TOO YOUNG FOR THIS
They're Having Babies. Are We Helping?
The girls gather in small groups outside Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School most mornings, standing with their babies on their hips, talking and giggling like sorority sisters. Sometimes their mothers drop the kids (and their kids) off with a carefree smile and a wave. As I watch the girls carry their children into the Tiny Titans day-care center in our new $100 million building, I can't help wondering what Sister Mary Avelina, my 11th-grade English teacher, would have thought.
Okay, I'm an old guy from the 1950s, an era light-years from today. But even in these less censorious times, I'm amazed -- and concerned -- by the apparently nonchalant attitude both these girls and their mothers exhibit in front of teachers, administrators and hundreds of students each day. Last I heard, teen pregnancy is still a major concern in this country -- teenage mothers are less likely to finish school and more likely to live in poverty; their children are more likely to have difficulties in school and with the law; and on and on.
But none of that seems to register with these young women. In fact, "some girls seem to be really into it," says T.C. senior Mary Ball. "They are embracing their pregnancies." Nor is the sight of a pregnant classmate much of a surprise to the students at T.C. anymore. "When I was in middle school, I'd be shocked to see a pregnant eighth-grader," says Ball. "Now it seems so ordinary that we don't even talk about it."
Teenage pregnancy has been bright on American radar screens for the past year: TV teen starlet Jamie Lynn Spears's pregnancy caused a minor media storm last December. The pregnant-teen movie "Juno" won Oscar nods. And there was Bristol Palin, daughter of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, bringing the issue front and center during the recent presidential campaign. But I've been observing the phenomenon up close for a couple of years now, and the picture I see is more troubling than any of those high-profile pregnancies make it seem.
The somber statistics about teen motherhood are the reason the day-care center, run by the local nonprofit Campagna Center, was opened in T.C. Williams two years ago. The idea is to keep the girls in school, let them get their diplomas and help them avoid the kind of fate described earlier. I've been a teacher for more than 30 years, and I want the best for my students and to help them succeed in every way possible. I know that these girls need support. But I can't help thinking we're going at this all wrong.
On the surface, Alexandria seems to be striving to stem teen pregnancy. Every high school student is required to take a "family life" course that teaches about birth control, sexually transmitted disease and teen pregnancy. The Adolescent Health Center, a clinic providing birth control, was built a few blocks from the school. The city-run Campaign on Adolescent Pregnancy sponsors workshops for parents and teens. But none of this coalesces to hit the teens with the message that getting pregnant is a disaster. And within the school, apart from the family life class, the attitude is laissez-faire, as if teachers and administrators are afraid to address the issue for fear of offending the students who have children.
Once a girl gets pregnant, though, the school leaps in to do everything for her. But I wonder: Is it possible that all this assistance -- with little or no comment about the kids' actions -- has the unintended effect of actually encouraging them to get pregnant? Are we making it easier for girls to make a bad choice and helping them avoid the truth about the consequences?
And for many, it does seem to be a choice. "There's a myth that these pregnancies are accidental," says school nurse Nancy Runton. "But many of them aren't. I've known girls who've made 'I'll get pregnant if you get pregnant' pacts. It's a status thing. These girls go around school telling each other how beautiful they look pregnant, how cute their tummies look."
Pregnancy pacts, too, were in the news earlier this year when a group of girls in a Massachusetts high school reportedly made one (though some denied it). But that's only one way the situation at T.C. reflects what's happening across the country. The birth rate among teens, after falling 36 percent since 1990, went up 3 percent in 2006, the first increase in 15 years. And most of the rise is due to pregnancies among Hispanic girls.
Lots of white teens nationally have babies, but that's not really the case at T.C. Teen motherhood here is mostly a class issue -- and given Alexandria's demographics, that means the teen mothers are virtually all lower-income blacks and Hispanics with few financial or other resources. Moreover, the number of Hispanic girls with babies is double the number of black girls, which also reflects a national trend. According to Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, Hispanics now have the highest rate of teen pregnancy and births of any racial or ethnic group in the country.
In our school of 2,211 students, we now have at least 70 girls who are soon-to-be or already mothers. Many T.C. teachers and administrators have decidedly mixed emotions about the situation. Social worker Terri Wright says that for many girls, getting pregnant before they turn 18 is a rite of passage. "They don't wear sweatshirts or baggy dresses to conceal their pregnancies," says Wright. "I get invitations to baby showers. Girls bring me pictures of their kids dressed up like little dolls."
"There is zero shame," agrees school nurse Runton. One girl walked into a colleague's class last month, announced that she was pregnant and began showing her sonogram around. Another 16-year-old proudly proclaimed that she was "going on maternity leave." The teacher tried to explain that maternity leave is a job benefit that doesn't apply to high school students.