I got my start as a writer with my monthly submissions to the Teach For America Houston newsletter during my 2nd, 3rd, and 4th years of teaching (1992-1995). As the columns were supposed to be light and funny, I avoided certain topics that would be tough to make humorous.
The way I write a first draft, usually, is to think about what I’m going to write about for about a week and then when I sit down to write, I’m almost just re-typing what I’ve already thought about so much.
This post, despite the topic, should be fairly easy to write since I first mapped it out nearly 18 years ago. I never really wanted to write it, but as I now have a unique opportunity for an ‘epilogue,’ I think I’ll give it a shot.
Like most high schools, the one I taught at during my time in Houston had students do the famous ‘baby’ project. Around that time, all the kids who were taking health had to bring some kind of baby doll into school and carry it around with them wherever they went. The purpose of the project, I guess, is to show kids that it is pretty difficult to be a parent, even to an inanimate doll, so they should probably be careful to avoid having real babies until they are much older.
In my 4th period class a girl with one of these dolls was showing it off when another girl in the class asked if she could hold it. I knew that the other girl had her own, actual baby, at home being raised by her own grandmother, who also had raised her. I figured that the real mother would say something important to the wanna-be mother, like “You won’t think it’s so fun when it is waking you up at 3 in the morning.” Instead, she cradled the baby like an expert and smiled and said “She’s so cute.”
At my school were a lot of pregnant girls and a lot of girls who were already mothers. I can recall one class where there were five girls pregnant at the same time. At the time I had a very strict bathroom policy, which was nobody can go ever, and I would make an exception for these girls. One ninth grader had a baby over Christmas break and when she came back to school a few weeks later, had a new nickname on her ‘pep squad’ red shirt — “Li’l Momma.”
Teen pregnancy was not restricted to weak students. I taught five classes my first year at that school (my second year teaching, but first in a high school) and if you take the top girl student in each of those classes, four of the five were pregnant before graduating high school (the fifth was murdered by her 21 year old boyfriend who then killed himself.) One regret I have is how poorly I handled the moment that one of the most talented math students I’ve ever known (still) broke the news to me. At the time, I was VERY guarded with my feelings and emotions. My first year did a number on me and I felt that I needed to shut off my emotions so I wouldn’t get mad and yell ever again. How any students ‘liked’ me enough to trust me with any personal information, I don’t know. But when Maria was absent one day — a rare event, and then came back the next day and wanted to see me after class, I had no idea why.
She told me “I was absent yesterday because I was at the doctor.”
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“I think I might be pregnant.” was her way of saying that she knows she is.
I had no idea how to react to this. Even though I was just 23 at the time, I thought of this girl as someone who I could guide as I might a daughter. This girl was just too talented at math. I was silent for a bit too long, trying to figure out what to say and then offered a weak, “oh.” Back then I had no idea how to handle news like that. I think the appropriate thing would have been to hug her and say “that’s great.” That’s what I’ve seen other teachers do, mostly women. It would have been very uncharacteristic for me to do that, but when I replay it in my mind, I picture myself doing it in a way that was not awkward in any way.
Later in the year, the school nurse approached me and asked if I would be willing to mark a girl present in class while she took her off-campus to see a doctor to get birth control pills without her parents knowing about it. At the time, I was very ‘by the book’ and I was truly concerned that I would run the risk of getting fired by falsifying a legal attendance document. If something happened on the way to the doctor, I could lose my job. I told the nurse that I wouldn’t do it and she screamed at me that “If she gets pregnant, it will be your fault” which I really tried not to take to heart.
When the ‘baby’ project ended, there was one girl who had grown so attached to her baby that she continued to carry around the baby doll for at least another few weeks. Maybe the project didn’t quite make the point it was supposed to.
That’s really just a first draft, but it is all true. It makes me think about how there are many things that the school just can’t overcome. Just like many of the other big issues that kids deal with outside of school, it is not the schools fault that these girls got pregnant so young. I was a math teacher for forty-five minutes a day. What control did I have?
The school they went too, Furr High School, was a ‘good’ school with ‘good’ teachers. I know by today’s standards, it would be ‘failing’ and at risk of being shut down — if it hasn’t been already. But schools, with the limited resources they have, can only be expected to overcome all the problems that students will struggle with. I don’t think (and I’m sure Maria and Antonia would agree) that it was, in any way, the school’s ‘fault’ that they got pregnant so young. And though this might be an extreme example of the limited reach of a school’s influence, there are hundreds of other less obvious ‘problems’ that schools can’t be blamed for or closed down when they don’t prevent or somehow ‘fix’ them. Do girls at KIPP charter schools get pregnant? I’m sure they do, but we don’t really hear about them.
I do think that school is important and we should make them as good as possible. But even at my current school, Stuyvesant High School, which is one of the top schools in the country, we have students who, despite all our efforts, we are not able to help overcome their problems. And the problem isn’t ‘the parents’ either. Some kids have mental health issues that even professional psychiatrists aren’t able to ‘fix.’ People, particularly young people, are very complicated.
It is now seventeen years since I left Houston. Those babies are now old enough to go to college. As I’ve been Facebook friends with many of my students from my TFA days from 1991-1995, I thought I’d check to see how some of those girls, now in their 30s with grown children, are doing. I wanted to know if becoming teen mothers prevented them from going to college or from otherwise following their dreams. I was also curious to see how those babies, now nearly 20 years old themselves, were doing.
Though I hadn’t spoken to her in 18 years, I realized I was actually ‘friends’ with Maria on Facebook. I let her read this essay, and asked her if she’d be willing to write something for this post about how her life progressed after having the baby, and also about her kids. Here’s what she wrote:
I remember telling you, Hoping you could shine some light into my dark time at that moment. As far as reaction from you, I guess I just wanted to let you know myself, made sure you heard it from me, not anyone else. I really looked up to you, respected you. (Still do even though I haven’t seen you/kept in touch). My future was drastically changed! I did what I thought was right and married too young! I didn’t get to go to college but one semester (math literature and a banking course). Incomes was an issue, had to finish school and get to work, be a mother, and a wife (not easy) for a 17 going on 18 yr old. I managed to go to community college, for a semester and had to discontinue, because my husband was also attending college and we did not qualify for financial aid and could not afford it. Some of my family helped with sitting while I finished high school. After the banking course my professor recommended me a job at a credit union. I was there 3 yrs. The marriage life fell apart. My son (now 17 going on 18) is not great at math, I strongly believe it is because I was too busy to give him the attention and instruction he needed in his earlier years. My second is a genius, she loves math! Every opportunity, she has weather at home, in the truck , at grandma’s, even during dinner she practices math problems out loud!
Another former student named Antonia was one of those ‘top’ girls who had a baby before graduating. Here was her response:
It would be my pleasure to write on your blog about how becoming a teen mother didn’t stop me from educating myself on the contrary it motivated me. After, graduating Furr I attended community college, later on transferring to a four year college, after graduating with a Psych degree I decided to become a teacher ( I was working as a teacher aid at the time). I’ve been a teacher with HISD for almost ten years, now. Two weeks ago the baby I had in high school graduated himself from high school and is off to college in the August.
It was great to reunite, at least virtually, with these two former students, now women in their 30s with teen aged children. They were amazing kids as students and I’m sure they were both amazing moms.
Thanks to Maria and Antonia, two brave kids who are now two brave women, for sharing their stories.