade that a significant percentage start experimenting.
Ryan's mother, Dale, said this precocity is the reason that she has been very open with her 13-year-old son about sex. She gave him a package of condoms for his birthday, she said in an interview in the rented house she shares with her two sons and a former child actor named Butch, a plumber.
"Sex kills now," she said, as Ryan cuddled against her on the big, brown L-shaped sofa. "We sat in the car and talked about it."
Ryan said he liked that his mother gave him condoms.
Asked if he had already had intercourse, Ryan drew away from his mother, put his face in his hands and admitted that he had.
"This is a deep-breath revelation for me," said Dale Hunter, her eyes widening. "He mentioned having sex before, but it was always like a joke."
Regaining her composure, the boy's mother said it's important to give kids straight answers about sex. "I couldn't have talked to my mother about 1% of the things Ryan and I talk about."
As for drugs, campus authorities are always on the lookout for telltale signs. Susan Castaneda, a history teacher, intercepted a note from a girl one day that read, "Let's do timber," a slang term for marijuana.
The only real drug bust on campus occurred when a teacher walked into the boys' bathroom near the gym just in time to see a youngster hiding something in his backpack.
"It's my brother's," the sixth-grader said sheepishly. The teacher confiscated the bag of marijuana, and the boy was taken to the office to await a transfer to another school.
Kenny Jan, a campus aide, said the boy had been transferred from another school to Northridge after bringing a knife on campus.
"His brother is a hard-core gangster," Jan said. "He just got out of jail (last summer). Seems like he's following in his brother's footsteps."
Jan said he had tried to work with the kid, as he often did with troubled students he thought he can turn around. It didn't work. "His attitude is, 'I don't care, and if you try to touch me, I'll set my brother on you.' He's already hard."
Some of the kids get their education about drugs at home.
Vickie Black said her stepson, Jesse, knows she smokes pot. She has told him to come to her if he wants to know about sex or drugs. Would she give him pot if he asked her? "If he wants to really try it, I would say, 'Are you sure this is what you really want to do?' Then, yeah, I probably would."
These are the things that motivate Bacos to come to school in the morning and to keep fighting to save kids from the streets. The high point of Bacos' class is Condom Day. The day he pulls out the little plastic package has developed into something of a minor school holiday. It became such an event that Bacos stopped telling the students in advance that it was coming.
"A mood of hysteria built up," he said, that was disrupting other classes.
"One size does fit all," he said the day he pulled the condom onto the red plastic tube. "Anybody like to touch it?"
"Me," volunteered a brave seventh-grade girl with a tangle of long, dark hair. She reached out fearfully, yet excitedly, as though petting some exotic animal at the zoo. "Oooh," she said, as the class broke into laughter.
Bacos used to teach in a private school, which was easier. He didn't have to spend as much time on discipline and breaking through the shell of indifference in which so many adolescents encase themselves.
"There were days when I did reach every kid," he said.
Sometimes the battle against all the forces pressing in on kids gets him down. It especially troubles him to hear the gripes about the principal in the teachers' lunchroom.
"Sometimes, I come home and say, 'I hate this.' My wife says, 'Quit."'
Bacos' wife is a television executive. She makes enough money that Bacos doesn't need to work.
But he hangs on, he said, because the kids need him.