I have been volunteering at the School Age Pregnancy Education and Parenting program in our local school district. Pregnant teens and their new babies. I reason it's hard enough to be a teenager, and hard enough to be a parent; to do them both at the same time requires some kind of stamina I have not experienced. I found it a challenge to be a new mom in my 30s; these parents, men and women, are half that, trying to graduate from high school at the same time. Some of their stories rival the best of daytime drama, but they don't get to turn off the TV to escape the madness. They hardly have time to turn ON the TV to escape the rest of daily life.
In these interactions, I am struck by two kinds of awe: first, that life can be so terribly complicated by the time one is 16 years old. I have entered a world that I used to believe existed only in torrid fiction: early, usually unwanted pregnancy requiring one to enter the social services nightmare of Medicaid, food stamps, and free clinic medical care, sometimes accompanied by expulsion from the home, your own or a foster home, in which you had been living; betrayal, anger, immaturity, depression, denial. I ache for these young women, and the children who, though well loved, are having a difficult beginning in life.
But secondly, I am struck by how much courage, joy, and resiliency these young people have. They are in school, and their children are cared for by a school-run licensed daycare. Most will graduate. Many dads are still in the picture, attending the accelerated classes with the women so that both can finish high school on time and have time each week as a family and for a job. They are moms and dads whose babies and toddlers light up when they walk in the room and speak their name, and the parents break into a smile in return. One sentence can describe both more pain and more joy than one adult should have to know in a single day, much less live in as a teenager.
I am reminded, oddly, of Luther's reputed death bed quote: "We are beggars, every one." My life is very different from theirs, due in part to one choice made at the right, or wrong, time. But what I see in them is a need to be loved, to be affirmed, to be accepted even with this untimely choice poking out from the bottom of a T-shirt that she wishes still fit. And I realize we are all beggars, and these are the beggars I want to hang out with right now. I'm not sure my capability to hide my mistakes always serves me well; in their need, these women are more real than I usually risk being, especially with strangers.
And that is the grace: I am stranger, who thinks their life somewhat strange, certainly foreign to me, yet we are all on this road together, helping one another to understand each other and herself, and to see a glimpse of hope and truth and beauty.