by Carmen Aviles
Try riding the bus to high school while lugging a bag of heavy textbooks, plus a 3-month-old infant, complete with a day’s worth of baby gear. It will make you strong. While my peers were joking around and having fun on the morning commute, I was—at age 17—suffering from premature back pain. But I was determined not to end up another teen mother dropout. Under my baby’s watchful gaze, I would be the first in my family to graduate high school and go to college. My baby has taught me many lessons, but perhaps the most important was perseverance.
As a high school freshman, I was a poor student. I have a learning disability and don’t learn at the same pace as other students. Instead of asking for help when I got confused, I’d get frustrated. I ended up skipping a lot of school. That year, I began dating Joseph, who worked in the canteen truck parked in front of my high school. Four months later, I was pregnant. I was a baby having a baby—and deathly afraid. I was nervous to tell my mom, but I was most worried about how my grandfather would react. We were extremely close, and he had such high hopes for my future. I held off telling him as long as I could—I was four months pregnant when I finally broke the news. He looked me in the eye and told me he believed in me and that he knew I would succeed. My child would be an additional challenge, but not an insurmountable one.
My attitude changed. I used to be known for my hot temper. Pregnancy helped me channel that energy into fierce ambition. After watching my mother raise four children by herself, without even a high school diploma, I knew how hard it is to get a job that pays the bills if you’re not educated. This wasn’t the life I wanted for my child.
With this in mind, I met with my guidance counselor. She said I could still graduate on time if I took day and night classes, five days a week. I started immediately. During my pregnancy, I was at a desk studying furiously from when the sun rose until long after it set. After Joseph Junior was born, I continued the long hours hitting the books. Because my school had day care, I was able to bring him with me. It wasn’t easy—far from it—but my education and my future were too important for me to fail.
My doctor at Children’s Hospital Boston, Joanne Cox, MD, was an important influence. She was my doctor since I was a baby, and when she confirmed that I was pregnant, she introduced me to the hospital’s Young Parents Program (YPP), a special place at Children’s that provides medical care to teen parents and their children. The YPP was a great support system for me. The clinicians counseled me about housing, my health and the health of my child. They also gave me an opportunity to sit and talk about my fears, challenges and hopes.
Now, seven years later, I look back on YPP meetings as pivotal moments in my life. My son’s father and I are no longer together, but he plays a big and important role in Joseph Junior’s life. In 2007, I graduated from college. Although my grandfather passed away before my graduation, I felt that he was watching me.
I now work for the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, where I help troubled girls. Many struggle at school or have had run-ins with the law. Some of them are pregnant. It’s hard for them to see the path to a life in which they’re not struggling. I was one of those girls; now I help them to get their lives back on track.
At 23, it feels like a lifetime since I was a teen. But I tell them about a scared girl, pregnant and failing school, who decided nothing was going to hold her back. I tell them about a girl who sometimes felt like giving up, but who found the strength to continue. I use my story to encourage them to go back to school, make amends with their families and persevere.
If I can do it, they can too.