I’ve never been one to put artificial emphasis on degrees. To me, “education” is largely created around our interest in and engagement with ideas, whether we are autodidacts or rely on the institutional process.
Several years ago, when I was pregnant, staying with my sister, trying to avoid the drama of my hometown, she asked me what I wanted to do with myself in the future. “I don’t know,” I told her. “I’m just interested in ideas.”
“You’ll grow out of that,” she said. “I did.”
I don’t care what she says. Our family is one interested in ideas, debate, and involvement. We aren’t a model family, we aren’t a perfect family, but I’m proud of us. And we’re damned interested in ideas.
I had my official graduation party tonight with the family at my favorite local restaurant in town. Two things were on my mind as we chatted about friends, family, and education over good food and lots of wine: achievement levels for teen moms and my family’s rather common generational relationship to the academic process.
Earlier this week, my sister alerted me to a recent profile in the Detroit Free Press by Desiree Cooper about a former teen mom who recently graduated with her master’s degree. One quote in particular stood out to me (emphasis mine):
Last Saturday, Johnson defied the naysayers and graduated from the University of Michigan with a master’s degree in social work. Next month, she begins a job working with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
But her successes are still bittersweet.
“People say I should be proud because of what I’ve accomplished as a teenaged mom,” Johnson said last week. “It’s so hard to live with everyone else’s low expectations.”
Finally graduating after six years of work has been a bittersweet experience. On one hand I know that I should be proud that I have finally achieved this long term goal, while on the other hand I hear how amazing it is that I’ve made it to and through college considering the life I live — after all, only around 1.5% of teen moms end up with a college degree by the age of thirty. But Ms. Cooper highlighted one thing in particular that has always irked me, the low expectations we have for teen moms. This sentiment also echoes so many of the low expectations we have for other social classes.
Between railing about the failures of modern marriage and the unfortunate rates of teen pregnancies, the graduation rates of white men and black women, the education rates between the poor and the rich, it seems we forget that real people live among the statistics that we so often cite. I remember when I decided to keep my pregnancy with E, people of all walks of life felt free to tell me how I was ruining my life, my son’s life. I toyed with the idea of giving E up for adoption when he was born, knowing that the chances of me being able to make us a comfortable life without leaning heavily on my parents was slim. I tried for a relationship with Ethan’s dad, a relationship that would eventually end amicably, but not without much strife. I worried. I prayed. I looked for God, for anything that would give me direction.
In the end I found books. I decided to give up some of my financial and emotional autonomy to aim for the optimistic hope that I had the guts to do it, to raise my son, to get a degree, to achieve real autonomy despite the odds. I chose college.
I’m getting to that autonomy, not there yet, but I’m getting there. Nonetheless, I find myself fighting against the stupid social restrictions placed on us for me having the gall to have a son without being married. Screwed if you do (have the baby and do your best regardless) and screwed if you don’t (have the baby and do your best regardless).
Education is very important to my family. As the children of poor folks, my parents achieved financial stability in no small part due to their college educations. My father, whose life was considerably improved compared to his parents’ dependence on cotton-farming landowners and various odd jobs, insisted that all three of his daughters get an education in a four year college. My mother, a teacher for over thirty years, imparted her values to us in many ways, most importantly being connected to the educational community and heavily involved in our academic lives. Both of my parents came from families whose educational experience was little, parents’ GEDs gotten long after the children were born, parents whose education was considered complete if they made it past the sixth grade. My mother recalls stories about being in college after my oldest sister was born, finishing papers for Dad if he could not, doing what they could to make things better, to achieve lives for their children that were more stable and less financially difficult than their own childhoods.
My parents modeled their intellectual lives for us in myriad ways. Dad still reads more than four books a week, a habit I myself have picked up despite my time restrictions. Mom worked with economically and developmentally disadvantaged children, trying to get them to achieve something beyond their goals, not stopping at the bunk expectations of others, another habit I intend to continue. Both imparted the importance of reading, volunteering, and community involvement on us girls. My oldest sister attended the graduation ceremonies of my parents. I remember attending the graduation ceremonies of my two older sisters.
Tonight, when we piled in the car, my brother-in-law gleefully asked, “How many degrees in this car?” Between the seven of us we counted eleven. Considering where we come from, this is a big deal.
One of the things that pissed me off the most when I was pregnant was my mother insisting that I finish high school. I don’t know how it happened, but it did. I expect she and my teachers pulled some strings.
I had dropped out because of morning sickness and depression, lived in a one-bedroom apartment with two roommates above an ex-convict who became my surrogate mother, across the street from a coke dealer on house arrest, and tried to figure out how the hell I was going to make it to the next day. My mother finagled me a spot in the local alternative school where I finished my high school diploma by the two week deadline. Though my acceptance to Oberlin was out the window, I figured that I might as well go to college. After all, there was financial aid, and I could take out loans to cover most everything.
Thirty thousand in debt compared to life with a dependent on minimum wage. I chose college, trying for a two-year nursing degree until I realized I couldn’t pass the anatomy class the second time I tried. I transfered to the local university fearing that I wouldn’t make it, that I wasn’t smart enough. I soon realized that college isn’t about being smart enough, it’s about being rich enough and determined enough to just make it the fuck through, even if the sitter falls through, even if the financial aid doesn’t come through, even though you miss twice the amount of suggested classes because you need a goddamned break for no reason without apology, even if you fail that Latin class because you don’t have the time or brainpower to study, even if your professors treat you like shit because they think you’re late to class because you’re out at the bars all night, or if your professors treat you like shit because they think you’re a whore for having a baby at eighteen, even if you think you’re stupid, even if those around you expect you to achieve, or to outright fail.
Any way you push it it’s scary. Nonetheless, I finished high school. I finished college. But I had help that others do not have the privilege of employing.
When I was student teaching this past semester, battling my Basic students’ resistance to the educational process, I finally asked my students why some of them hadn’t opted for that alternative school from which I secretly graduated. It was a more organic layout, just a few hours a day, individual work toward short-term goals. For those who needed a more structured day, it wasn’t an option. But the rest of them. The rest of them considered it a cop-out. This surprised me. I figured that many of them would be attracted to an easy way out with the same ends as attending eight hours of high school a day. I wondered what they would think of me if I dropped the teacherly facade and was honest about my high school experience.
At one point I raised the risk level and revealed that I had been no model student in high school, that I thought many of them had what it takes to get through a four-year college, especially if I could do so. They laughed at me, accusing me of being some goody-two-shoes that had no idea about the difficulties of their lives. I didn’t tell them about the teenage pregnancy, or the criminal record, or the drugs, or the stay in juvenile hall, or the two trips to rehab, the years in AA. Sure, I don’t know the poverty, but I do know the expectations of failure. What I did say was that I was not a model student, that I had a past that was comparable to their present, and that I was within weeks of my degree. You can do it, I said. Trust me.
I don’t think many of them believe that they can do it, but I hope they do. Though I know that many of them will not opt for post-secondary education in some form or another, I am confident that 80% of them could handle the self-management that it requires to maintain oneself in an academic sphere. Even if they choose not to go that route, I pray that they do not settle for the low expectations of others. In some ways I know that I am a special case in that I have always had family support despite my circumstances as a teen parent. In other ways I know that I am not so special. I also know that because I love the process so much I am far from finished.
Overwhelmingly, it is obvious that my educational achievement is as much about my own determination as it is about my family’s willingness to support me despite the financial and statistical risks. While I thank them for that, I remember that I have many peers in similar situations who are doing the same thing without the financial and emotional support offered to me by my family.
I know many of us are from varied family and educational backgrounds and I’d appreciate your thoughts here. How did you get where you are today? Were you always expected to achieve? Fail? Attend college? Follow a trade? What does your family’s educational background look like? How did family and peer expectations affect your life decisions?
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