When I got pregnant out of wedlock, 31 years ago, things were a bit messy. My parents and grandparents had grown up with certain expectations for these circumstances, but society had changed. The era of Women’s Lib was past and abortion was legal. Schools could not force a girl to drop out of school if she was pregnant, but because a pregnant girl was thought to be a “bad example,” most school districts created programs and even special schools for girls in these situations. Most of the time pregnant girls did not associate with their peers at school. Far more girls chose to parent their children than in previous generations, and being a single mom didn’t just mean that a woman was divorced or widowed.
For me, the expectation was to get married or to parent my child. I didn’t believe that anyone “has to get married” (still don’t), and felt that getting married at 17 was too young. My boyfriend and I talked about getting married SOMEDAY but not just because I was pregnant. We decided together to place our child for adoption. When we told people about our decision, no one ever knew what to say. It just wasn’t considered.
In the years after my baby was born and I placed, I learned that I wasn’t supposed to talk about my adoption experience. For some strange reason, it made people uncomfortable. Being the edgy, slightly rebellious soul that I am, just because I wasn’t supposed to do something didn’t mean that I wouldn’t. I didn’t necessarily advertise, but I wasn’t silent either. For some people, my simple lack of shame in what had happened was not accepted.
My second teaching job found me in a small, very conservative, very religious town. I taught middle level students, and for my 8th graders especially, relationships and the mysteries of sexuality were all their hormone-laden selves could think about. As an educator, the expectation was for me to be an upstanding member of the community who oozed intelligence, patriotism, good citizenship, and morality.
I was all of those things, but the pretense was that if there was ever a time in my life in which I had not upheld those standards, I was to be silent about them. I refused. As I said, I didn’t advertise, but I wouldn’t lie either. My children knew all about their unknown brother, and I sometimes shared my experience to help a pregnant girl or her parents. I participated in the local Families Supporting Adoption group and was often asked to speak on birth parent panels. A blind eye was turned to these actions as long as it didn’t encroach the classroom. Sometimes, however, it did.
Often, students would hear something about me and would then boldly bring in up in front of the class to get a strong reaction from me. The conversation would go something like this:
Student raises hand.
“Mrs. Taylor, I heard that you had a baby in high school before you were married. Is that right?” [Imagine smug look on student’s face, waiting for me to lie.]
“Yup, you heard right. You know what I heard? I heard that you like Amanda. Is that right?”
“Uhhhhhhhhh . . .” [Imagine face turning red and then purple and then red again.]
A conversation similar to this took place at least once every year, sometimes in multiple classes. This conversation took place between me and a particular 8th grade boy. He wasn’t as easily shut down as the others had been. Instead of getting embarrassed by my comment about his love life, he persisted, “So, you had SEX before marriage, right?”
That got a raised eyebrow from me.
“You know what my mom calls people like you?” Before I could stop him, he said, “A slut.” He glared at me, expecting me to yell or send him to the office or reprimand him in some way.
“She’s not the first person to call me that, and it doesn’t bother me.” The bell rang, and the kids raced from the room. His whole body had oozed anger and hatred. Prior to this day I thought I had a good relationship with this young man, even though he was a lazy student and had failed half of the quarters in not only my class but all of his classes that year. He glared at me for the rest of the week and never brought up the subject again, and after a week or so, his behavior was back to normal. Every now and then, however, he would look at me intensely.
With only about a week before the end of the school year, he stopped in after school. “Mrs. Taylor, I don’t suppose there is any way that I could pass your class this quarter, is there?”
I looked at his records. I showed him the list of his assignments and his abysmal percentage. “It’s hard for me to pass someone who didn’t even do the things that we did together in class, but I’ll make you a deal. If you do your research paper, which is like your final exam to see if you can do what we’ve talked about all year, then maybe I can help you. Whatever grade you get on your research paper is the grade I’ll give you in the class up to a B-. I won’t give you better than that because that isn’t fair to all the kids who worked all semester, but if you can prove you know and can do what we’ve done this year, then you can pass.”
“You’d do that?”
“Ahhh . . . isn’t it due tomorrow?”
“I’ll make you another deal. I will give you until the last day of school.”
He agreed, and I wrote up a contract to that effect that we both signed.
The last day of school came and went. He came to school every day, but there was no research paper. I had no choice but to fail him.
Summer was wonderful. I saw my family, swam with my children, went to teacher workshops, and put my personality back together for the next school year. I always went to work a week or two before I had to just to get things put together and organized in my room. That way, I was able to help with registration, if needed.
School registration at the junior high was simply chaos. There were bazillions of people trying to deal with the stress of first-time junior high students finding eight classes a day, plus dealing with the dreaded locker combination. Registration found me helping parents and students with lockers. About 10 a.m., the busiest part of the day, the intercom came to life. “Mrs. Taylor, will you please come to the office?” That had happened over and over again as I was paged to show parents and students that the locker combination was truly correct because I could open it.
As I walked to the office in the midst of the crowds, a thin, blonde woman spied me and marched up to me. She waved her son’s report card in my face and yelled. It was like a movie in that everything suddenly stopped and everyone stared.
“HOW DARE YOU FAIL MY SON!”
She shoved the paper in my face, and I realized it was a report card from the end of last school year. I looked at the name at the top. It was my deal-breaker. Sigh. I calmly asked if she could accompany me to my classroom.
“NO! I WANT WITNESSES TO THIS! MY SON WANTS TO PLAY FOOTBALL, AND HE HAS TO PASS ALL OF HIS CLASSES 4TH QUARTER IN ORDER TO PLAY. YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE WHO DIDN’T PASS HIM!”
By this time, the principal was standing in the doorway of the office taking in the scene. As calmly as I could, I explained that he hadn’t done anything 4th quarter. I told her that he had come in to talk to me about his grade and we had made a deal about his research paper. I explained the deal and the contract and invited her to come into my classroom so that I could show her the documents. I also invited the principal to join us.
Once again, she refused. The principal tried to get her to come to his office to get her away from the many observers.
This time she pushed me to the wall and, an inch from my face, she seethed, “DON’T YOU SEE? YOU HAVE RUINED EVERYTHING! YOU SHOULD NEVER TALK ABOUT YOUR ADOPTION. HE CAME HOME FROM SCHOOL AND WAS SAYING STUFF ABOUT HOW GLAD HE WAS THAT HE WASN’T ADOPTED BECAUSE AT LEAST HE KNEW THAT HIS PARENTS LOVED HIM AND HAD NEVER BEEN ABANDONED. DON’T YOU SEE?! HE WAS ADOPTED AND WE HAD NEVER TOLD HIM!” Her voice quieted but she still smoldered with disdain. “We had to tell him. We didn’t want him to know that he had a slut for a mother. It would have been better that he had never known. It took us months to get him to trust us, and we promised that he could play football, but because of YOU, that has become a lie, too. You have ruined all our lives. It needs to go back to the way it used to be when girls were ashamed and never talked about their adoption and most adopted kids never knew. You should never talk about your adoption.”
She turned and stormed out. I have never seen her or her son again.