Tauscha Vaughn, a slim girl with an impish smile and a volcanic temper, thought having a baby might be her salvation, a deliverance from an emotional crisis, a way to escape from her family. Last year, when she was 16, she got pregnant but then lost the baby early in the pregnancy.
Joye Jackson, always stylishly dressed and never without several boyfriends, thought having a baby would be a nuisance, a trap, a distraction that would interfere with her social activities. Now 18, she is the mother of two girls, the first born when she was 14 and the second when she was 15. Last year she married the father of her children.
In some ways, their lives have been similar. They both grew up with a mother and stepfather. They are nearly the same age. They went to the same high school and once lived six blocks apart in the Southeast Washington community of Washington Highlands, where the teen-age pregnancy rate is one of highest in the city.
Taken together, their lives tell much about growing up in urban America today, particularly about teen-age attitudes toward sex, birth control and parenthood.
Tauscha Vaughn remembers waking up on the morning of June 21, 1984 -- her 16th birthday -- feeling both excited and uncertain. She was looking forward to seeing her boyfriend, 16-year-old Reggie Wiley, but she was uncertain about how her family would celebrate her birthday. Her stepfather had recently been laid off, her mother was on sick leave from her job. On her 15th birthday, she said, her family told her they had no extra money to give her a present. But only a few months later, her brother got a radio for his 17th birthday, she said.
As she got out of bed, her stepfather, Earmon Smith, kissed her on the cheek and said, "Happy birthday." She went into her parents' bedroom to find a comb and saw her mother, Melba Smith, who said, "Happy birthday. That's about the only thing I can give you." Her mother hugged her and Tauscha remembers covering up the pain by saying, "I understand."
Later in the day, Reggie arrived and announced that he wanted to take Tauscha for a birthday dinner at the Chesapeake Bay Seafood House in Camp Springs. They needed a ride, however, and Tauscha's mother said she would call around and find someone to drive them. When her first few attempts failed, Tauscha got angry and told her mother to "forget it."
An argument ensued and her mother threatened to punish her. In a nasty voice, Tauscha said: "You can't hurt me no worse than you hurt me every birthday." She then stormed out of her mother's bedroom, sat down at the dining room table and started to cry.
A few minutes later, her mother emerged and said she had found someone to take them.
The argument behind them, Tauscha and Reggie went to the restaurant. Reggie was slightly nervous. He didn't have much money -- he was in school and did not have a job -- so he asked Tauscha to limit her order to $12. Then he asked her to close her eyes, and he placed a small red box in front of her. When she opened the box, she found a silver-plated necklace and ring inside.
They were feeling happy and romantic when they left the restaurant for Tauscha's house.
About 11:30 p.m., they arrived back at Tauscha's apartment, a three-story complex on Condon Terrace SE owned by the Baptist church that her family attends. As Tauscha climbed the steps of her building, she passed her stepfather on his way out. She greeted him, but he stared straight ahead and did not say a word.
Concerned now, Tauscha climbed the rest of the stairs. Inside the apartment, her mother was sitting alone in the living room. She told Tauscha that the family was being evicted because of unpaid back rent.
Numbed, Tauscha left the apartment and went outside, where Reggie was still sitting on the front steps of the building. As she prayed for help in staving off the eviction, the crowd on the front steps continued their summertime routine, chatting, gossiping, listening to music and breakdancing.
After midnight, Tauscha went with Reggie to his house. Reggie's mother and stepfather were out, and the two teen-agers began making love on the living room couch. Tauscha said she became more passionate, which surprised Reggie. "Why are you doing this?" he asked. Tauscha said she replied, "Because I want to." It was the first time for both of them.
Tauscha said she did not think about the possibility of getting pregnant. "It just didn't cross my mind," she said.
When she got home early the next morning to face the eviction, she learned that friends of her family had pooled enough money to pay the rent and avert the eviction. 'Goody Two Shoes'
When Tauscha and Reggie are together, they tend to attract attention. Reggie is muscular with a body that seems custom-made for the T-shirts he likes to wear. He often keeps his feelings to himself, hiding behind a poker face that makes him seem aloof. Tauscha is the opposite; she admits to having a temper and finds it hard to disguise her unhappiness or anger.
Of the two, Reggie was more experienced in sexual matters. When he was 13, he said, he secretly watched a pornographic film on his aunt's videocassette recorder and later told her about it. The aunt sat down with him and patiently explained what he had seen.
When he was 15, he started going out with a 17-year-old girl who was eager to have sex. Once, when they were alone in her parents' apartment, they started to make love but, Reggie said, he "chickened out" before they went too far. The same year, he said, he became involved with a 27-year-old woman who made clear that she wanted to have sex with him. She quickly realized, however, that Reggie was not ready for such a relationship and she broke it off, Reggie said.
Tauscha, too, had resisted the urge to become sexually active, even in the face of teasing from her friends. One night at a pajama party when she was 12, she listened in amazement as her girlfriends described their sexual involvement with their 15- and 16-year-old boyfriends. They ridiculed her because she was a virgin, Tauscha said, calling her "Miss Goody Two Shoes."
Several weeks later, on a night when Tauscha's parents were away from the apartment, her 13-year-old boyfriend was visiting and suggested they have sex. Tauscha was tempted to go ahead, thinking to herself: "Now they won't call me Miss Goody Two Shoes." But somehow it didn't seem right, and she turned him down.
Later that night, the boy's sister came to see Tauscha. "Did you give it to him?" the sister asked.
Tauscha was startled, wondering what the girl had been told. "No!" she said emphatically.
"See, I told you. Miss Goody Two Shoes!" the girl said. An Emotional Crisis
I met Tauscha through her church, Paramount Baptist in the 3900 block of Fourth Street SE, where I had gone for help in finding teen-agers to interview for this series. The head of the church's youth committee had suggested Tauscha.
My interviews with Tauscha began Sept. 5, 1984, several months after her 16th birthday and her family's near-eviction from their apartment. The first interview went well. She told me explicitly that she did not want to get pregnant and told me why.
"I don't want a child because there is so much that I want to give my child," she said. "So much love. So much attention. I'm not financially fit. I don't really have an education. I can't get out of my mother's house. To me that's like bringing a child into a world that all he's going to see is a lot of pain."
She also told me why teen-agers in Washington Highlands are getting pregnant.
"People need to learn what's going on inside people's homes these days," she said. "When girls get pregnant, it's either because they want something to hold on to, because of circumstances at home or because they don't really have anyone to go to. And some of them do it because they resent their parents.
"None of that is an accident," she went on. "Every teen-age girl knows about birth control pills. Even when they 12, they know what it is."
Her thoughts were helpful in interviewing other teen-agers. But it was several months before I realized how much Tauscha was describing her own feelings and her own family.
For several years before I met Tauscha, the family had been having financial problems. Her mother had been on extended sick leave from her job at a private medical laboratory and, at one point, had to be hospitalized. Her stepfather worked as a bonded courier, but his pay did not cover the expense of raising Tauscha and her two brothers.
From Tauscha's viewpoint, her parents fought too much and demanded too much of her. "It's not the family you would write about in a family life book. It got to be a hellhole. Me always trying to be the peacemaker."
She felt she couldn't rely on her family. So when her relationship with Reggie Wiley began to flourish, she said she turned to him as her "anchor."
Their relationship grew closer during the fall of 1984. Tauscha said she told Reggie that she did not care if she got pregnant and they became careless about using birth control. In late October, she missed her menstrual period. A few weeks later, fearing she might be pregnant, she told her mother, who was furious. Her mother threatened to send her to South Carolina to live with her father. (Her parents divorced when Tauscha was an infant.)
As it turned out, Tauscha wasn't pregnant. A cyst on her ovary had interrupted her cycle, she was told by the doctor who examined her. But the false alarm triggered a deeper crisis: For the next six months, almost no one -- not even Reggie -- could control Tauscha.
She began to skip school regularly. She fought with her stepfather, with her brother, with Reggie, the quarrels sometimes climaxing in physical struggles. During this time I kept up with Tauscha through friends and neighbors. I did not try to interview her, and she pointedly avoided me.
At some point during those six months, she told me later, she decided she wanted to have a baby. She thought the baby would be a signal from God. If she could conceive, if she could actually bring a child into the world, then maybe that would be God's way of bringing her out of her emotional crisis.
In April 1985, Tauscha missed her period again. This time, she had no doubt she was pregnant. But in May, she found out that it was a tubal pregnancy, in which the egg is fertilized in the Fallopian tube and is lodged there, a condition that is life-threatening to the mother and requires an operation to remove the egg.
I saw her after the operation. She seemed relieved, calmer, more like the self-assured girl I had met at our first interview. For now, she said, she had lost her interest in having a baby. She had decided to wait until she and Reggie had better job prospects.
"When I'm around Reggie , I'm happy," she said. "Even when I'm fussing at him, I'm happy . . . . I'm determined to make my relationship with Reggie work." Epilogue
Tauscha and Reggie dropped out of Ballou High School last year and have not returned. They have worked on and off since then. Tauscha went to work last summer at a McDonald's restaurant in downtown Washington. Two weeks ago, she quit -- although she had quit once before and later decided to go back. Reggie was laid off from a construction job in October and then got a job at the same McDonald's in December.
Last week, during an interview, Tauscha expressed doubts about the future. She and Reggie have been planning to marry on June 21 -- her 18th birthday -- but she now wonders whether she is "maturing a little too fast for him." Lately, she has become interested in a 23-year-old man she met at work, someone who "is one of those type of guys that wants to help you so much. Just be supportive. Like he wants me to go to college."
At 17, she is already looking back on her life. She is straightforward about it, almost matter-of-fact. She said she made a mistake by dropping out of school but added, "I don't think it was a big mistake. I see girls and guys who finished school and they still can't find a job. That mistake has brought me to learn no matter what decisions you make out of life, whether they good or bad, you going to have to live with that."
NEXT: Dreams and Realities