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).