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The Tragedy Of Teenage Motherhood

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They arrive in droves, or maybe it just seems like droves when four or five teenage mothers come to school at one time, clutching their bottles and diaper bags, eager to show off their adorable offspring. On this particular fall day, one of the girls catches sight of me from down the hall. She grins and waves and then begins striding in my direction. I pretend I don't see her and duck into the men's washroom. I take my time scrubbing my hands and combing what's left of my hair. After about seven minutes, I figure it's safe. I open the door. Drat! She's standing there waiting for me, holding a squirmy 2-month-old dressed in a powder-blue jumpsuit.

"Mr. Dizney?'' she ventures. "I'm Debbie. Remember me?''

Of course I do. She was in my class last semester.

"This is Zachary,'' she says, thrusting her tiny bundle into my arms.

I am instantly uncomfortable. Just what does Debbie expect me to do? Clasp her child to my bosom like some long-lost nephew and offer my congratulations? This girl is 16 and unmarried. Her boyfriend has moved on to another sexual hunting ground; in fact, if I recall correctly, he was barely around long enough to learn about the impending event.

And Debbie? She's living at home, collecting a government check each month, hoping, when Zachary is older, that she'll be able to earn her GED and get some job training.

"So, how are you getting along?'' I ask, desperate for something to say.

"OK,'' she answers. "My mom's helping me.''

Yeah, right. Your mom and every other taxpayer in the county.

Do I sound cynical? I hope not. I don't dislike teenage girls or babies. I certainly don't want to see any little tykes go hungry. But as a 55-year-old man who long ago decided not to become a father, I resent being sucked in decades later as a child-support surrogate.

When teenage girls bring their babies to school, we teachers find ourselves in a precarious position. We're supposed to be supportive of young people, regardless of what they choose to do, even when we know it's bad for them and for society. What could be worse than having a child at 15, 16, or 17, deciding to keep it, and then dumping the financial responsibility onto one's fellow citizens? Isn't that a little like sneaking into the movies without buying a ticket? Or filling the grocery cart but bypassing the checkout?

Oh, these young mothers (and their mothers, too) can marshal plenty of arguments to justify their dependence on public funds. "One mistake shouldn't ruin a girl's life,'' they say. "No baby should be penalized for the actions of its parents.'' This is true. But how supportive must I be? With birth control information a mere paperback book or health class away, I wonder whatever happened to common sense. Some girls' self-esteem does take a nose dive around junior high. Some will do anything to hang on to a boy, to feel validated, however temporarily. Boys will tell them whatever they need to hear. None of this is new. This generation is no different from earlier ones. What has changed, however, is the terminology used to describe boys' attitudes toward sex. Predatory. Hit-and-run. Male bragging these days is no longer about mere conquest; it's about how many girls they can talk into having their children. How can any intelligent young woman hear this and not run for her life? How can she delude herself into thinking that she and her boyfriend will be different?

But what can teachers do? One thing we can do is call a halt to positive stroking. No more baby showers in home economics class. No more birth announcements on the math class bulletin board.

When teenage mothers show up at school with their infants, we can refuse to stand around making admiring sounds. We can refuse to say, "Oh, how cute.'' Above all, we can refuse to say, "Congratulations.'' We can rush off, explaining that we have excessive paperwork or that we are late for a meeting. The babies won't care. They just want to be taken home and fed.

Having a child out of wedlock must be treated as the tragedy it is, not because of any perceived immorality but because of what it does to people's lives and the way it saps even the uninvolved. The least a young mother can do to make up for her foolishness is not subject bystanders to the odious spectacle of a little girl showing off what she thinks is a new toy.

Still holding Zachary, I abruptly turn my head away and cover my mouth as I sneeze. I'm not yet over a nasty cold that is now in its third week. Everybody in the building seems to be carrying one virus or another. A school is a teeming colony of germs. Doctors agree, it is the last place anyone should bring a newborn baby.

But Debbie, of course, wouldn't know that.

--Robert Dizney
The author recently retired from the Fairfield, Ohio, schools after teaching for 33 years. He is now a doctoral student at Miami University.

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