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IN MY SHORT time as a teacher in Connecticut, I have muddled through President Bush's No Child Left Behind act, which tied federal funding of schools to various reforms, and through President Obama's Race to the Top initiative, which does much the same thing, though with different benchmarks. Thanks to the Feds, urban schools like mine are swimming in money. Our facility is state-of-the-art, thanks to a recent $40 million face-lift, with gleaming new hallways and bathrooms and a fully computerized library.
Here's my prediction: The money, the reforms, the gleaming porcelain, the hopeful rhetoric about saving our children — all of it will have a limited impact, at best, on most city schoolchildren. Urban teachers face an intractable problem, one that we cannot spend or even teach our way out of: teen pregnancy. This year, all of my favorite girls are pregnant, four in all, future unwed mothers every one. There will be no innovation in this quarter, no race to the top. Personal moral accountability is the electrified rail that no politician wants to touch.
My first encounter with teen pregnancy was a girl named Nicole, a pretty 15-year-old who had rings on every finger and great looped earrings and a red pen with fluffy pink feathers and a heart that lit up when she wrote with it.
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My main gripe with Nicole was that she fell asleep in class. Each morning — bang! — her head hit the desk. Nicole's unmarried mother, it turned out, worked nights, so Nicole would slip out with friends every evening, sometimes staying out until 3 a.m., and then show up in class exhausted, surly, and hungry.
After I made a dozen calls home, her mother finally got back to me. Your daughter is staying out late, I reported. The voice at the other end of the phone sounded abashed and bone-weary. "I know, I know, I'm sorry," she repeated over and over. "I'll talk to her. I'm sorry."
For a short time, things got better. Encouraged, I hectored and cajoled and praised Nicole's every small effort. She was an innately bright girl who might, if I dragged her by the heels, eventually survive the rigors of a community college.
Then one morning, her head dropped again. I rapped my knuckles on her desk. "Leave me alone, mister," she said. "I feel sick."
There was a sly exchange of looks among the other girls in class, a giggle or two, and then one of them said, "She's pregnant, Mr. Garibaldi."
She lifted her face and smiled at her friends, then dropped her head back down. A moment later she vomited, and I dispatched her to the nurse. In the years since, I've escorted girls whose water has just broken, their legs trembling and wobbly, to the principal's office, where their condition barely raises an eyebrow.
In our society, perversely, we celebrate the unwed mother as a heroic figure, like a fireman or a police officer. During the last presidential election, much was made of Obama's mother, who was a single parent. Movie stars and pop singers flaunt their daddy-less babies like fishing trophies.
None of this is lost on my students. In today's urban high school, there is no shame or social ostracism when girls become pregnant. Their friends throw baby showers at which meager little gifts are given. After delivery, the girls return to school with baby pictures on their cell phones or slipped into their binders.
Teenage girls like Nicole qualify for a vast array of welfare benefits from the state and federal governments: medical coverage when they become pregnant (called Healthy Start); later, medical insurance for the family (Husky Healthcare); child care (Care 4 Kids); Section 8 housing subsidies; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; cash assistance.
In theory, this provision of services is humane and defensible, an essential safety net for the most vulnerable — children who have children. In practice it is a monolithic public endorsement of single motherhood — one that has turned our urban high schools into puppy mills. The safety net has become a hammock.
The young father almost always greets the pregnancy with adolescent excitement, as if a baby were a new Xbox game. In Nicole's case, the father's name was David. David manfully walked Nicole to class each morning and gave her a kiss at the door. I had him in homeroom and asked if he planned to marry her. "No" was his frank answer.
Boys without fathers, like David, cultivate an overweening bravado to overcome a deeper sense of vulnerability. There's a he-man thing to getting a girl pregnant that marks you as an adult in the eyes of your equally unmoored peers. But a boy's interest in his child quickly vanishes. When I ask girls if the father is helping out with the baby, they shrug. "I don't care if he does or not," I've heard too often.
As for girls without fathers, you walk on eggshells with them. You broker remarks, you negotiate insults, all the while trying to pull them along on a slender thread. Their anger toward male authority can be lacerating.
With Nicole, I dug in. In journalism class, I brought up the subject of teen pregnancy and suggested that she and a friend of hers, Maria, write a piece together about their experiences. They hesitated; I pressed the matter. "Do you think getting pregnant when you're a teenager is a good thing or a bad thing?"
"Depends," Nicole replied.
"My mom and my grandma both got pregnant when they were teens, and they're good mothers."
"Nobody gets married anymore, mister," Maria and another mother, Shanice, chime in. "You're just picking on us because we have kids."
As much as Nicole is aware of her mother's sacrifices, she is equally proud of her mother's choice to keep her. It's locked away in her heart like a cameo. The talk turns to her mother's loyalty and love, and soon the class rises in a choir to mom's defense.
"Fine," I say. "If that's your position, like any good journalist, you have to back up your arguments with facts and statistics."
As do most of my 11th-graders, Nicole reads at a fifth-grade level, which means I must peruse the articles and statistics along with her. She counts the number of pages before she reads. With my persistent nudging, she and Maria begin to pull out statistics: 63 percent of all suicides are individuals from single-parent households. The same is true for 75 percent of adolescents in chemical-dependency hospitals, and for more than half of all youths incarcerated for criminal acts.
"I don't want to write about this!" Nicole complains.
"Nobody wants to read it."
Maria, in particular, rebels. She wants to recast the article in a rosier vein and talk about how happy her son makes her. A father myself, I understand a parent's love. Our talk turns more sweetly to teething cures, diaper rashes, and solid food. I suggest ways of incorporating that love into the piece, while also hoping that some of these grim statistics have gotten through to the girls.
As morbid as it sounds, the students take an interest in obituary writing. I have them write their own obits, fictional biographies that foretell the arc of their lives. From Nicole's, I learn that her mother was 16 when she had Nicole, her father 14. After high school, the fictional Nicole went on to have four more kids whom she loved dearly and who loved her dearly. She died of old age in her bed, leaving six grandchildren.
"Nicole, you never got married?" I remarked.
"No," she responded with a note of obstinacy in her voice.
"I think you would make a wonderful wife for someone."
"I would make a good wife," she replied. "But I'm not going to get married."
As Nicole entered her third trimester, she had a minor complication with her pregnancy and disappeared for nearly two weeks. She returned, pale and far behind in my classes. She no longer had to report to two classes: physical education and a science lab where strong chemicals were used. Since openings in my schedule coincided with the vacant spots, I was asked to be her chaperone.
For five weeks, Nicole became my shadow. If I had cafeteria duty, she'd trot along. I'd buy her a candy bar and she'd plop down on the seat beside me. I'd escort her on her restroom runs, and wait for her outside the door.
The father in me wanted to be protective and kind, but Nicole was becoming too connected with me. She blew off assignments regularly now. Life had allowed her to slide before, through every year of her education, as others in her life had slid — starting with her father, whom she barely recalled.
Nicole failed both my classes, but when she returned the following year, she was in good spirits. The birth of her son had gone well. She had a heart-adorned album full of photos of her boy. Things were settled, she said. She was going to work hard this year; she felt motivated, even eager. And by year's end, her reading level had indeed risen nearly two grades — but it was still far below what she would need to score as proficient.
The path for young, unwed mothers — and for their children — can be brutal. I once had a student named Jasmine, who had given birth over the summer. One day, I observed her staring off mulishly into space for nearly the entire period, not hearing a word I said and ignoring her assignment. At the end of class, I took her aside and asked, with some irritation, what the matter was.
Her eyes welled with tears. "I gave my son to his father to look after yesterday. When I picked him up, he had bruises on his head and a cut." Her son was 6 months old.
Honestly? I just wanted that day to go by. But we have a duty to our students, both moral and legal. "You have to be a brave mama and report him," I said. I led her to the office and to the school social worker, and I tipped off the campus trooper. Even with that support, she backed off from filing a complaint and shortly afterward dropped out of school to be with her baby.
My students often become curious about my personal life. The question most frequently asked is, "Do you have kids?"
"Two," I say.
The next question is always heartbreaking.
"Do they live with you?"
Every fall, new education theories arrive, born like orchids in the hothouses of big-time university education departments. Urban teachers are always first in line for each new bloom. We've been retrofitted as teachers a dozen times over. This year's innovation is the Data Wall, a strategy in which teachers must test endlessly in order to produce data about students' progress. The Obama administration has spent lavishly to ensure that professional consultants monitor its implementation.
Every year, the national statistics summon a fresh chorus of outrage at the failure of urban public schools. Next year, I fear, will be little different.
From a longer article by Gerry Garibaldi that appears in the Winter 2011 issue of City Journal. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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