One morning in October 1984, 18-year-old Sherita Dreher said goodbye to her 2-year-old son Marquis and walked through the streets of Southeast Washington to tell her story of despair to Mayor Barry's Blue Ribbon Panel on Teenage Pregnancy.
If she was nervous, she did not show it. She rose to face the crowd of 800 in the Ballou High School auditorium -- classmates and friends who remembered when she was a chubby, outwardly hostile 15-year-old -- and spoke clearly, directly, with a kind of cynicism and pragmatism often found in teen-age mothers.
She began having sex, she said, at the age of 15, succumbing to the advances of her 16-year-old boyfriend. They did not use any kind of birth control because she did not believe she could get pregnant; she blamed her ignorance on her mother, who died of cancer without telling Sherita much about sex or birth control.
That is how she ended up pregnant. "I laid and I paid," Sherita said.
Sherita's story had all the well-known elements of teen-age pregnancy, a nationwide social phenomenon that experts say has reached crisis proportions in poor, black communities such as Washington Highlands, where Sherita lives.
But the story she told was not the full story. Sherita, like so many people, had adopted an account of her life -- a version she told to friends as well as the Ballou panel -- that differed dramatically from reality.
After the Ballou hearing, during a series of lengthy interviews, Sherita gradually discarded parts of this version. Then one day, in answer to a question, the full story tumbled out, unexpectedly, almost before she could stop herself:
Her pregnancy, she said, was no accident. She wanted to have that baby, needed to have it. She said she had tried to get pregnant, hoping that it might help her hold on to her boyfriend, William Wheeler, the same boyfriend who was her first sex partner -- when she was 11 and he was 12.
She was afraid of losing William, she said, and afraid that if she did, she would never get another boyfriend as handsome.
"My girlfriends had a nice little shape and everything," she said. "They don't worry about boys. They knew that if one is gone" -- she stopped and snapped her fingers -- "here come another one. It wouldn't work like that with me because I was so fat. But even though I was real big, I wasn't gonna accept anything that came my way. You had to have some looks, be red slang for light-skinned and have pretty hair."
But Sherita did not talk about these motivations when she testified before the experts at Ballou. She did not tell them that her plan did not work, that her boyfriend was furious when he learned that she was pregnant, that he was too busy stealing cars and dealing drugs to help raise Marquis, that he had ended up in prison.
The panel also did not find out that Sherita tried to commit suicide after her mother's death, that she got pregnant nine months later, that her brother hit her after learning she was pregnant, that her family eventually broke apart -- and that, finally, she and her baby ended up in a rundown motel as temporary wards of the D.C. government.
The Sherita who appeared before the mayor's panel portrayed herself as a victim, a casualty of seduction and her own ignorance. The Sherita who emerged after months of interviews is tough, sophisticated and clearly aware of her motivations.
She is not alone.
In Washington Highlands, which is separated from downtown Washington as much by its culture and values as it is by the Anacostia River, many teen-agers have sex, often reject birth control, get pregnant and have children -- not because of ignorance, but because they see those actions as ways to keep a relationship alive, or escape their families, or achieve something in a life filled with failure, violence, uncertainty.
The experts describe teen-age pregnancy as just one more strand in an intricate, destructive web of poverty, neglect, drug abuse, alcoholism, violence, unemployment and, sometimes, child abuse. In their view, Sherita Dreher got caught in this web.
But these are the words of experts, not Sherita's words. She does not talk about the poverty and violence around her. Instead, she talks about the people in her life, mostly men, who she says abandoned her -- people she calls "triflin'," her word for weak and irresponsible -- and left her to face a kind of private hell, alone. Learning the Hard Way
If Sherita was fat in her early teens -- she said in one interview that she was "humongous" -- she is not fat now. She will never be called petite, but her weight is normal, evenly distributed. In a crowd, she attracts attention for other reasons: She has a presence about her, a self-assurance that has come from being a survivor. When she talks, she says as much with her eyes as with her words; the eyes light up, then narrow, never resting for longer than a few seconds, always alert and expressive.
She has a vivid memory and remembers even small details. For example, she remembers the first time that her mother beat her, and the memory is still painful:
She was 9 years old, home alone one summer day in 1976. A repairman came to the Dreher home, a two-story row house on Ninth Street SE, part of the sprawling public housing development known as Highland Dwellings. The repairman was there to fix the fuse box; in Sherita's mind, he took too long. She picked up her cheerleader's baton and whacked him across the back, telling him to get out of the house, she said.
"I used to be terrible," Sherita said. "I used to act like a boy. Be wanting to fight. I can box good enough to protect myself." She could be as rough with her tongue as with her fists. Adults in the neighborhood who tried to discipline her would be told, "You ain't my damn mother."
She did not expect that the repairman would call her mother the next day and complain. Nor did she expect that her mother would come into her bedroom while Sherita was sleeping and begin beating her with a thick leather belt, yelling at her about hitting the repairman.
"I woke up, start crying," Sherita said. "I kept saying, 'I didn't hit him.'
"She was beating me something terrible. I was all up under the bed and she was still beating me," she said. Her mother stopped when Sherita admitted that she had hit the repairman.
The beating left a lasting impression on Sherita. "My mother had never beat me like that," said Sherita, who was the youngest of Joyce Dreher's five children. "I used to get my way all the time. I was spoiled."
Joyce Dreher married young, had her first child when she was 17 and had three others before her husband died in 1965. Soon after, she began a relationship with a man she knew from her church and became pregnant with Sherita. The relationship did not last, and Joyce Dreher raised her children mostly by herself while working as a cleaning woman at the National Archives.
There was little money in the Dreher household when Sherita was growing up. Sherita said she sometimes manipulated her mother, with tears and whining, to give her things that her brothers and sisters went without. Her mother got angry, saying, "Where ya'll think I be getting all this money?"
One thing they didn't talk about was sex, Sherita said. Her mother had strong feelings on the subject, but Sherita said she learned them the hard way -- through another beating.
It happened this way, according to Sherita: Like many girls in Washington Highlands, Sherita belonged to a cheerleading squad, a group of girls from her housing project or neighboring buildings. The squads competed at community events, wearing uniforms sewn by their mothers. They also held secret competitions, attended only by other children and teen-agers, where some cheerleaders wore short skirts and no underpants while doing flips and chanting sexually suggestive cheers that went like this:
I did it once
I did it twice
I took my time
I did it right.
The girls learned the cheers in secret and did them in secret, but their mothers were not fooled. One day when Sherita was 9, her brother saw the three Dreher girls doing one of the suggestive cheers and told Joyce Dreher, who had warned her daughters not to perform them.
Her mother called the girls into the house, one by one. Sherita said she didn't realize what was about to happen. "I came into the house saying, 'I did it once, I did it twice . . . . ' [My mother] took that switch and tore me up," Sherita said. After the beatings, Joyce Dreher said to her daughters: "I bet ya'll don't do any more cheers." Sex at a Young Age
One midsummer day in 1978, when she was 11, Sherita met William Wheeler, the boy who would become the father of her child.
William was soon the best thing in her life, and she could hardly believe that he was interested in her. She was overweight and dark-skinned; William was light-skinned and handsome.
To Sherita, William's skin color made a big difference. She has a visceral dislike for dark skin, a prejudice held by some black Americans. Going out with the lighter-skinned William, she said, gave her a higher status in the neighborhood. But she was frightened by his popularity with other girls, and she thought sex would help keep him interested. She made clear to William that she was willing.
They started having sex two months before her 12th birthday and only seven months after Sherita started menstruating. She was not ready for either experience, she said.
Sherita said she knew so little about sex that she thought she could get pregnant by kissing a boy. She learned more over the next few months through friends and a sex education class at Hart Junior High School, where she was a seventh grader. She learned little from her mother, she said. "Only thing she said was, 'Don't be out here messing with no boys.' And that was it!
"I just couldn't talk to my mother about sex ," Sherita said, echoing the feelings of other girls interviewed. "I ain't want her thinking about me like that, for one thing . . . . And when I started having sex and stuff, I still didn't tell her."
She tried to hide her sex life from her mother but not from her classmates at Hart Junior High. They saw the "passion marks" on her neck, which Sherita showed off at school and covered up at home. Two teachers confronted her, Sherita said, and offered to get birth control pills for her. But Sherita denied to them that she was sexually active.
Somehow, Sherita did not get pregnant. It seems incredible to her now, but then, she said, she just did not think about it. William, in a separate interview, said he did not worry about it either, believing what a 19-year-old woman told him: that at age 12, he was "not mature enough" to produce a child.
Birth control was never an issue, they said. Sherita refused to consider it. The idea frightened her, a fear she finds difficult to explain but that was shared by others interviewed for this series. She said simply: "I ain't want to be using that stuff, because I was scared." Her teachers advised her to ask her mother for permission to go on the pill, but that meant Sherita would have to discuss her sex life with her mother -- which, she said, was out of the question. A Pair of Promises
Joyce Dreher had other things on her mind, too. She was dying, slowly, inevitably, from cancer. For two years, Sherita watched her mother grow progressively weaker, the result of regular chemotherapy and the advancing disease. On the night of Feb. 22, 1981, Joyce Dreher summoned 14-year-old Sherita and 15-year-old Lisa to her bedroom.
Her mother wanted to extract a promise, Sherita said. The other Dreher children had all dropped out of school. Lisa and Sherita were the only ones left, and Joyce wanted them to promise they would finish. The two girls promised.
During the night, her mother died in bed. Sherita found her the next morning. "When my mother died, there was nothing left for me," she said. "There was nothing left."
After her mother's death, her oldest brother, Steven, the new head of the family at age 23, extracted another promise, this one from Sherita and both of her sisters.
According to Steven, the promise was this: no pregnancies, not until they were adults and no longer his responsibility.
Two days after her mother's death, Sherita found all her mother's leftover pills and swallowed them. A short time later, she began holding her stomach. Her brother rushed her to the local hospital emergency room, where her stomach was pumped, and Sherita recovered.
About the same time, her relationship with her boyfriend began to fall apart. William said Sherita became loud, was argumentative, stayed out late at night without telling anyone where she was going. Before her mother's death, he said, she was hard to get along with; afterward, she was downright hostile.
Sherita agreed with some of William's complaints, but said William made matters worse by "dogging" her -- carrying on a number of affairs and then bragging about it publicly.
In October 1981 -- eight months after Joyce Dreher's death -- the couple split up. By this time, William, 16, had dropped out of school and gotten involved in selling drugs, stealing cars and committing burglaries. It was, he said, the only way to get money for clothes he wanted and "to be able to do what I want when I want to."
He described his criminal activity during an interview inside Youth Center II at Lorton, the prison where William is serving a six-year term for armed robbery. He was dressed in prison-issued blue shirt and pants, a dark-blue knit cap and a drab green overcoat that disguised his muscular shoulders and arms. As he talked, he wore a deadpan expression, projecting an image of someone who is tough, streetwise.
He talked freely about Sherita, about why he broke off the relationship. He attributed Sherita's wildness to her unhappiness over her mother's death. "It seems like I was having more fun before when Sherita's mother was alive," he said in the interview. A Planned Pregnancy
Sherita pretended publicly not to care about their breakup. She would not admit to anyone, except herself, that she was distraught -- mostly because she feared that she would never have another light-skinned boyfriend. So she developed a plan.
One day in November, two weeks after her 15th birthday, she arranged to see William at his grandmother's house. They shared a marijuana joint and went to bed. This time, she hoped, she would get pregnant. A few weeks later, William was sent to a juvenile institution, Cedar Knoll, on a burglary conviction. Before he left, Sherita told him she was pregnant. He did not believe her.
The next time he saw her, she was about five months pregnant.
For as long as she could, Sherita hid her pregnancy. One night, when she was four months pregnant, she got ready for bed, grateful that her loose-fitting nightgown disguised her rapidly changing figure. Suddenly, she heard her older brother Steven loudly cursing as he climbed the stairs to her bedroom. Sherita recalled: "He was calling me every name in the book but the child of God."
Sherita described what happened next:
Steven stormed into the room, accusing her of breaking her promise not to become pregnant. Sherita protested, but he snatched open her nightgown.
"Bitch, are you lying to me?" he screamed. "You are pregnant!"
He hit Sherita in the face three times with his right fist and told her that he would beat her again the next day and throw her out of the house if she did not have an immediate abortion.
Steven, too, remembers that night. He confirmed Sherita's account, saying he was angry and felt justified in hitting her. "I was pissed off," he said in an interview. He had just discovered that Sherita's sister Wanda, then 18, was having a baby. When a neighbor told him that Sherita looked pregnant, something snapped, he said.
Two days after his confrontation with Sherita, he took her to the Hillcrest Abortion Clinic and Counseling Service in the 3200 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE. He sat in the waiting room while Sherita saw a doctor.
Sherita said she told the doctor, "I'm being forced to do this." That led the doctor to tell Steven that Sherita could not have an abortion -- that at four months, she was too far along in her pregnancy. (In fact, abortions can be performed at that stage.)
Steven took the relieved Sherita home. But he was still angry. As far as he was concerned, Sherita was too young to have a baby. He knew other teen-age mothers and he feared that Sherita would turn out like some of them: "End up on welfare. Out of school. Settin' there, looking dumb. For the rest of her life."
Not long after their visit to the abortion clinic, Sherita's family safety net, already badly frayed, began to unravel completely.
It started when Steven stopped paying the rent. He was paying for two apartments, the one where he lived with his girlfriend and the longtime Dreher residence where Sherita was living with her sisters and her other brother, John.
The family had some income: Steven was working at a computer firm, making $22,000 a year, and John was working at the same firm. Steven collected money each month from Sherita, who got $440 a month from her mother's pension, and from Lisa, who got $213 a month from her father's Social Security fund.
But he fell behind on the rent, owing more than $2,000. On June 18, 1982, the city sent U.S. marshals to evict the Dreher family from public housing.
"I felt very taken advantage of," Steven said. "When my mother died, she had backed up rent. I had to be they my sisters' momma and they daddy and they brother. I was being it all, and it was breaking me bad . . . . I said, 'To hell with them all.' Because they were worrying me to death. I couldn't have no more fun. I couldn't go out and just spend money like I would normally do."
Out on the street were John, 23; Wanda, 18, who had dropped out of school and now had an infant son; Lisa, 16, who would soon be pregnant, and Sherita, 15, who was seven months pregnant.
During the next two years, Sherita moved 16 times, shunted back and forth between her grandmother in Prince George's County, an aunt of a boyfriend and friends of her brother.
It was a period that nearly drove Sherita to madness. She had her baby, but lost William for good. She met her father for the first time in her life, but lost him, too. She dropped out of school and ended up homeless -- and might still be lost on the streets of Washington if it were not for a series of lucky breaks and a woman named Jacqueline Sherrod. Having the Baby
Marquis Dreher was born on Aug. 9, 1982, at George Washington University Hospital. As Sherita was going into labor, she called William. She had never told him when the baby was due because, she said, "It wasn't none of his business."
A few months before, William had been released from Cedar Knoll, the juvenile facility for delinquents, unaware that Sherita had told him the truth when she said she was pregnant.
One day, as he was walking in the neighborhood, something odd happened. He ran into one of Sherita's girlfriends, who said: "I'll be glad when ya'll have your baby!" He was perplexed; when Sherita called him a few days later -- still clinging to the hope that the baby might bring them back together -- he decided to go see her. He had not seen her since getting out of Cedar Knoll.
When he arrived, he said, Sherita's sister Wanda hugged him and said, "Sherita's pregnant. Ain't you glad?" William remembers thinking: "Don't she know I'm too young to have a baby? I'm not ready to have no baby. Well, I ain't supporting it. I don't see why she ain't getting no abortion."
Sherita came slowly down the stairs wearing a maternity shirt. William could feel his anger rising. "She come down the stairs like we planned it," he said. He tried to stay cool on the outside, but inside, he was seething.
They went outside. "Who are you pregnant by?" he asked her. Sherita locked his eyes with a look of cold anger. "Don't even try it!" she told him.
After that day, he avoided Sherita -- until she called him to say that she was going into labor.
The night of his son's birth, William went to the hospital with his mother, his sister and a male friend. He scrubbed his hands, put on a gown and held his son in his arms. But he and Sherita hardly talked at all. Later that night, though, they talked on the phone, and William told Sherita that he wanted to name the boy for his brother. Sherita said she pretended to agree, but she knew what she wanted: The boy would be named Marquis Dreher. As far as Sherita was concerned, William had no rights.
They saw each other a few more times after that -- and even had sex, without using any birth control. But William said he was not interested in being a father, and he drifted away. "I was into crime and money then," he said. An Unexpected Reunion
When school opened in the fall of 1982, Sherita did not go back. She could not get a baby sitter for Marquis, and her life was in chaos. She had some income -- $172 a month from her mother's pension, $263.85 in welfare payments and $102 in food stamps -- and she used the money to help pay rent in the various places she lived and to feed her baby.
She spent the school year moving around, still hostile, still staying out late at night. But she finally got herself together and hired a baby sitter so she could go back to Ballou High School in the fall of 1983.
She did not finish the year. Tired, cynical, depressed, she dropped out in February 1984. The same month, she moved again, this time to her aunt's house. One night, they were talking about the family. Sherita mentioned her father, how she had never met him. At one point, Sherita said his name and her aunt cried out, "What! I think I know him!"
The aunt said the man was in the hospital, being treated for lingering back problems from an industrial accident. The aunt went to the telephone and called him. Sherita said she listened on an extension as her aunt questioned him about his relationship with Sherita's mother.
The aunt said, "Didn't you have a baby by her?"
Sherita's father replied, "Yeah, I had a little girl."
The aunt said, "Do you remember the little girl's name?"
He said: "Shaa . . . something. Shaa . . . something."
Sherita recalls her reaction: "I dropped the phone. Cause I ain't know what to do. I was scared. I don't know why I got scared. Chills went all through my body. I was happy. I was real happy."
Her aunt hung up the phone. But Sherita, excited now, wanted to talk to him immediately. So her aunt called him back and explained that Sherita was living at her house. He asked to talk to her. Sherita remembers the conversation this way:
"Do you know who this is?" he asked.
"No," Sherita pretended.
"This is your Daddy," he said.
"Uummppff," answered Sherita, with exaggerated disinterest.
He said he had been looking for her for many years.
"If you would've looked hard enough, you would have found me," Sherita said she replied. "Evidently, you wasn't looking hard."
They made arrangements to see each other. Sherita was excited about the prospect of finally getting to know her father and harbored hopes that it might change her life for the better. Her father seemed excited, too: After his first meeting with Sherita, he called his other two daughters and told them about Sherita. He had never told them of Sherita's existence.
One daughter, Carol, went to see Sherita. It was a fateful meeting; a few months later, when Sherita found herself on the street, with no place to go, Carol persuaded her mother Jackie to take Sherita in.
Shortly after Sherita and Carol met, relations began to worsen between Sherita and the aunt with whom she was living. In June 1984, her aunt told her to get a job or move out, and she criticized Sherita for dropping out of school. Upset about the ultimatum, Sherita left the next day and moved in with her brother John and his girlfriend.
That did not last long, either. John's girlfriend complained it was too crowded. Sherita, who had been sleeping with Marquis on a makeshift bed on the floor, decided to move in with her other brother, Steven. He eventually left her with a family friend, who was told that Sherita would be staying only two weeks. At the end of the two weeks, no one came to take Sherita somewhere else. Helpless, she turned to her welfare social worker.
The response was bureaucratic. The city had no place for her, either. Sherita refused to accept that answer and told the worker that she was going to call a television reporter. After she talked to a reporter at Channel 9, she got a call from Audrey Rowe, the city's commissioner of social services. From Relief to Desperation
Unlike the others, Sherita said, Rowe tried to help. She arranged for Sherita to stay at the Pitts Motor Hotel in Northwest Washington. (Rowe, in a recent conversation, said Sherita's plight led the city to provide financial support to set up Sasha Bruce House, a privately run shelter for homeless and runaway youths.)
But Sherita's relief quickly turned to horror. On the way to Pitts, a city social worker told her that because she was a minor, the city would probably take Marquis away from her and put him in foster care.
After two years and 16 moves, Sherita was on the verge of losing her baby.
It was hot and humid, a typical mid-July night in Washington, when Sherita and Marquis arrived at the Pitts Motor Hotel. As she tried to close the door, she realized that the lock was broken. Marquis was sick, suffering from a fever and an ear infection. He was whining and uncomfortable, and as Sherita listened to his sniffling and crying, she thought about suicide, as she had tried once before just after her mother died.
But then she thought about what would happen to Marquis. "If I do this commit suicide , all they gonna do is put him in a foster home," she thought.
She went down to a pay phone in the lobby and called collect to a cousin, pleading with her to find her brothers. The cousin found them near the 800 block of Wahler Place SE, in Washington Highlands, which police say is a hangout for drug dealers. Her brothers came to the phone.
Sherita said she told them to come get her, but they did not want to come right away. "They told me, 'We out here trying to sell this 'lully' slang for the drug PCP . Just call us back and then we'll come get you."
When she called back, she couldn't find them. Frantic, she did something that she had never done before. For the first time in her life, she turned to her father for help.
"Daddy, come get me," she told him on the phone.
Her father said, "Where you at?"
Sherita: "On Belmont street at the Pitts Hotel."
Her father: "What you doing up there? You should never have gone to some expletive shelter. You should have come here to stay with me like I told you to."
Sherita: "Daddy, come get me!"
Her father: "Well, I'm not coming to get you tonight because I'm getting ready to go out."
This is Sherita's version. Her father, during a 25-minute conversation in his kitchen in which Sherita participated, said he did not want to talk about his relationship with Sherita. A New Life
Sherita called other relatives from the Pitts Motor Hotel that night in July 1984, including Carol Sherrod, one of her father's other children. They had met only recently, but Sherita liked her and, besides, Sherita believed that she had no place else to turn. Carol said she could not go to get her that night but made her a promise: "When you get out of there, you coming to stay around here!"
The next day, Sherita called her brother's girlfriend, who picked her up and drove straight to a hospital to get medical treatment for Marquis. That night, she moved in with the girlfriend's mother, who had harsh words for Sherita's brothers.
"I know your mother done turn over in her grave, probably walked the whole cemetery, after she see all this stuff happening," she said, according to Sherita. The next day, when Steven Dreher came over, the woman told him: "All you care about is out there selling that 'lully.' Your little sister and her baby sitting up in the shelter, and one of her friends gotta come get her."
Steven just hung his head, Sherita said. The woman told him, "Just get the expletive of my house."
A few days later, Sherita went to see Carol Sherrod and her mother Jackie. Carol insisted that she and Marquis move in. Jackie said, "Well, we don't have much, but she's welcome to what we have."
Jackie had only one demand: Sherita would have to return to Ballou High School. In the fall of 1984, Sherita did go back, and she has remained in school since.
Sherita brought tremendous change to the Sherrod household. Before she came, Jackie, 42, was living there with her 5-year-old daughter Nyieka and with Carol, 19. The addition of Sherita and Marquis made things much more crowded in the two-bedroom apartment, which was built for a family of three, perhaps four.
The children have no real place to play; they are supposed to play in the smaller of the two bedrooms, but they often spill out into the green-carpeted living room, which is furnished with a couch, a chair, a piano, a television set, a stereo and a videocassette recorder. The kitchen is tiny, hardly big enough for one person. The bathroom is no larger.
Despite the crowded conditions, the Sherrod household has given Sherita some stability after three years of turmoil. She has clearly changed since she moved in. At first, Jackie said, "she had a chip on her shoulder." Often, when she talked, she kept her hand in front of her mouth so that a listener could hardly hear her. She still gets mad -- sometimes at Marquis, sometimes at Jackie -- but she is obviously happier.
When Sherita moved in, she told Jackie and Carol how her father -- Jackie's ex-husband, Carol's father -- refused to pick her up at the shelter. They said they were not surprised.
As for Sherita, she makes no effort to see her father. Whenever she is asked on a form for information about him, she writes in big, bold letters: DECEASED.
Next: Patterns of three generations