Lets talk about sex…
This is one tough room ‘— a group of students, high-schoolers no less, corralled into the little auditorium and made to sit through what they know, with a certainty only teenagers possess, will be another completely useless student assembly. Completely useless, a waste of time.
And adding insult to injury, word in the hallways is that the subject matter today will be abstinence ‘— abstinence ‘— can you believe it? That means no sex, right?
I mean come on, who does this guy think they are? This is not some sissy little private school where the kids wear plaid and knee socks. This is Henderson, the toughest school in Salisbury, NC, the end of the line in public school terms and for some of these students the last stop before stricter, more formalized state and county institutions. Some of these kids have been having sex since the third grade. Some them have children, for crying out loud, so you can take your tale of abstinence and tell it walking, buddy.
The kids filter in, murmuring, until the room is three-quarters full. A uniformed cop, the student resource officer, stands sentry at the back of the room. Teachers line the aisles at intervals doling out shushes, and other adults sit in the seats interspersed with the kids.
Onstage the assistant principal frets with the microphone.
‘“Now remember we are all mature,’” she says to the crowd of perhaps a hundred kids. ‘“We can all handle things.’” And just after she announces Keith Deltano’s name, the man himself lets out a low-pitched whoop from the aisle and he bounds up to the stage, taking the stairs at a single leap.
Keith is a pretty big dude ‘— he once served as a military police officer and he’s still got some of the physique and demeanor. He’s still got the haircut, too, a pate scraped clean with just a shadow of stubble, and he’s wearing carpenter jeans, thick-soled boots and a black T-shirt.
He’s not what the kids were expecting.
He takes the microphone, starts pacing the boards. He knows he’s got about eight seconds to win this audience; if he hasn’t grabbed them by then they will start to shut down, a virus that will affect everyone in the room one by one until his words will bounce around, never to take hold.
He breaks the ice by talking about sex.
‘“I want to have a conversation with you,’” he says, ‘“a conversation about sex.’”
With this the proctors at the wings become a shade more alert and the kids start looking at one another in their seats.
‘“I’m not against sex,’” he says. ‘“I’m married; I got kids; I’m gooood, baby. I like sex.’” And he executes a series of exaggerated pelvic thrusts, pumping his arms and making a face.
Even the hardest cases laugh at this; the teachers in the wings chuckle behind their hands and the cop in the back of the room cracks a smile with his hands on his hips. Deltano’s got them where he wants them, and that’s when he begins to put out the message.
An hour earlier we’re at a cafeteria lunch table off the highway in Salisbury with Deltano and his handlers, a couple of schoolmarmish ladies who have been ushering him through his three-show day here in town which will include a church and two schools before the day is through. The shows’ subject matters vary ‘— he’s got a million of ’em ranging from the importance of marriage to the dangers of bullying to the perils of drug abuse, designed to give young people the straight dope about all of the stupid things they do.
‘“I’m a mission-oriented comedian,’” he says. ‘“I can’t achieve the things I want in a comedy club. The comedy is second to me. I can’t be funny without some kind of issue. What’s more important is that I rattle some cages.’”
He does not strictly tailor his act to young people ‘— he’s also got program-length bits about celibacy for single adults, apathy in marriage and creating a stress-free Christmas ‘— but he’s clearly most comfortable working with the kids. Keith taught 6th grade at Jamestown Middle School from 1990 to 1996 after leaving the army and getting his BA in education from UNCG. Ironically, he says his talk on abstinence is banned from Guilford County schools.
‘“You can’t do abstinence shows in Guilford County,’” he says. ‘“I’ve submitted my material three times in the last three years and been turned down every time.’”
He says that Guilford County’s agenda includes teaching ‘safe sex,’ a term he considers oxymoronic.
‘“Condoms don’t protect against herpes and HPV [human pappilomavirus]. The problem [these people have] with abstinence,’” he says, and he huddles in conspiratorially, ‘“there’s no money in it.’”
According to Guilford County Schools Policy Procedures manual, programs like Keith’s fall under the jurisdiction of health education under the specific heading, ‘family life.’ The policy for this program states:
As required by law, this program
will include instruction on the benefits of
sexual abstinence until marriage
(‘abstinence’), the avoidance of out-of-
wedlock pregnancy, and the prevention of
sexually transmitted diseases (‘STD’) at
appropriate grade levels.
A spokesperson for Guilford County Schools, Heather Hirschman, says that the county only reviews materials that are submitted by groups and organizations. If the material is deemed appropriate, she says, the group goes on a list of approved speakers which is then distributed to county principals. Individuals wishing to address the schools, she says, may gain audiences through the principals of individual schools.
Derran Eaddy, program administrator for media relations for Guilford County Schools, says that he is aware of Keith Deltano and his bid for an audience in the system.
‘“He is still in the process of working with the school system to gain approval to make his presentations,’” he says.
Onstage Keith uses the same techniques as most traditional comedians: some physical comedy (like when he lumbers around stage aping his wife on a frenzied power-shopping spree), some observation stuff (‘“Safe sex’… what’s the deal with that?’”), mimicry (he affects a less-than-flattering voice when he talks like your ‘typical’ adult: ‘“All the kids think about is sex and pizza’”), some political humor, some black guy/white guy stuff. He’s pretty funny, and the kids have clearly never seen this message addressed in quite this way.
Deltano discovered the power of comedy when he was in the military at Fort Bragg.
‘“We would be riding around in the back of the truck and my sergeant would say, ‘Hey Deltano, tell one of your stories,”” he recalls. ‘“I never told jokes, but I always had funny stories.’”
And then one night, while he was on duty as a military police officer, he answered a domestic disturbance call at the home of a very well-armed Green Beret where he was expected to take the guy in.
‘“Everybody thinks these [Green] Berets are huge muscle-bound guys,’” Keith says. Not so. ‘“This guy was about average height but extremely fit and strong. He had this huge personal arsenal and [when I get there] he’s punched a hole in the wall.’”
Another tough room for Keith Deltano.
‘“I got the guy laughing. I said, ‘Hey, you must’ve been really mad ‘— you punched through both layers of sheetrock here.”” Keith kept the situation light and when the Green Beret finally calmed down and even started to laugh at little, Keith closed the deal.
‘“By the end of it I had the guy put the cuffs on himself. I said, ‘I’m not gonna try to get these things on you ‘— you just punched through two layers of sheetrock,”” Keith remembers.
He used his humor successfully in the classroom when he was teaching, but he felt limited as to how many students he could reach, how deeply he could affect their lives. A defining moment came to him in 1993, after three years behind the teacher’s desk.
‘“I had a pregnant sixth grader,’” he remembers. ‘“And back in ’93, at the same time there were condoms everywhere. Everybody was talking about ‘safe sex.’ I said to myself: ‘I’m gonna do something about this.””
An extensive period of research followed, in which Keith compiled facts and numbers concerning teen pregnancies, STDs, drug use among teens and other data that would become the backbone of his routine. Then he worked out some bits ‘— sketches, stunts, call-and-response, imitations and, of course, lots and lots of stories.
His material carried a distinct Christian theme in the beginning. He would quote scripture, tout creationism and place the subject of ‘right’ teenage behavior within a spiritual context. His first show was for a church group, held in the back dining room of a Golden Corral.
The show’s popularity grew quickly and Keith eventually had to make a choice between his teaching career and what he calls his ‘“mission.’”
‘“I would drive to Tampa for a Sunday evening show and then drive back all night to be in the classroom Monday morning at nine a.m.’” he recalls. ‘“It got to be too much.’”
He still performs his Christian act for groups of faith around the nation. His biggest show to date was last February when he played the Denver Coliseum. ‘“Six thousand kids, grandparents and everything in between,’” he says.
But these days, Keith Deltano has two versions of his routines, two versions of his virginity and abstinence book and two versions of his website ‘— one for faith-based groups and another strictly for public schools, where all references to the Bible and God are stricken, as well as the creationism vs. evolution debate.
Here at Henderson, Deltano sticks to the cold, hard facts:
‘“Studies say one in ten teens has an STD,’” he says to the roomful of perhaps a hundred teenagers. ‘“Look around you.’” He lets the weight of the information sink in and then says again, ‘“One in ten’…’”
He tells the kids that condoms won’t protect them from herpes, which is transmitted through the skin.
He’s gotten the okay to talk about oral sex (‘“Everybody’s doing it but nobody’s talking about it,’” he says) and he utters a phrase that sends a visible chill through the room: ‘“oral gonorrhea.’”
But the big stunt he saves for the end.
Deltano pulls a young, dating couple out from the audience. They are reluctant, to say the least, but once the young man, in baggy pants slung below the curve of his buttocks, gets a taste of the stage he starts to make faces and wisecracks. Deltano puts his imposing figure in the kid’s personal space ‘— a trick he learned in the Army ‘— and the kid falls into line.
‘“Now if you took a math test and got ten percent wrong, that’d be okay with you right?’”
The kid agrees.
‘“If you were going to the beach and there was a ten percent chance of rain, you’d still go, right?’”
Again, the kid agrees.
‘“So ten percent is a pretty good failure rate, right?’”
‘“Okay, now I’m gonna strap you to this table here,’” and Deltano has the kid on his back on a table on the stage, cinches straps around his torso and arms so he cannot move. He has the kid pick a number between one and ten after whispering a number into another audience member’s ear.
‘“Now I want you to tell me your number,’” he says to the kid on the table, ‘“but first’…’” and he pulls a cinderblock from his gig bag, holds it over the kid’s midsection. If the numbers match, he says, he’ll drop the cinderblock on the kid.
‘“That ten percent doesn’t look so good now, does it,’” he asks.
The lesson is allegorical ‘— Deltano says that even with a condom there is a ten percent chance of pregnancy or STD. And if nothing else, the vision of the dangling cinderblock is retained.
After the show, Keith Deltano stands by the auditorium door, calling out to the faces he remembers, making himself accessible to the ones he doesn’t and constantly, consistently reinforcing the message.
‘“If he loves you, he can wait,’” he shouts to one of the girls, a young beauty with hair pulled back tight against her scalp who giggles into her hand, but never takes her eyes off him as she makes for the door.