Except for the toddlers waddling on the track field like a flock of ducklings and a row of strollers lined up along a wall, the cement block building looks like any other high school, but it has one big difference: it’s designed for teen moms and moms-to-be.
I’m a creative writing mentor at an alternative high school for girls in East Los Angeles. It’s got a free daycare center, policies that allow students to nurse and visit their babies during the school day, and none of the stigma that pregnant girls often endure at mainstream high schools.
As the bell rings, the girls filter in and take their seats. Not all have babies or are pregnant. A good number of them are there because of chronic truancy and other problems at their regular high school. Outside the window, infants totter around a playground, dig in a sandbox, and clamber over plastic toys under the watchful eyes of child-minders as their mothers try to get ahead in life.
The girls study me intensely. I don’t know if it’s because, being white, I look different than them—they are all Latina--or because they’re wondering what this writing thing is all about. Likely both.
I explain that each workshop is going to focus on different genres and aspects of writing: fiction, poetry, songwriting, world-building and scene-writing. They don’t look very interested, but they dutifully open their journals.
Faces fall particularly blank when I announce we’re going to write science fiction. I realize they have no idea what science fiction is.
“You mean like ‘Alien’?” one finally says after my attempt to define it.
That actually turns out to be one of the most successful classes. The girls love making up worlds and seem pleased and surprised about the rich power of their creativity. There’s almost a palpable rise in collective self-esteem in the room when several share their pieces. I get the impression they are rarely encouraged to use their imaginations.
From previous teaching stints, I’ve found that students often work best when they draw on their own lives. When we’re naming characters, I ask them how they came up with their babies’ names and that leads to a lively discussion. When they’re writing a poem, I suggest they write something they’d want to read to their children, and that spurs on a few.
The girls who are mothers work more diligently than the ones who are not, many of whom sit listlessly complaining, “I don’t know what to write.” Responsibility for another human being, I surmise, tends to raise the stakes of maturity in life.
It also changes the typical chitchat of a sixteen-year-old. The moms don’t spend a lot of time talking about fashion, clothes, or music. Like any new mothers, they boast about their kids. They proudly show me pictures on their phones and share developmental milestones of sitting, standing, and first words. An eighteen-year-old tells me she has eleven-month-old twin girls. I’m curious about the kids’ fathers but they don’t mention them, so I don’t ask.
Still, at heart, they’re just teenagers seeking safety in conformity. They all dress in a virtual uniform of sweatshirts and jeans – maternity clothing is just oversize sweats–and wear their hair long and flowing.
The moms are really into motherhood. When I tell them I have a son, they want to know when he started to walk and started to eat solid food. My son is twenty-one years old. I have to reach far into the crevices of memory to find answers.
Many of the girls are a couple years behind their grade because they had to take time out of school to have their babies. They ask me how to spell words like “disappoint.” They’re also absent a lot, which hinders their progress. During one class, a student is called out because her infant is crying a lot. She doesn’t return.
One of the girls takes a shine to me for some reason and friends me on Facebook. Wendy was one of the students who weren’t mothers. A year later, after the course had ended, I see in my newsfeed that Wendy is proudly announcing she’s pregnant. She must be just seventeen or so. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness. I was a single mom myself and I know how hard it is. I also know how much work a baby is, even when you have a partner to help, even when you’re more settled and mature. Life will now be that much harder for Wendy.
I wonder if instead of judgment, being in that school created peer pressure on Wendy and other girls to get pregnant so they would have pictures to show off and cute baby stories to swap. I’ll never know.
Some months later, I see pictures of her newborn daughter. Wendy looks happy, and I’m glad but I realize that Facebook demands we put on our happy mask for the world.
As very young single parents, their path won’t be easy, but I could see these young women were determined to get through high school and create loving homes for their children. That’s really what matters in the end.
Christina Hoag is the author of two novels "Girl on the Brink", named to Suspense Magazine’s Best YA list, and "Skin of Tattoos", Silver Falchion Award finalist. She also co-authored the nonfiction book "Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence". A former journalist, she reported from Latin America for Time, Financial Times, New York Times and other media. Her short stories and essays have been published in numerous literary journals. She recently won Honorable Mentions for essay and short story in the International Human Rights Arts Festival Literary Justice Awards 2020.