At an age when most teens are making plans for college and careers, 17 teenagers from Gloucester had a very different plan for their lives; they wanted to become mothers. Not after college, not even after high school, but now, while they were still teenagers. Soon, the girls were appearing in the school nurse’s office for pregnancy tests. Instead of scared young girls frightened at the prospect of a positive test, the nurse was faced with teens who were high fiving each other at the news they were expecting.
All it took was a few simple questions before nearly half the expecting students, none older than 16, confessed to making a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together.
Gloucester is a small fishing community in Massachusetts. It’s a predominantly white and very Catholic town, not the usual kind of place where you hear about teen pregnancy epidemics. But that is not all that makes it a very unusual story, which is why it has been on every news show and in every paper across the country. People are disturbed, horrified and outraged that so many girls living in one town could not only come up with this idea, but pull it off and with very little of that outrage coming from their own community.
Yet in an interview on May 30, (school superintendent Christopher) Farmer said he has heard relatively little from parents or concerned community members. Though the local newspaper has run numerous stories and editorials about the issue, there have been just two letters to the editor published about it since March. Overall, the community seems to be ambivalent, Daly said. “There isn’t necessarily shock and outrage when they see it,” she said.
Have they given up? Have they decided that it’s just not worth it to teach their children well? Or are they so eager to blame outside forces that they feel there is nothing they can do? Of course, the maelstrom of blame ensued as soon as this story hit, and most of the finger pointing was aimed at pop culture, as always. It’s the fault of the media for glorifying the pregnancy of Jamie Lynn Spears, 17-year-old pop star. It’s the fault of the media for bringing us movies like Juno and Knocked Up, both of which can be interpreted as making pregnancy look like a barrel of fun.
Well, I have news for those blame shifters. Not every teen girl who sees Juno or is a fan of Jamie Spears is going to go out and get pregnant, in much the same way not every kid who plays Grand Theft Auto is going to go out and stuff hookers in their car trunks, and not every kid who listens to Judas Priest is going to hang themselves. The immature decision making, the naiveté, the skewed morality and lack of reality-based thinking has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is home.
Considering Gloucester is a predominantly Catholic community — and devoutly Catholic at that — it is surprising to see that so many young girls are engaging in sexual activity. It’s not only the eagerness to become pregnant here that is alarming — have they not been taught about unprotected sex? Or is the refusal by parents to have birth control available in the schools a sign that they don’t believe their kids are engaging in sex, so why bother talking about it? One has to wonder what the sex education curriculum — which ends in 9th grade in this school district — entails. The fact that one of the girls used a 24 year old homeless man to get her pregnant speaks volumes about the ignorance of these kids when it comes to sex. What is — or isn’t — taught in their sex ed classes that these girls weren’t afraid of AIDS or another other sexually contracted disease, let alone being afraid of having a baby at 16?
How can a community be so complacent about this?
Maybe it’s because they know, despite the willingness of the media to point fingers everywhere else, that it’s their own fault? Let’s look at the facts: This is a school that offers an onsite daycare center for children of students, yet refused to offer contraceptives in the school health clinic. It’s a school where sex education ends in ninth grade, a town where the nearest family planning clinic is 20 miles away. The school averages four pregnancies a year and offers pregnancy testing in its clinic.
When a school needs to open a daycare center for its children’s children, that’s an eye opener right there. When a need for that arises, a need to take a long, hard look at your community should arise as well. There are a lot of unanswered questions in this story: Why did nobody see the warning signs that something was very amiss in this community?
By October, (Nurse Practioner) Daly had delivered positive results to as many girls as she typically does in an average year. By May, she knew of 17 girls who were pregnant, more than four times the number the 1,162-student school had the year before.
Four pregnant girls a year is typical? How many actually come in for pregnancy tests? And why does the school feel it is necessary to have pregnancy testing available? I did a quick survey of a dozen schools here on Long Island and not one of them offered pregnancy testing within the school. When did this become necessary in Gloucester? Kim Daly may have sensed something was amiss, but she and everyone else in that school and community missed the boat on getting to the bottom of this trend before it got worse. Four pregnancies a year — and this is just the pregnancies that are kept, that everyone knows about, in a white, Catholic community should have been cause for alarm long before 17 girls ended up intentionally pregnant. There was an obvious need for action; perhaps further sex education beyond ninth grade, parent meetings, anything? Instead, they just coddled the teenage moms with a daycare center and their complacent attitude sent the message that it’s ok to be a teen mom. No big deal. After all, things could be worse:
For Gloucester native Lori Mitchell, 46, whose daughter dropped out of school at 16 to have a baby, there are worse ways to end up than a teenage mother. They could be junkies or prostitutes,” she said. “You try to protect them as much as you can, but it’s up to them to do the right thing.”
And people wonder how this happened. At 16, it’s not only up to them to do the right thing. It’s up to you, Lori Mitchell, to make sure your daughter has the right tools to do the right thing, to make sure she is educated and informed and understands that all her actions have consequences. A shrug of the shoulder and a “eh, it could be worse” in addition to the lack of outrage from the parents of the community says all we need to know about why this happened. Unfortunately, the ambivalence, the failure to see where the problem begins, and the tendency to place the blame everywhere but where it lies are sad signs that this will probably happen again.
What’s the answer to this problem? It is not in providing condoms or birth control pills; not only would this not have helped here, where the girls were actively looking to get pregnant, but these are children — yes, children, with terrible decision making skills — and one has to assume they wouldn’t use the contraception responsibly anyhow. A 16-year-old girl that chooses a 24-year-old homeless man to father her fashion accessory child is not to be trusted to actually use any preventive measures handed to her.
This is not an issue about sex. This is a much deeper issue, one about young girls with no direction, no guidance and no boundaries, whose role models are the pregnant classmates who came before them. As much as one wants to point to the economic factors of this struggling, isolated fishing community as reasons why this happened, that’s doing a disservice to every young daughter in that community. It’s a cop out. It’s shrugging your shoulder and saying “we can’t help it, it’s the way things are here.” There are millions of parents out there who are struggling financially and emotionally, whose daughters don’t decide to overcome the hopelessness of their lives by becoming a mommy at 16. It takes education. First and foremost by the parents, with backup education by the schools. By giving in this disturbing trend and not being outraged by it, the parents of this community are only ensuring that this will no longer be a trend in Gloucester, but commonplace.
As much as the town and the school are now saying there was never a formal pact and that idea has been blown out of proportion, the fact remains that 17 high school girls are pregnant, because they want to be. That’s a problem. So what do we do about it? And I say we because this problem belongs to all of us. Every parent of a teenager needs to make sure their children know that becoming a mother is not an admirable goal at their age. Being pregnant as a teenager used to be a stigma. Maybe it’s time to bring that Scarlet Letter back.