Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Cake Inspired This Post

I was inspired to write this post by this cake over at one of my favorite blogs, Cake Wrecks. They essentially show pictures of cakes "gone horribly, hilariously wrong." The "Congrats on your Teen Pregnancy" cake is certainly something gone wrong, but unfortunately not all that hilarious.

I have often been puzzled by the pregnancy rates among my students. I teach 9th graders -- so students between the ages of 13 and 15 -- and this year alone I have seven female students who either are pregnant or already have children. Out of my 60 9th graders, seven are pregnant or have a child. Seven. I'm no mathematician (wait, yes I am) but that's like 12% of my 14 year-olds. Yikes, right? The high school I went to -- a public school in a relatively wealthy suburban area -- had a pregnancy rate nowhere near this high. I can only remember two or three members of my graduating class (about 550 people) having kids.

I've tried to come up with reasons for this, but nothing I can think of completely explains it. Part of the problem, I think, is that many women (and, therefore, girls) in low-income communities do not have as much reproductive autonomy (in terms of using contraception) as their more affluent peers. Part of it seems to be that abortion is less common among my students, which means that more babies are carried to term. Good or bad (and that's one issue I don't even want to come close to discussing on this blog), it means more babies. These issues explain some of the discrepancy in pregnancy rates between affluent and low-income high schools, but I don't think it comes anywhere near explaining the entirety of it.

The biggest issue that I see is that teen pregnancy at my school -- and likely at schools across DC -- has simply become normalized. There is no stigma, there is no "shame," and so there is no problem. Of course, I don't think shaming people is a good thing to do, but it is definitely an effective deterrent. When you are concerned about what people might think, you're more likely to spend more time thinking about your decision. On the other hand, when you see dozens of other pregnant students and/or students with children around you, it seems like having a baby in high school (or, heaven forbid, middle school) isn't all that big of a deal. Well, I think that's wrong. I'm a grown up and having a baby scares the behoozits out of me.

Obviously, having babies all comes down to sex (sorry if anyone out there wasn't aware of that yet -- ask your parents). Although I certainly don't seek out conversations about sex with my students (ew), I do from time to time overhear things. It seems like sexual activity is way more common among my students than it was when I was in 9th grade. Whenever I make comments indicating to my students that maybe they're not mature enough for such discussions (or such actions), they act like I'm some old fuddy-duddy. I'm sorry, but when you freak out about getting a sticker on your quiz, it probably means you're not ready to be a parent. Maybe that's just me? Probably not, though.


Kate said...

I don't think the normalization you mentioned is a phenomena limited to DC, or even to urban areas. I remember about a year ago reading about a suburban or rural district in New England that had an absurd teen pregnancy rate. Some of the girls quoted in the article did have the view that everyone else was doing it, so why shouldn't they?

In some cases I also think it's a semi-generational thing. There was certainly a stigma attached to teen pregnancy when I was in high school (I graduated about 15 years ago) but I think it's become less pronounced in the intervening years.

I work in DCPS, but in an elementary school, so I have no idea what type of sex ed is offered at the middle or high school level, but I wonder if that might be a factor? Everything I knew about contraception came from my high school health class; by the time my mother tried to give me "the talk" I knew everything she was going to say and had more up-to-date information than she did.

Golden Silence said...

I think another factor could be the "kids having kids" thing. I have a feeling that some of these girls having babies could've been the product of teen pregnancies themselves. No one's educating them on safe sex or using contraception.

lodesterre said...

DC has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates, rates that match the rates of new cases of HIV/AIDS, 128 per 100,000. For a while DC had a group called ULTRA coming in to offer an abstinence only program but DC recently ended their association. Some studies have shown that abstinence only programs tend to dismiss the use of condoms, calling them untrustworthy or ineffective, this in turn leads the kids to say question why they should use a condom at all. Without a viable, totally comprehensive sex education program that teaches young kids about all the options at their disposal (safe sex as well as abstinence)I don't think we can expect much to change on this front.

Philadelphia has a couple of very good programs - FIGHT and the Youth Help Empowerment Program. I don't know what DC currently uses.

lodesterre said...

Oh, I should have said that the rates quoted for new cases of aids were for the very age group that you teach 13-24.

Mari said...

the book 'Promises I Can Keep' by K Edin about poor women in Philly who have put children before marriage can provide one reason for why students are having kids. The reason being is that they lack an incentive to not get pregnant. Unlike middle class kids or kids who have been told they are going to college and this wonderful middle class life awaits them, there isn't that same promise. The women in the study voiced a desire to have children, maybe not as soon as they did have children, but there is no incentive to wait on the childbearing.
Another thing is there are limits on knowledge vs practice. They may be aware of contraception, but like smokers who are very aware that the cancer sticks will kill them, the lack of a strong incentive promotes spotty practice.
I'm in my late 30s and I remember pregnant girls on my school bus, so this isn't anything new. The sex ed in my high school was a couple of days as part of health class. However, in the everyday 365days a year world, these gals interact with other girls and women who had kids before high school so it may not seem like the end of the world.

Anonymous said...

Most of these girls aren't getting pregnant because no one told them how babies are made, because they had no appropriate sex ed class. They want to get preganant and have the babies. It gives meaning to their lives. A baby is someone to love who loves you. Plus you can dress them up in cute clothes and shoes. Look, it still upsets and troubles me. But I'm from a different planet educationally, culturally and socioeconomically. I try to understand their world but am not of it and barely get it. Why would a 14 year old have a baby? One year in my school an 11 year old got pregnant and now have 2 kids. At least she won't get to be 40 and not have any children.

The New Teacher on the Block said...

I'm with Mari and Anon- I think a large reason could be a lack of functional relationships in their lives and a lack of incentive not to. They long for someone to love them unconditionally and may lack the familial and romantic relationships from which they can derive this love. They see their friends with a little "doll" that loves them and that they can dress up and that will give them love.
I think some of my students' parents had children for these reasons, which makes their autism all the more heartbreaking- their child may never express love to them as they had expected him/her to.

Toby said...

Beautiful and insightful post, new teacher on the block, especially with the autism conection...