Teen Pregnancy: What an AmeriCorps Volunteer learned by teaching in an at-risk Baton Rouge high school
By Mae Beckmann
“When I stepped into an at-risk, high needs, eleventh grade class in Baton Rouge, I was warned that the school’s culture was nothing like mine, nor my friends, nor any show on television.”
There would be a large student population squeezed into a small building that had been built in the 1970s. We would see teachers and administrators place their hands upon students and vice versa. I would hear “motherfucker” in every other sentence from the students. There would be fights at least twice a day. This was due to the new principal and vice principal who decided a tougher punishment approach to student behavior would be a cure all.
“Ultimately the crackdown led to more violence; once, the vice principal got punched in the face by a frantic freshman girl.”
I was placed into this school by an AmeriCorps group with the aim of working with the school’s staff to increase test scores and student involvement. Unfortunately, the principal was not interested in working with us, so we had to make due. My volunteer team consisted of twelve people between the ages of 22 and 25. We were each placed in a different class and were assigned around twelve students to work with. I campaigned to be placed into the U.S. History class since this was my strongest area and I knew they had to pass the class to graduate. Every so often we would work with them on reading comprehension or math strategies. The high school was almost 90 percent African-American and we were teaching white history that most of the students had no context for.
“Over the school year, I lost many of the students to expulsion, pregnancy, dropping out or realizing they had already passed the class.”
There were a lot of shocking aspects of this experience, but the one that hit me hardest was that of teenage pregnancy.
“Out of roughly forty-five female students that I worked with every day, twelve were either pregnant or had recently given birth.”
Late in the year, a girl who had been pulled off my focus-student list snuck her boyfriend into the classroom so he could cut class without being caught wandering the hallways. When the substitute asked him to leave, the boyfriend cussed the sub out with every word he knew. A week later I found out this girl was pregnant with twin girls as she showed me the sonogram.
“A once curious, eager-to-do-well girl grew extremely distracted by her new life path and I rarely saw her in the classroom after she announced her pregnancy.”
My time at the school has ended and I have moved out of Louisiana. What resonates with me the most is how these girls had to become women because they were thrust into motherhood.
“More often than not their mothers had them under the age of twenty, their grandmothers likewise, and so on.”
A spirit of endurance and independence runs through these young women while so many factors work against them.
In a state where sex education is the epitome of taboo, teenage pregnancies remain high in low socioeconomic communities.
“These young women’s stories cannot compare to MTV’s 16 and Pregnant, for it is a far harsher reality when poverty, homelessness, welfare and violence are constants.”
Pregnancy is an immediate sense of purpose in troubled lives. Unfortunately, that feeling can be fleeting and allows the cycle to continue for generations.
Mae Beckmann was born and raised in Gainesville, Florida. As a 7th generation Floridian, she has a passion for southern culture and history. In 2013, she received an Undergraduate Degree in Humanities from New College of Florida. Mae has extensive volunteer experience with such organizations as AmeriCorps, Next Step Tutoring, YMCA, The Humane Society of Gainesville and various political campaigns. While working in Louisiana public schools, Mae served as a mentor to young women through the program Girl Talk. Mae is an avid fan of minor league baseball and southern rock music. She currently lives in Jinan, China with her newly adopted mutt Hank. She works as an English teacher for students of all ages.