Self-Taught: Reva McPollom
Growing up and exploring her queer identity without having proper sexual or mental health education left Reva McPollom often feeling confused and isolated. For that reason, she seeks to build conversation, especially in schools, among peers, and with educators, around healthy sexuality and mental wellness. She founded Lessonbee, which provides a socially responsive health education curriculum for students in grades K-12, around the same time she began her journey as a mother and lifelong educator to her own daughter. Reva’s philosophy for health and sexual education is above all, empathy and cultural understanding—in hopes that her daughter will grow up with the healthiest future possible.
What did your own sexual education look like at school and at home?
I didn’t receive any sexuality education at home. I was raised in a Christian household, but generally, my parents didn’t have a lot of extra time for education; they worked two jobs at various points throughout my childhood. I was kind of left to my own devices to explore sexuality, and growing up in the time where people were just starting to have personal computers, any questions I might have had could be answered there.
In terms of formal sex education, I don’t remember having any until high school. It was the classic awkward health class with the gym teacher where no one pays attention. The teacher wasn’t someone I found relatable or someone I could approach with personal questions. I can remember sitting in the back of the classroom, seeing things happening, but not connecting at all with what was happening, because it wasn’t addressing anything I was feeling.
How did you then form your sexual identity afterward?
I recognized that I had feelings for the same sex at 14, at the end of middle school. I didn’t use the language “queer” at that time, but I internalized everything and tried to figure it all out on my own. Throughout high school I thought I was open to either sex, and didn’t explore my sexuality or have same-sex relationships until college.
It’s interesting once you get to college because people tell you who you are. Getting out into the ballroom scene in New York City and going to the balls, people often put labels on you—being a woman of a certain stature and build, people would call you “boi.” I never saw myself as that though, and was never confused about my gender identity. I worry about that with this generation, because I can imagine myself internalizing what people were saying and exploring different identities based on the way other people saw me instead of how I saw myself.
What does inclusive health and sexual education look like?
Our focus at Lessonbee is culturally responsive education, so that means ensuring that you’re incorporating cultural references of diverse characters and diverse stories. Then, after that, you still need to take it to the next level and have conversation and reflection about what you’re learning, which promotes diversity and empathy.
In regard to sexual education, I once saw a presentation that stuck with me about the idea of sexuality as a literacy. For people to develop that skill, you need more than just information—it requires conversation and an opportunity to exercise decision-making (especially around consent). This is generally what’s not a part of education around sex and health. Mental health education is just as important, because people need to be able to understand and accept themselves to operate in the world. We’re evolving our business, but fundamentally, it’s about helping to build empathy.
How do you approach healthy ideals about gender and sexuality to kindergarteners as opposed to high school age students?
Actually, I think that it’s similar—what it comes down to is providing access to truth and openness. If you start lying to kids from an early age, or withholding information, you start building that culture [of silence, of confusion, of repression]. It can be difficult for us to grasp as adults, especially when it comes to gender and gender identity, because we already have a system of how we believe things should be. It’s a lot of unlearning [which we wouldn’t have to do if we were open in the first place with young children].
Is there anything you’ve adapted from the students themselves after receiving feedback?
From the middle schoolers, I’ve learned that a blended learning experience is the best use case for students at that age. That’s what we need to be able to continue the conversation and guide the learning experience. They have questions and want to get real answers. I think a lot of skills are needed for these types of discussions—like creativity, empathy, initiative, intuition, which are things that elementary school kids naturally have. It’s about listening to one another.
You became a parent right around the same time you became a parent to Lessonbee, too. How has being a mother affected your push for healthy education?
The journeys ran parallel to one another: In 2016 I realized I was going to start Lessonbee, which was also around the time when we started IVF. During my difficult pregnancy (I was sick and dealt with weight loss nearly the whole time), I was doing all the research and development for Lessonbee. In fact, in the hospital bed after my C-section, I was taking a loan out on my phone to get the engineers going on development. The company is still new; I only went to market in 2019. But it’s all about doing the work you need to do to create the type of future you want your kids to live in. I know what I went through and I don’t want anyone to go through that, especially my own daughter. I don’t want her to think she doesn’t have anyone to talk to—I spent so much time tucked away; no one should feel that way. We’re all magic—no one should feel like they’re not. The crazy thing that happens when you have kids is that you start looking at people like they’re someone’s child. I can’t see an article about something happening to a child anywhere and not feel it in my whole body.
How has your work changed your own health education of your daughter?
It started around nutrition—I breastfed for a year, and then we switched to vegetarian, and now she eats vegan, but healthy eating habits are the main thing. Your diet and values around food have a great impact on not just on you, but on your community, and also your mental and sexual health (it’s all a system, after all).
And other than that, we try to reinforce ideas that she’s intelligent, and strong, and not just cute. When I was growing up, I struggled to access examples or see people that in whatever dimension looked like me. Especially when you’re Black, people ask you who your role models are, and I never had a good answer. I didn’t realize how sad that is until later.
The Chicago Public Schools Office of School Wellness Programs approved your curriculum for schools in the district to use, which is amazing, and you’re working with the New York City Department of Education on introducing a mental health curriculum. How does proper mental health education factor in with sexuality education?
It’s tricky in general because from an educational system standpoint, health isn’t a core academic subject. There’s no accountability for how it’s implemented; at the end of the day, schools are accountable for English and math scores. So even when health is taught, it continues to be taught in a sub-par fashion, which has real consequences for students in their real lives. If I’m struggling with sexuality, that’s some real stuff going on. I can’t focus on long division right now. I can’t focus in school if I can’t eat, if I don’t know how to make a healthy meal. If I’m living with someone who has bipolar disorder, or I have an STI, or test anxiety, or whatever, that is real stuff.
Right now, there’s a lot of interest in anti-racism education, and I can absolutely believe that has a place in health education. And I think that social-emotional learning has been the buzzword in recent years. From my perspective, that’s all addressed through health education.We’re interested in working with sexuality educators, counselors, mental health educators, and invite anyone who shares that expertise to reach out.
As a queer woman, how has your own mental health evolved from your years of sexual non-education?
What I care about at this stage is keeping it real. That’s how I feel I can best serve myself and everyone around me—authenticity. For me, so much of it growing up was isolation and self-isolation. I didn’t give myself permission; I was afraid of rejection and wasn’t sure I was worthy. And that’s not something you have language for immediately. It’s more about deconstructing all the things you did, and drawing the conclusion that, I guess I just didn’t feel like certain things were for me, because I thought I’d be judged. At the end of the day, I didn’t have those experiences or feel worthy enough to have certain experiences.
What is one thing your younger self knew about sexuality?
I think it would probably go back to pleasure—I wish it started from there. It should be based on, “I like this” or “This feels good to me” rather than, “Do I fit into this box of what people call x, y, or z?” I appreciate that this generation is more about exploring what feels good, or at least stepping into different identities, instead of setting unnecessary limits. This doesn’t even have to apply to just sexual pleasure—it could be just about joy. Maybe you’re interested in a sport, like soccer, and want to try that, but know you’re already good at basketball, so you’re hesitant, or someone else decides for you that “girls don’t play the drums” and you get stuck. I don’t want that to happen to anyone.
Author Bio Mara is a freelance writer specializing in politics, women's health and wellness, and the intersection between them. Her print and digital editorial work has appeared in Shape, Marie Claire, Women’s Health, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and InStyle, and she's written content for brands like Parsley Health.