The first assignment is to draw a picture, on the theme of "Relationships today are like...." One woman draws a whirlwind, another a hangman with a noose. A third colors in a bright balloon drifting up toward a ceiling full of sharp spikes.
"If you're not careful," she tells the class, holding up her picture, "it could pop."
The instructor, Marline Pearson, nods sagely. She displays another drawing, of a newborn baby and a graveyard. "Is this true or is this not true?" she asks. "Relationships can bring us our greatest joy and our greatest pain."
Pearson is a social science instructor at MATC. She's developed several curricula focused on the teaching of relationships, including a "Love U2" class for teenagers. This spring, she taught a new, two-session class called "Within My Reach" at the South Madison Health & Family Center. Its goal is to help adults form healthy romantic relationships.
"A whole lot of people have lived through their families falling apart," explains Pearson. "That's a common experience now."
About half of the class' 17 students are unmarried, though nearly all of them have children. All but two are women. The youngest is 27, with two young children by a boyfriend who also fathered children with two other women. Most of the students are Latino or black. And all have struggled with difficult issues: divorce, infidelity, drug abuse, domestic violence and economic hardship.
Pearson sees a direct link between failed relationships and wider societal problems, like poverty, teen pregnancy and juvenile delinquency.
"People in the justice system will tell you, it's all about relationships," she says. "Relationship troubles have a way of messing up every other part of your life."
So Pearson, together with two researchers at the University of Denver's Center for Marital and Family Studies, put together a curriculum to teach people how to have healthy relationships. Anyone can benefit from the class, but Pearson has geared it toward low-income communities.
"When their families fall apart, they have a lot more to lose," she says with a shrug.
Most liberals will cringe at Pearson's underlying message: that stable, committed relationships, almost always in the form of marriage, are the best thing for society. And some human services advocates warn that a relationship class directed at low-income individuals might be classist.
"I worry about it coming across as, 'We've got to help low-income people be better people,'" says Nancy Wrenn Bauch, a counselor at the YWCA who works with single mothers. "There are a lot of other things going on for some families. It's not just relationships, it's a lack of affordable housing or child care that makes it difficult for them."
But Pearson points to research showing that stable marriages can help reduce poverty. Isabel Sawhill, a fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., recently testified before Congress about the correlation between poverty and relationships. Sawhill calculated that if the government doubled cash welfare benefits, that would reduce poverty by only 8%. If everyone in the country had a high school education, that would reduce poverty by 15%.
But if the nation's marriage rate returned to the level it was in 1970, when 85% of children lived in two-parent households (compared to 2006, when only 67% did, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), poverty would drop by 27%.
Traditionally, social programs for poor people have focused on meeting basic needs, like housing. "Yes, we have to do all these things," says Pearson. "But if we're interested in supporting families, then we have to pay attention to strengthening parental unions."
Dumping the jerks
Early on, Pearson poses a question to her students: How long do people wait before they have sex with the person they're dating?
They shout out answers. "Two months." "Three weeks." "After dinner."
Pearson smiles at the joke, then gets serious. "Sex happens awfully soon, awfully early in a relationship these days. Imagine a world where everyone waited at least six months." The class guffaws, but Pearson holds her ground. "I'm gonna tell you, nobody died by waiting."
On the contrary, she lectures, rushing into sex gets people in trouble. They get entangled in bad relationships. They can contract STDs. And they can get pregnant.
"You can always hook up with a jerk and you can always dump a jerk," she says. "But if you make a baby, guess who can't dump the jerk?"
Part of what drives Pearson is her concern for the welfare of children. In 1970, only 12% of the nation's children lived with single mothers. By 2003, that number had more than doubled, to 26%. Half of all children born today will live apart from one parent before they turn 18. And 38% of children in single-parent families end up living in poverty, compared to 8% in two-parent households.
"Children's lives have become too unstable," says Pearson. She notes that many women in impoverished communities are having multiple children by multiple partners, and bringing home an endless stream of sexual partners. "It's a maelstrom of jealousy. It's not a good scene. Look at those children - they are suffering already."
In class, Pearson plays "Runaway Love" by rapper Ludacris. She urges her students to listen closely to the lyrics, about a 9-year-old girl named Lisa who gets sexually assaulted by her mother's boyfriends. Then Pearson plays "S.E.X.," by R&B singer Lyfe Jennings, which touts the value of virginity:
Baby it's a fact,
that once it's gone you'll never get it back
Hold on to your innocence
Use your common sense
You're worth waiting for.
Pearson's message on the importance of delaying sex sounds uncomfortably like the admonitions of the religious right against sex outside of marriage. But Pearson does not advocate abstinence-only sex-education classes and in fact avoids the word "abstinence" in her relationship courses, especially those designed for teenagers.
"I always talk about the benefits of delaying," she says. But she admits that most teens will try it anyway. This being the case, she thinks they should have a better set of tools.
"All we do for teenagers is teach them sex ed," she says. "We either say, 'Wait until marriage' or, 'If you're going to do it, use condoms.' How about teaching them about relationships?"
Professor B. Bradford Brown, a psychologist at UW-Madison who specializes in teen relationships, agrees with Pearson on the value of teaching relationship skills to young people. But he's cautious about endorsing her class or any other.
"There's a certain value orientation in it," he says. "There's a danger in imposing a set of values not consistent with someone's cultural beliefs or personal beliefs."
Adults, says Brown, are mature enough to recognize an instructor's bias. But "Adolescents don't have the same base of experience as adults do to discern the implicit values that lie behind a presentation."
Pearson dismisses the concern. "I think respect, equality and responsibility are values that most of us can get behind," she says. Besides, many teenagers today come from single-parent homes. "We're dealing with a whole generation of people where things have broken down. There are not a lot of guides for them."
Take your time
In 2002, the clothing store Abercrombie & Fitch created a furor when it began selling thong underwear - for little girls. A spokesman described the thongs, which were stamped with the words "eye candy" and "wink, wink," as "cute and fun and sweet."
When Pearson tells her class about the underwear, they express shock and disapproval. And they nod in agreement as Pearson notes that movies, music, television and magazines all pound home the message that "your basic value is as a sex object."
But a small argument erupts when one woman criticizes girls who wear pants with words like "cutie" or "sexy" printed on the butt. Katy Farrens, a 27-year-old single mother of two, likes the clothing. "All it says is that I think I'm cute," she complains. "Why can't I wear it?"
Another woman disagrees: "Think of what message it sends to your kids!"
Farrens is annoyed. "It tells them their mama is cute!"
Later, Farrens explains that women can wear suggestive clothing if they do it "with class." But she admits to worrying that pop culture pushes children to grow up too fast. She plans to advise her own children to wait before having children or getting married.
"You can have relationships, but just - you don't want any kids," she says. "You can have so much more if you just wait and don't try to grow up so fast."
Farrens moved in with her boyfriend, Antonio, when she was just 18. They had been dating for less than a year. "We didn't really talk about it," she admits. "We just thought that was the next step."
Pearson strongly advises against couples living together unless they have a clear commitment to each other and have discussed the ramifications. Research shows that cohabiting couples are two times more likely to cheat on each other. And 75% of children born to unmarried parents who are living together will see their parents break up.
Farrens admits she and Antonio have had problems, including infidelity. Their son, now 7, has been acting out in school. She took Pearson's class because "the last six months have not been good. I just hope this class will make our relationship better."
Farrens never knew her own father, who left when she was still a baby. She was raised by her mom and stepfather, who have been together for more than 20 years. But when she started dating Antonio, just after high school, she didn't hesitate to move in with him - even though he already had two kids with two other women. "It's rare to find someone without kids already," she shrugs.
And her friends influenced her decision to move quickly into a relationship. "We all wanted to be in relationships," she says. "We just wanted to grow up too fast."
Another member of Pearson's class, 51-year-old Parris Jones, has been married three times and has three children. He recently broke up with his girlfriend, after she found out he was cheating. His own parents were married for nearly 60 years, but Jones says he couldn't overcome the influence of popular culture.
"The era had something do with it," he says, explaining that the "free love" environment of the 1960s and 1970s encouraged him to sleep around and use drugs.
For kids today, Jones sees similar problems. "A lot of it comes from how kids are being raised. They may not have a real moral foundation."
Pearson sees this as a huge factor in how kids view relationships, especially if they come from broken homes and have no other models. "I'd love to believe that most of us are independent thinkers. But most of us will take our lead from our culture." And it's not always positive: "Young people are being raised on a steady diet of sex and violence."
In class, the students discuss a common pickup line that men use on women in disadvantaged communities: "I want you to have my baby."
The women in the class blush and laugh. One of them mutters, "That's how I got my two." But they say the line means a man loves you, is committing himself to you. Farrens is more frank: "Men feel that's the way to be in your life forever. That's their way of trapping women. Women trap men that way, too."
Dr. Kathryn Edin, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, followed low-income couples for four years. She found that while most of them were moving in together and having children, they were deliberately delaying marriage.
In a speech to the national Head Start conference in Denver last year, Edin explained that many of the couples didn't want to get married until they had enough money for a real wedding. In those communities, going to the courthouse was akin to a shotgun wedding. An elaborate ceremony, she said, "demonstrates to the community that you take it seriously."
Edin found that many men and women were viewing childbirth and marriage as two unrelated life events. Nonmarriage - not divorce - is becoming the biggest cause of single parenthood. For these men and women, Edin told the conference, "Marriage is a lifelong quest, and kids are a thing that happens along the way."
After nearly nine years of living together, Farrens and her boyfriend are still unmarried. When asked why, Farrens says bluntly, "For one, he hasn't asked me." But she adds that she wants to wait until she can afford a nice wedding. "We just haven't had the money," she says. "I don't want to go to the justice of the peace. I don't want to settle for that."
Why would a woman decide she can afford children, but not a wedding? In her speech, Edin noted that women "sacrifice nothing by having kids. Their economic prospects are so dim already, they gain nothing by waiting."
And children can be a source of emotional support for women who come from difficult family backgrounds or had absent fathers. As Edin put it, "They want a child for love."
Pearson, in her class, stresses waiting to have children. In one exercise, the students are asked to sort through different scenarios and decide which are "reasonable" expectations for a relationship and which are "unreasonable." Almost all the students declare that waiting until a couple has enough money to pay for a house and a wedding before getting married is "reasonable."
Pearson blames the media for showing lavish weddings and giving people unrealistic expectations. "How many people can really afford a $30,000 wedding?"
While it may seem that Pearson wants to return to the days when everyone got married and stayed married, she insists that's not true. She supports no-fault divorce laws, and allowing people to leave marriages, especially if there's domestic violence. Her class, which was developed with input from domestic abuse experts, emphasizes safety in relationships.
"I don't want to make it harder for people to get out," she says. "I want to prevent bad relationships from taking place. I just want them to choose better."
Spreading the word
This summer, Pearson will travel across the country, training others in her curriculua. She has stints in Maine, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Denver. She also plans to work locally with Operation Fresh Start and to train county staff working on Allied Drive. Earlier this month, she spent a week teaching part of the class to kids at Dane County's Juvenile Detention Center.
Pearson believes classes like hers will someday be as universal and accepted as parenting classes. And indeed, in her testimony before Congress last month, Isabel Sawhill mentioned Pearson's "Love U2" class for teenagers as an example of an anti-poverty program that should be supported.
Advocates may question whether the government ought to be spending money on relationship classes when there are so many other needs, including affordable housing. But Pearson says her class is not meant to be a panacea.
"I don't believe this is the only answer," she says. "People need housing and good jobs. But they also need stable relationships." She created the class after seeing rising rates of incarceration, suicide and alcohol and drug abuse in juveniles and realizing, "We will never find enough social workers, enough mentors, enough Big Brothers/Big Sisters, to make up for the loss of mothers and fathers."
And Pearson's students at the South Madison Health & Family Center embrace her class. Jones says it's helped him understand how much he hurt his girlfriend by cheating on her. He initially tried to keep his girlfriend from reading a relationship book Pearson handed out in class, afraid that she might realize she should leave him.
"I didn't need the book to make matters worse!" he laughs. Then he gets more reflective. "It doesn't feel good when you know you're wrong. I didn't even think about how bad she might be hurt. I was just thinking I could do it and get away with it."
On the final day of class, as Pearson lectures, one woman suddenly bursts out, "They need to teach this course in school!" The other students murmur agreement.
Pearson smiles, pleased, and agrees, "I often think this is something we ought to teach in first grade and teach it every single year."