October 24, 2005
The Picture of the Problem depends on who is taking the picture. For us as parents, the picture that matters most to us is the family portrait hanging over the fireplace. We focus our concerns on the circle of family photographs–in the faces of each of our children and grandchildren, precious lives we hug each morning, tickle each day, and tuck into bed each night.
For experts studying the Problem, our family pictures and our precious children disappear, buried under an avalanche of statistics. This is just as much a part of the problem as the problem itself, creating a divergence in views between experts and parents. We love our children, but who can love a statistic?
Years ago, reading about Andrew Carnegie in my seventh grade history book—for the first time, I realized one person could have millions of dollars in his own personal bank account. Just imagine it! What would it feel like to have a million dollars? The numbers were huge–too big for my young mind.
So it is with teen pregnancy. The numbers can be simply staggering. Math teachers labor to impress children with the enormity of a number as large as a million. One popular lesson has school children working to collect one million of something: aluminum pop tabs from soda cans or printed letters on a newspaper page. How far would one million dollar bills reach? How high would a stack of one million pennies climb?
Thinking of one million pregnant teens, the mind goes blank. A million? Maybe the best way to understand the big numbers is to make them smaller. In truth, the realities of teen pregnancy can best be understood by looking around us, to the lives of our family and friends.
I remember back to a friend in my eighth grade class in 1965, a quiet girl who dated a handsome dark-haired boy. They weren’t the only “couple” of my eighth grade class. For instance, Debbie was famous for kissing her boyfriend between classes, and Kathy was the envy of the girls because she went on a class hayride with heartthrob Bob, a source of school rumors and gossip for nearly two weeks.
But the quiet girl and the handsome, dark-haired boy were different. They were serious. And then one day, the quiet girl was gone. Just like that. Silently, the ripples of gossip carried the news across the classroom, “She’s pregnant.” And no one said anything more.
The choices in 1965 were limited. In eighth grade, the quiet girl was too young for a shotgun marriage. Abortion wasn’t legal, nor did it have social approval. Although we didn’t discuss it, we all knew common practice dictated that she had been secreted off to a home for unwed mothers or to a family out of town where she gave birth to the baby and gave it up for adoption.
The next time I heard of a classmate being pregnant, I was a senior in American History–four years later. A pretty, athletic girl walked through the desks and up to the front of the room with a withdrawal slip. Mr. Halbert signed the paper, and she turned to face us on her walk out of the room. Students moving out of our school always grabbed attention—there were so few of them who left, and, naturally, someone in the room had to ask, “Where’s she going?” Again, ever so quietly, the news passed around the room, “She’s pregnant.”
A short time later, in May, I graduated from high school with plans to attend Arizona State University. The birth control bill had just arrived on college campuses around the country, and I was on hand to witness the beginning of a quiet revolution.
Now, after 30 years of “controlling birth” with a pill, the best measure of social change is evident in the lives of the people I know: in my own family, in the schools where I taught, with the students at my children’s high school, at church, and in the families of friends and neighbors. Teen pregnancy is no longer a rare occurrence, something we hear of every four years or so. We all know of young women and men who are parents—unwed teen parents.
And when pregnancy touches the life of a young person we love, there are simply no statistics to measure the impact on their lives. Statistics are flat numbers, two dimensional counters that fill up governmental reports. But they fail to illustrate the more personal significance of teen pregnancy for our children and for our nation.
When you hug your child tonight, when you pull the bedcovers under her chin, ask yourself if teen pregnancy is your only fear about teen sex. If she gets pregnant, she will become the concern of statisticians. They ask, “How many?”
But you’re the parent. And you know the meaning of sex beyond the statistics. Is that the best the experts have to offer us, a few pills or a patch to prevent implantation of a fertilized egg? Parents have the heart to ask, “So what?” And we know that the answer to this question is in the family photos on the mantel above the fireplace…in the lives that we cherish, no matter how few.
One million printed letters on a newspaper page would cover a bedroom wall eight feet high and six feet long; one million dollar bills end to end would reach 96.9 miles; and a stack of one million pennies would climb nearly one mile up into space, enough for four stacks of pennies as high as the Empire State Building.
April 11, 2005 – Why I Teach Abstinence
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