So I have this student, let’s call him Rick, he is a clever and confident boy and can make you laugh with a simple expression. He also recently got a girl pregnant and believes his life is over . . .
A few days have gone by since Rick and I last met about his future. Our last conversation was, at best, bleak. I left school that day with an awful feeling in my stomach; like I had just consumed a bucket of some greasy food my body was not use to. Why do I always feel physically ill after a heart-wrenching encounter with one of my students, whose life challenges I have no control over? I want to think I can feel their pain, but I know that is a lie. I will never truly know their suffering. Their eyes tell the whole story, sullen and cold, as if they belonged to a broken soldier in the midst of war. When the day ends, I am able to leave the suffering. A forty-minute drive and I am out of the melancholy and secured into the mundane. For my students, the pain only begins when the school day ends. My home is my sanctuary. For some, their homes are their hells.
Based on the list of perspective jobs Rick presented to me at our last meeting (porn star, rapper, reality tv personality), I knew this one would be difficult. The kid had no idea what constituted an actual career and he had no experience in constructing a resume. He was literally starting with nothing, a child with no knowledge placed against his will iin an advanced course.
To make matters worse, Rick’s once confident and light-hearted personality continues to be squashed under the pressures of his impending parenthood. A kid having a kid – something I could in no way relate to but would have to give advice on. The closest experiences I had with teenage pregnancy were watching that girl from Glee or the pseudo-celebrities on MTV, most recently Snookie. But these glorified and glamorous teen mothers do not present the whole story. When a cheerleader gets pregnant in the inner city, she will never wear her uniform again, let alone sing Adele in the hallways and when a boy from the streets fathers a child, he cannot rely on MTV’s producers for child support. Snookie’s biggest problem with pregnancy is determining whether or not she can continue having her own tv show. Rick faced far greater and more real challenges ahead, chief among them, finding a way to feed his child, let alone, himself.
As soon as Rick and I begin our after school meeting, the sick feeling in my stomach begins. Perhaps it is the realization that I am in no way qualified to give advice on the matter of parenthood that makes me want to vomit. Just the other night, I spent thirty-minutes figuring out how to turn on Netflix on my television (it is the second input and then push the red button, NOT THE BLUE ONE. Thank goodness some nice lady in India was on the phone to help me through that ordeal. I would not have been able to sleep without knowing what happened on the season finale of Californication.). So how in the world am I supposed to tell Rick how to get a job, stay in school and raise a kid? This should be someone else’s job, like a social worker or counselor. Maybe in some district., where things still went according to plan. . .
Since there remains little to no other support structures for Rick, I have to pretend I know what I am doing. He probably sees through this, but I am his only option and he goes along without complaint. Rick is not a beggar but he is certainly no chooser. I wish I had such an admirable quality – taking what one can in times of adversity.
I begin the meeting by asking, “Let’s start with job ideas. Have you thought of any new possibilities?” Rick looked at me with his cold eyes. “
Was he not sleeping well, or is this just how they look now?” I thought to myself.
Rick told me he had given a lot of consideration about pursuing a realistic job and, more importantly, one he could get to by taking the bus. Rick’s family only had one car and those older than him had already made a schedule around the multiple jobs they each held to make ends meet. This meant that Rick’s job choices were not only limited by his mediocre level of education but also by circumstance of poor transportation. It is amazing how so many elements out of one’s control can be wielded together to create a barrier.
“It is good we are thinking realistically,” I said and Rick began to tell me his list of potential jobs: various fast food restaurants, a popular superstore chain and seasonal help at the mall. “I want a job where I can move up and one day be a manager,” Rick explained. This ambition all but defined seasonal help at the mall, as a last resort, saved for dire straights.
Rick then spent about ten minutes weighing the pros and cons of the fast food restaurants and the super store. The fast food restaurant paid more in the beginning but the superstore offered more room for swift advancement and since it was a chain, he could more easily transfer his current position if he moved. The bountiful decisions Rick was left with. I couldn’t help but mentally contrasting them with my college decision, which centered on things such as scholarship, alumni networks and social atmosphere. Rick would probably never be able to contemplate such factors. Not now.
As Rick weighed his “options,” I chimed in, “Which opportunity (if that was the word for it) will allow you to focus on school and eventually go to college?” Upon finishing the question, Rick looked up at me and smirked. It was the first time I had seen a smile from Rick since before he had made his “mistake.” A closer inspection of the smirk, however, revealed that this was not a smile of childlike mischief but, rather, a mask worn to conceal suffering, to hide pain. The pain of knowing a future that once seemed difficult to reach but was still possible to obtain, was now nothing more than an unfeasible fantasy.
“I can’t think about that stuff now, Sir. I have to focus on my baby. I have to be realistic” Rick said, his smirk now a wavering levy, once thought to be flawless and designed to hold back streams of tears. Last meeting I had told Rick to be realistic, but this not what I had in mind. “You can still raise your baby, hold a job and go to school,” I said, transforming into the unrealistic member of the conversation.
“No I can’t,” Rick responded, the wavering levy now breaking, as tears began to flow through the once impenetrable wall. “I can’t be the kid who puts school first anymore, I have too many other important things. I’m about to be a dad and I’m not going to be like my dad, a man I never met, who was never there, who put other things before me.” The flood of tears was now building. It was clear that Rick had been holding this in for some time and he trusted his weakness to no one else but me. His face glistened and he could his shaking became uncontrollable. I was witnessing a complete meltdown, had a first row seat to the abrupt end of one’s childhood.
Admittedly, I am awful in situations with crying, especially from men. Something about it makes me cringe (unless it is brought about by death or harm). But though Rick was trying to be a man, he was not one. So I, having to find it in to be the man in this situation, put my arm on his shoulder, until he regained control.
The entire time I watched Rick cry and told him the all-too-familiar inner city public school lie “It is going to be okay,” a battle of conscience waged in my heart. Up to this point, I had always believed that college or the armed services should be every child’s first option after school, no matter his or her life circumstance. In my mind, college was not something reserved for the privileged, it was a right that all should have the freedom of choice to attend or not attend. I believe college to be quintessentially American, a publically owned stepping-stone to prosperity, social-mobility and the Dream our forefathers built through blood and sacrifice.
For the firs time, this idea was challenged, not on the grounds of virtue or principal but by sheer reality. Before me sat a crying child about to father a child. His first priority was something he had not yet held and his goal was not to make his own father proud of his accomplishes but to be a man opposite his father. “What do I tell him? Should I continue to push college, to advise him to keep school first, or do I help Rick pursue his goal of providing for his unborn baby?” That was a question no teacher should answer for a child and I had no idea how too. It is times like this I have no choice but to go with my gut, no matter how big a pit had a formed in it.
As Rick wiped his last tear away and regained my gaze with his cold and now swollen eyes, I looked at him and said, “Alright, lets make a resume for both the fast food restaurants and the superstore. We need you to keep your options open.” And those were the options Rick had before him.
Why is this happening in our inner city public schools? If I had been in the same situation as Rick, college would have still been an option. I probably would have been made to get a job, but it would have been more for principal than payment. So why is there no system in place to first teach inner city teenagers the consequences of poor choices and then a backup plan in case they make that poor choice? Teen pregnancy is down but it is still an epidemic. An epidemic that fuels the education crisis. All life is precious, but we must ensure that such preciousness will be well provided for. Otherwise, the cycle will continue to repeat itself.
Photo Credit: Michelle Mirizzi