For student-mothers, reality a harsh teacher

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / March 23, 2008

Third in a series of occasional articles

Jennifer Smith scooped her 2-year-old son from a rug littered with Legos and puzzle pieces. It was nearing Sam's bedtime, and the sobbing boy was inconsolable. She carried him into her spartan bedroom with beige walls and beige carpet and stood him on the bed.

She had to bathe him and get him to sleep, tasks familiar to any mother. But for Smith there was added urgency. She is a high school senior with homework. And not just any homework. Lurking in a corner of her room behind a shoe rack was a cardboard display panel for a science project that was already late. The 18-year-old needs the project to pass chemistry, a class that she failed last year and one she cannot graduate without. A schoolwide science fair would begin the next day. Tonight was her last chance to finish.

Her future depends on it - and in some ways, so does the future of her school, English High.

One of Boston's most troubled schools, English faces closure by the state unless it dramatically improves its academic performance this year. The school needs to demonstrate that it can graduate all students, including the 5 percent who, like Smith, are parents. With the moniker "Pregnant High," the school's fortunes are tied to those students' futures. But both the young mother and her school face an uphill battle overcoming their realities.

Smith's reality consists of a nightly ritual whose only constant is uncertainty. Tonight, it seemed inconceivable that her son would ever sleep. "Stop crying and talk to me," she cooed, rocking the boy in her arms. "Look at Mommy. What's wrong?"

Sam sniffled and sucked his thumb as she undressed him. While she laid out his footed fleece pajamas on her bed, he darted naked down the hall of the dormitory for teen mothers where they live.

She chased him and brought him back. As she drew his bath and got him screaming into the tub, she worried about the project. So far, she had only written her name on the center panel of the display board in green marker and drawn a happy face beneath it.

Her project was a study of changes in human body temperatures under a variety of conditions. She had used a thermometer to take her son's temperature when he was indoors and out, active and still. She had written the data on scraps of paper. She still needed to write a research paper and type her observations for display.

Smith got her boy out of the tub, toweled him off and tuned her radio to a soft rock station. She hoped the music would soothe him. Sensing that he would not sleep in his crib, she laid him on her bed and snuggled next to him. Sam closed his eyes, burying his head in her stomach, and quieted at last.

But he would not sleep for a long time. She flipped through vocabulary cards to study for a Spanish test the next morning. When Sam finally did drift off, she did, too.

She would not wake until morning.

One typical morning several days earlier, Smith boarded a Number 42 MBTA bus for school. Teenagers spilled into the aisle around her, the hoods of their jackets pulled tight around their faces.

Smith looked like one of them. She wore snug jeans and had pink streaks in her long black hair. Each of her fingernails was painted a different color - glittery fluorescent pink, purple, gold, red, orange, black, white.

As the bus rumbled past shuttered storefronts in Roxbury, picking up passengers at street corners, a difference between her and the others showed. Students stepped aboard carrying backpacks and toting giant three-paneled display boards, their science projects. Smith carried her son.

She says she has never regretted giving birth to Sam at age 15, yet she longs for the life of a normal high school student. She can't join any after-school clubs or play sports because she has no babysitter. She doesn't date.

When students jotted musings about their classmates' futures during a classroom exercise recently, Smith had received lines like, "Jennifer Smith will someday be a fabulous mom." Others got notes about appearing on American Idol, making it in professional football, or becoming the president of the United States.

When other students socialize in the cafeteria during lunch, Smith steals away to peer through the window of the school's daycare to check on Sam. She rarely ventures anywhere without him, except to class.

At night, she eats dinner at the shelter with other teenage mothers, where talk around the table jumps from gossip about boys to the pain of giving birth. Some of the girls had been kicked out of their homes. Others had been referred to the shelter by the state's welfare or social services departments.

Smith, who had been living at an uncle's house since she immigrated to the United States from war-torn Liberia five years ago, moved into the shelter last summer to escape trouble in the home. She asked that details not be published.

Her final year of high school is her last chance for even a small taste of what being a teenager might have been like had she not gotten pregnant.

She had run for student council in the fall but missed election day speeches because Sam was sick, and had lost. She joined student committees organizing prom and graduation activities. But she doesn't have a prom date. She is considering dressing Sam in a tot-sized tuxedo and bringing him.

She is not sure she'll graduate.

Over the next several months, she will have to enroll in evening classes to make up for the year of school she missed while pregnant.

She also must complete work she missed during more than 20 absences this year, days when Sam was sick.

There have been many times when she nearly gave up hope. Overwhelmed and depressed recently, she had stopped going to class and holed up in her room. Quitting school had seemed her best option.

At school, teachers and administrators have gone out of their way to forestall that possibility and keep her on a track for graduation. Headmaster José Duarte waived a graduation requirement for a second year of Spanish. Two social workers volunteered to baby-sit Sam if she found herself caught between looking after her child and going to class.

A teacher volunteered to stay after school four days a week and teach her a year's worth of English and history.

"We want to hold them to the same standards as regular students but we understand students like Jen have different needs," Duarte said of student-parents. "A lot of them forfeit their youth. Every one of these moms say 'Oh yeah, I don't want being a parent to change the way I am.' But then reality hits, and it's very difficult for them."

Early on the day of the science fair, English High's cafeteria buzzed with activity. Display boards describing homemade ant repellants, solar energy experiments, and the side effects of steroids filled row upon row of tables. More than 200 students had completed projects. Teachers had set aside extra space in the cafeteria for last-minute entries and expected Smith's to be among them. It wouldn't be.

Smith hurried up four flights of stairs minutes before the first bell and headed to her chemistry teacher's classroom. She had promised to meet him before school to go over her entry, but she was empty-handed. She kicked herself for falling asleep the night before and worried about his reaction. He would be disappointed in her, maybe worse.

Teachers at English High had invested themselves deeply in the science fair and elevated the event to a symbol of the school's turnaround. Science fairs were routine at some schools, but English had not had one in years. Many of the students never had been pushed to demonstrate the most basic principles of scientific work, and teachers had slaved with students to help them put their projects together. Many had spent the weekend at the school adding finishing touches.

Smith stepped into the classroom.

"Do you have your project?" asked her teacher, Timothy Gay.

"No," Smith said softly and cast her eyes downward. She shifted her feet, ashamed, but offered no explanation. She didn't want to use her son as an excuse.

Gay motioned her into the hallway and stared at her in disbelief.

For months, he had hammered away at his students, sending notes home, calling parents, repeatedly staying after school to help. Some problem students had also failed to turn in projects, but his hopes had been high for Smith. She was smart and enthusiastic and had seemed to want to do it. It was one of the reasons he had been so generous in giving her extra time.

He was on the edge of exasperation, but where should he draw the line for a student who would probably succeed were it not for the weight of responsibilities she carried outside of school?

"So, what are we doing?" he asked.

"I don't know."

The teacher sighed. He had two choices: He could tell her it was too late and give her a failing grade for the project - a potentially crippling blow to her chances for passing - or grant her yet more time.

He remembered the words of school administrators. They were determined to let students experience what it feels like to do their own science and to achieve something never before asked of them.

Gay put his hand on Smith's back and gently told her she should finish the project and bring it in the following week. Instead of putting it on display, she could present it to the class.

But she never did. In upcoming days, Smith fell ill. Sam contracted an ear infection, and she missed nearly two weeks of school.

After returning to class, she had seemed more attentive than ever. She came every day. She asked questions. She did her homework, but she never mentioned anything about her project.

Neither did Gay.

Tracy Jan can be reached at

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