September marks the beginning of the school year in New York City, which means that my mentoring program restarts for the year. I was getting ready to see my mentee, who I’ve been paired with for the last two years, next Tuesday, when I received an unexpected email from the program coordinator, asking to speak with me on the phone. I called him this afternoon to learn that my mentee, who would be starting her junior year of high school at age 15, came back from the summer three months pregnant, apparently with twins, and would likely not be able to participate in the program anymore. In fact, based on her age and socioeconomic situation, it’s highly likely that she will drop out of high school altogether. I immediately felt disappointed not just for her, but for the entire system itself.
My mentee attends a school that is predominantly made of teens who have immigrated to the U.S. somewhere between the ages of 8-12 (mine came at around age 12), and almost all of them speak English as a second language. Their classes at this American high school are all taught in Spanish, with the exception of English class, which is taught in both English and Spanish. At home and with her friends, my mentee speaks only Spanish. Her only opportunities to speak in English are with me and in English class. She’s 15 years old, pregnant, and understands English at barely a third grade level. What do you think her chances are of finishing high school and attending college given all this information? Her school never taught any sex education (comprehensive sex education is a step up and probably not even conceivable), and her exposure to the dominant language here is minimal. She’s planning on having these children, which means that her main focus will need to be on them.
I wish I could say that I have high hopes for her. Maybe I would if her English were better, or if she had an environment at home which encourages learning and growing academically (she does not; in fact, her mother doesn’t really see the value of college and thinks her daughter should be working post high school). The odds are against her. I wish I could do more to help her, but now I may never even see her again. There is so much wrong with our education system and how we treat immigrants in this country that today, I just felt like I was at a big low. I’m powerless to help her, similar to how I was powerless to help my own Ed. For anyone to say that someone like my mentee has an equal chance in this country to succeed the way I do or the way average Joe does is absolutely senseless and wildly ignorant.
The other thing that is frustrating is just the fact that she’s pregnant and probably had no idea what her risks were of getting pregnant or any sexually transmitted disease. I’m literally twice her age, and the thought of being pregnant right now for me is very scary and foreign. Yet, I’m married, at an age where it’s socially considered “normal” to get pregnant and have children. I have a good career, salary, and resources that would provide me pretty much everything I could need or want to give birth to and raise children. This picture here — this is not what she has. She is surrounded by the social stigma of teen pregnancy, of being an immigrant who doesn’t speak English well and hasn’t “assimilated” into society, and who knows what her health benefits are like. And from a physical perspective, I’m sure it’s completely bewildering for her, all these changes she is experiencing. What does it probably feel like for her, someone who is just physically growing into her tall, awkward body, just developing breasts and is still trying to figure out what it even means to be a “woman”? It’s like part of her youth will be lost. She’s like a baby herself about to have babies.