Vanessa Descalzi is manager of national communications for Teach For America.
The day my TiVo filled to capacity with Bravo shows, and typing “P” autofilled my browser to Perez Hilton, I finally admitted that my tolerance for the superficial was unusually high. Yet I’m still stopped cold when Teen Moms grace the covers of my favorite supermarket magazines. This week, one young woman is spilling all about her battle with drug abuse—at the same time she’s launching a memoir and hawking spaghetti sauce branded with her toddler’s face.
With nearly 7% of girls between ages 15 and 19 becoming pregnant, the U.S. boasts the highest teen pregnancy rate in the developed world. The vast majority of these girls don’t have endorsement deals to fall back on—often, a simple support system is stretching it. I witnessed this firsthand while teaching just outside Washington, D.C., a city that has seen its teen pregnancy rate climb 78% in recent years. My first year I taught Ivette, a tenth grader whose baby face belied the fact that she had a baby of her own. Two years later I supported my 13-year-old student through her pregnancy scare.
Shows like 16 and Pregnant and Secret Life of the American Teenager downplay the obstacles that teen motherhood creates in the pursuit of an excellent education. Even with in-school daycare, Ivette missed days when her little girl was sick. When she was in class, regular check-ups from a social worker took up much of her time.
Consider the physical and emotional turmoil of pregnancy and childbirth, and the constant stress of caring for another human being when you’re still a child yourself, and you can begin to understand how daunting it was for Ivette and others like her to focus on their studies. The delicate balancing act between mom and student eventually became too much, and the following year she dropped out of school—a decision in line with the frightening statistic that less than 40% of teen moms graduate high school and less than 2% attain a college degree by age 30.
This fall TLC will premiere High School Moms, a reality program following the “schoolwork, sonograms, diapers, and dreams” of students at Denver’s Florence Crittenton High School, which enrolls only pregnant and parenting teens. I hope this won’t be another Teen Mom (or Teen Mom 2, for that matter)—that it will accurately reflect the many challenges and successes that young mothers experience in high school. It is not easy or glamorous to be a teen mom but with a lot of hard work and support from dedicated teachers, family, and friends, these girls can grace college campuses and not magazine covers.
Vanessa Descalzi is manager of national communications for Teach For America. She lives in New York City.