Altered dreams and new realities

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When school buses arrive at the Lincoln Downtown Educational Center here every weekday morning, not all the young passengers are students. As the doors open, several teen-age girls lift infants out of car seats, hoist diaper bags and book bags, and head for a first-floor day-care center in the school. In this former classroom, now filled with cribs and changing tables, the young mothers chat briefly with their babies' caregivers. Then they climb two flights of stairs to begin their own day as students at the Lady Pitts Center, a public school for pregnant girls, most of whom are single.

Diaper bags and book bags -- the two objects stand as symbols of one of the most complex social issues in America today: teen-age pregnancy. With 1 million teen pregnancies a year and more than half a million births to teen-agers, the United States leads every country in the Western world. Here in Milwaukee nearly 30 percent of black babies are born to teen-agers -- the highest rate in the nation. These statistics take on a sobering realism at the Lady Pitts Center as 350 girls a year in Grades 6-12

gather for classes each day. The youngest is 12, the oldest 19. As they meet in the halls between classes and stop at the office with questions and problems, the students form a microcosm illustrating the challenges and altered dreams that early motherhood brings.

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``I'm the only girl in the family, and my father wanted me to be somebody,'' says 16-year-old Theresa, one of six students who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that real names not be used. ``Being a doctor has always been a childhood goal and a fantasy of mine. Before I got pregnant my father was just a lot of support, and so was my mother. They had college funds and everything. I'm not saying this is going to stop me, but. . . .'' Her voice trails off.

``When I take on this responsibility, I know there are certain things I won't be able to get, like clothes,'' adds Yolanda, a 16-year-old whose baby is due this month. ``If I want to spend money I just look down at my stomach and I say, Nope.''

For these six girls, an unplanned pregnancy was largely the result of a haphazard approach to contraception. Although one 14-year-old became pregnant during her first sexual encounter (``my boyfriend's scared of birth control''), four took birth-control pills briefly, then stopped.

``My girls are not ignorant about contraception,'' says Peggy Clapp, assistant principal at Lady Pitts. ``But when some of them were talking to me the other day they said, `We got ourselves into this predicament way before we ever learned how to talk to the guy and discuss this thing.' The girls were too shy. They weren't going to talk about somebody getting pregnant or not getting pregnant, and somebody using something or not using something.''

Part of that shyness may also stem from ignorance. Although all received sex education in school, many of their questions remained unanswered.

``My mother isn't the type of person who would talk about things like that,'' says 16-year-old Tracy, ``but you hear about it from friends.'' A lack of full and accurate information about reproduction is only part of the problem, of course. In her work with 3,500 pregnant teens over a 10-year period at Lady Pitts, Miss Clapp has observed other subtle pressures and recurring patterns:

``Sometimes girls think, `My sister was pregnant, and I'm going to get pregnant too. She got clothes, she didn't have to do certain things, she got special foods, so I'm going to do the same thing.' You see it going right straight down in the family.

``You also may see the grandmother-to-be pregnant as well as the daughter. They're sort of competing. My youngest grandmother has been 28. If they were 15 when they had their first child, maybe they're 30 now. The average probably is in her mid-30s, maybe late-30s.''

Noting that a dozen students are in their second pregnancy, Miss Clapp says, ``The younger ones' parents take over the babies because the girls are children themselves. But the more they take it over, the more the girl is likely to go out and have another one and say, `This one is going to be mine.' The older girls also have outside pressure, because the guy will say, `If you could have a baby by him, you can have a baby by me.' ''

Still, these situations cannot explain the deeper causes of teen-age pregnancy. Miss Clapp places much of the blame on the larger community.

``Where in society did we go wrong that we're not giving these kids goals of achievement?'' she asks. ``They need a feeling that `Hey, there's something out there that I'm going to do -- I've got to spend my time accomplishing and achieving something, not producing a child.'

``They're not getting a sense of self-worth,'' she continues. ``There are no clubs to speak of in high school anymore. They can't find their little niche. What is there for these girls to do, and what is there for them to go home to?'' TO help students find a purpose and greater self-esteem, the school emphasizes the importance of education. It also offers courses in child development, as well as career and vocational planning.

``Last year I wanted to go to school, but it didn't really excite me,'' Jacqueline says. ``This year I feel like I have to go. I need all the education I can get to support my baby. I have to get a job. It ain't just me in this battle anymore.''

Adds Theresa, ``After I got pregnant, at first I was discouraged. Then I came here, and you hear from some of the teachers that it might be hard, but whoever said that life would be easy? I'm willing to try. There's opportunities out there.''

That kind of determination surfaces often in this little group as students talk about their desire to become independent.

``I think your parents should help you a little bit, but I think your boyfriend should help the most,'' says Anita, 15. ``Sometimes parents help too much. They say, `You bring the baby home, I'll take care of it, you do whatever you want to.' That's not right. You should do most of the stuff because it's your baby.''

Similarly, they reject the idea of long-term dependence on welfare.

``I'd rather work,'' Yolanda says. ``It's nice to get that welfare money to help you out at first when you ain't got nothing, but then when you find something you can do on your own it's better to go for it. You might get less money, but you'll take better care of money that you make honestly than money someone has given you.''

Still, for all their hope and youthful optimism, the girls face enormous challenges. By law, they must leave Lady Pitts at the end of the year, and many drop out after returning to their regular school.

Speaking of the sadness she feels when she hears about these failures, Miss Clapp says, ``We felt we helped them so much. We hoped and we prayed that everything was going to be the best it could, even though we'd like to be able to do more. They're just caught up in such a dreadful situation. They may be doing much better than they ever anticipated being able to do, but we had dreams bigger than they could dream.''

What will it take to fulfill more of those dreams and lower the teen-age birthrate?

``I truly believe we have to start with the infants,'' Miss Clapp says. ``It's going to be their generation. To effect a turnaround we have to work with them all the way from infancy on. Sort of like Head Start, but bring it down even younger, so they don't get the pattern of having inferior feelings immediately.

``You also have to work with the teen mother to have her realize she's got to get an education, get some career and vocational planning. Let her know she's a worthwhile person. She made a mistake, but she must not take it out on herself and her child.

``And teen fathers, even though we're not able to do much with them, have to have the same type of exposure,'' she continues. ``Because if you were to find them, they would also be dropouts from school and dropouts from work. In many instances they're waiting for the girl to go on welfare so they can take the benefit of her welfare payments.'' Finally, Miss Clapp says, ``Parents must be role models. Moms cannot say, `Daughters, I don't want you having your boyfriends in the bedroom,' when it's OK for Mom to bring her boyfriend into the bedroom, or Dad to bring his girlfriend into the bedroom. And that's where a lot of them are coming from in single-parent families.''

Just before the bell rings and the girls leave for their next class, they consider one last question: What advice would they give to a younger sister?

``Tell her about the consequences, things you have to stop doing, things you can't do no more,'' says Jacqueline.

Others nod their heads, and Theresa says, ``I told my stepfather's daughter, `You don't want to get pregnant. I'm not asking if you are sexually active, but if you are, I'm just letting you know that I'm sure you're not ready for the responsibility. I'm two years older than you, and I wasn't ready to accept the responsibility when I first found out.'

``I told her, `Don't be scared to talk to somebody. Because that's what happened to me -- I was scared to talk to my mother. If you want any advice come to me. Just don't get pregnant.' ''

Thursday: Preventing teen-age pregnancy -- Milwaukee seeks new solutions. An experimental program in Appalachia.

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