Over time, I’ve found that when I’m called to a conversation in a quiet and empty hallway, it’s usually a situation I’m capable of handling. But last fall, I encountered one that I was sure I couldn’t handle.
Mai, a 17-year-old student in our life skills program, stood with her back to the blue ceramic tile wall. She stared at a point on the floor just beyond her tiny sandaled feet. Ms. Lynn, our classroom’s teacher assistant, put her hand on Mai’s shoulder: “Mai, go on and tell Mr. B what you told me.”
Lakes of tears welled in Mai’s eyes and as she turned her head toward the long emptiness of the hallway she said, “I think I’m pregnant and I’m scared.”
Once the words registered, I looked to Ms. Lynn. She drew a long breath and let it out with a sigh. Mai put her head back down and sniffled. Without really knowing it, in the moment I began to speak, I placed my faith in what our school would do to help and abandoned words like could or should. Could and should are words for political, philosophical, and hypothetical situations, not real ones like Mai’s.
Within the next few days, Mai’s pregnancy was confirmed and we learned that the father was her boyfriend, another student in our life skills classroom. We met with Mai’s family and her boyfriend’s family. We helped Mai set up the necessary pre-natal care appointments and helped arrange transportation supervision and training so she could attend them. A short time later, when Mai lost the support of her family, we helped arrange foster placement and began to teach Mai the basics of caring for herself and preparing for a baby. I also learned that our district has a school that offers a curriculum and community support for pregnant teens, so we began to think of ways we could tailor that program for a student who receives special education services, like Mai.
Most importantly, all through Mai’s disconnection from her family and her strained relationship with her boyfriend, the school as a whole—and the staff and students in our classroom in particular—provided the only familiar, safe, and supportive environment she knew.
Of course, Mai’s presence in the classroom brought forth some unique issues, not the least of which was her ongoing relationship with her boyfriend. As a team of professionals, we struggled with Mai’s growing belly and its impact on other students in the classroom. With help from our school psychologist, administrators, and teacher assistants, we developed ways to turn what might be viewed as special attention to Mai into a litany of teachable moments for other students in the classroom. To be certain, by the end of her ordeal, each student in Mai’s classes had a visceral lesson in the physical and emotional challenges and changes that come along with pregnancy.
I worried daily about my own treatment toward Mai, perpetually asking myself whether I was accommodating her enough or too much and whether I was treating her as an equal to her classmates in terms of academic participation and output. I was pleased that Mai continued to attend her district-sponsored work site and, except for when she underwent treatment for minor medical events, attended and participated in school as usual until a few days before giving birth.
Among the unanswered questions are: What will happen to Mai and her child when she transitions from school and loses the support she’s found there? What does it say about our culture that we develop parenting schools and curriculums for pregnant girls, but not for would-be fathers? How do schools balance their views toward sexual education and health education with the reality of adolescent behavior? How can we know when the line between teaching support and personal support becomes blurred?
Last week, as Mai went into labor, her small group of supporters gathered in a hospital waiting room. Shortly after Mai refused medication and just before her labor began in earnest, the obstetrician quit coaching for a moment and asked Mai who she wanted to help through the final moments of childbirth.
Without hesitation, Mai winced and said quietly and curtly, “I want Ms. Lynn.” And so Mai delivered her baby with the teacher assistant who had supported her all along by her side.