I have been thinking about writing a post for The Girl Effect for a long while now, debating whether the girls I taught on the reservation “counted” for a campaign that focused on the developing world. I’ve decided to take the most literal interpretation of the campaign’s goals, which state that focusing aid, education, and empowerment on girls everywhere causes a ripple effect that improves communities, then societies, and then the world at large. I believe in this effect, and my thoughts about it are too big for just one blog post.
There are homes all over the Navajo Nation without running water and electricity. However, pregnant teens on the reservation have an arsenal of support that girls in the rest of the world do not. It’s not only possible for them to stay in school during a pregnancy and afterward, it’s encouraged. During my second and third year, I created entire self-directed units for pregnant and parenting students who would do their work at home. The guidance department coordinated all the teachers in planning individualized instruction and makeup work for any student who wanted to remain enrolled. My availability was a given—as an employee of a public school, and as a human being who wanted to see my students succeed, I worked around the schedule of the teen mother and her family (and sometimes the father’s family) to ensure that my student would not lose her educational momentum completely. And I saw it work. It wasn’t always this way for Navajo girls, but change did come, with years of effort and education.
Teena caught up with me in my classroom on the day she re-enrolled full time after giving birth to her son. She was a special case—months before, I brought her to the faculty restroom so that she could take her pregnancy test in privacy. When she came out, she launched herself into my arms and I never felt so helpless in my life. So I said what I would have told any other woman who’d just gotten a plus sign on a pregnancy test: “Congratulations! You are going to be a wonderful mom.” On the day she re-enrolled, she told me that because I didn’t act like her pregnancy was the end of the world, she didn’t treat it that way, either. I have a photo of myself with Teena on graduation day, and one with Danelle, too. Danelle had twins her junior year, and she graduated on time thanks in large part to her parents, who didn’t want her to fall behind in school and ensured that all her assignments were completed even when her high-risk pregnancy called for bedrest. In the photo, she and her boyfriend are each holding one toddler, and the one Danelle is holding is reaching up for the tassel on her graduation cap.
I taught more pregnant and parenting girls than I ever expected to. I’ve seen good outcomes and poor ones. Though childhood and adolescence are valuable things and should be preserved wherever possible, early pregnancy and parenthood happen in communities everywhere, from the wealthiest to the poorest. The difference in outcome depends on the community around the young girl. In the areas that receive aid from Girl Effect fundraising, girls are often denied the privileges that allowed Teena to graduate from a business program and Danelle to become a nurse in her hometown hospital. The Girl Effect has its most profound impact in places where young girls—girls as young as eleven and twelve—are pulled out of school to work, to marry and produce children of their own, or to be forced into sex work. The longer a girl is allowed to have her childhood, and the more her family and community are encouraged to see her as a person in her own right, the more likely she is to be allowed to make decisions of her own, to own her life, and to see real choice in her future, aside from her role as a parent. And if parenthood should come early, a girl with a strong foundation will get back on track as soon as she can, and she will have a motivation stronger than any external one—she will be doing it to be the best mother she can be for a child who needs her.