Thursday, March 31, 2011

Think of the children with children

Gerry Garibaldi writes:

Within my lifetime, single parenthood has been transformed from shame to saintliness. In our society, perversely, we celebrate the unwed mother as a heroic figure, like a fireman or a police officer. During the last presidential election, much was made of Obama’s mother, who was a single parent. Movie stars and pop singers flaunt their daddy-less babies like fishing trophies.
Did you catch that? The single mom most celebrated in the 2008 election was Obama's mother. Not, oh, which was the one whose name might come to mind if we think '2008 presidential election' and 'single motherhood celebrated'? Hint: her name was tattooed as a ring on her then-fiancé baby-daddy's finger. If anyone, in that campaign season, was getting all worshipful of the single mom, it was the Republicans, with the Palin teen pregnancy such a fine example of a family doing the right thing. And now Bristol's even an aspiring pop star of sorts! Fine, fine, blame social services you dislike on libruls, but the glorification of single parenthood, when it's called "keeping the baby," is plenty right-wing. I don't remember anyone comparing Obama's mom to a police officer. Whereas I do remember B.P. becoming some kind of folksy idol.

Garibaldi, who, according to his bio, chose inner-city teaching as a second and seemingly lower-paid career for reasons I will not be cynical and suggest have to do with wanting to run for office or make a movie out of it, is right that 15-year-olds should not be having babies. And couples who have babies do well to stick together, which for straight couples and some gay ones is best accomplished/asserted through legal marriage. These are reasonable views, and it's noble of Garibaldi to throw Hollywood away and join the selfless profession he has. So far, so good.

But is the main issue for a 15-year-old who wants a baby that the father isn't prepared to marry her? More to the point, is it really a teacher's place to have students describe their future plans, then criticize them for their lack of marital aspirations? Even more to the point, there are no circumstances, none, in which a high school teacher, a male one especially, should tell a female student, pregnant, mother already, or otherwise, "'I think you would make a wonderful wife for someone.'" None.


Jill said...

Right, especially because most folks tend not to appreciate the reasons many poor young women--especially poor young women of color--tend not to anticipate marriage. The lack of marriageable men, due to violence, racist and classist drug and other policies, gang activity, and many other things, is a big one. And so is the reality that getting married might bolster family income, but not enough to really survive, only enough to earn out of many social services they couldn't make it without.

Sounds like a teacher who really needs to dig deeper into the demands on his students' lives.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I agree with your first paragraph, but think re: the "dig deeper" question that, while he should do so wrt young girls like his students if this is going to be his pet issue, he should be digging a whole lot less when it comes to the girls actually in his class. It's not for a teacher to say that it is or is not good to get married, especially for a particular student to do so. Just because this girl was pregnant and underprivileged doesn't mean she's not worthy of that respect.

Miss Self-Important said...

Is a teacher permitted to say whether or not it's good to go to college, or good for a particular student to go to college? Can he say it's good not to deal or use drugs? How about that it's good to bathe regularly? These are also personal decisions rooted in individual moral worldviews, aren't they?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Before I address the rest, let me just ask: if the teacher opposed marriage, as a bohemian, a gay radical, whatever, would you think that would be a view the teacher was permitted to express in class?

I mean, obviously teachers deal with questions not directly related to class assignments. Different ones are, well, different. There's no blanket rule for advocating "personal decisions rooted in individual moral worldviews."

The bathing question, for example is not really a matter of opinion - a teacher might encourage bathing but not discourage it, although how this would be dealt with on an individual level depends on the age of the student and the presumed reason for filth (neglect at home for a young child, depression for an older one). But if a teacher let it slip that he favors, in principle, regular bathing, that, but not the reverse, would be permitted. (Meanwhile, I suspect even most who don't bathe regularly believe, as a matter of principle, that this should be done.) That said, unless a particular student's lack of hygiene is either preventing the rest of the class from breathing or appears to signal massive dysfunction, I don't see why a high school teacher would bring it up.

Along similar lines, a teacher can as-a-rule encourage going to college and as-a-rule oppose drugs, but can't as-a-rule oppose college and promote drugs. A teacher whose opinion is that only the top 1% of students would benefit from college, or that heroin is a fine choice for weekend entertainment, should be advocating for this somewhere other than his classroom. The former, because the purported goal of high school (until the pro-air-conditioner-repair-school revisionists win the battle) is to prepare kids for college, even kids unlikely to go to college. The latter because of, if nothing else, laws as well as school rules.

Everything, of course, varies depending on the age of the student, and whether one is being urged to do something, or a teacher is speaking generally. Encouraging particularly good students to go to college is pretty standard - and optimal - high school teacher behavior. However, if a teacher thought there weren't enough, say, boys going these days and only encouraged male students, this would be a problem.

But marriage... this is really the realm of not the teacher's business - speaking in general terms let alone to a particular kid. Unlike drugs-for-under-18s or bathing, when only one opinion could possibly be expressed to the point that "opinion" hardly covers it, reasonable people do have different opinions on marriage, especially on whether it's beneficial for a 15-year-old to marry the guy who got her pregnant, or anyone for that matter. (I, for one, am generally speaking pro-marriage for adults who want/have kids, but am generally speaking against 15-year-olds promising to spend their lives with anyone.) This is why, if you're going to think it's OK for a teacher to urge a 15-year-old mom to marry, you'd have to think it was just fine for a teacher to tell her that doing so would be a huge mistake.

This is of course leaving aside the question of the profound ickiness of a male teacher telling a female high school student that she'd make someone a good wife one day.

PG said...

Weird. I thought Obama's mom had done roughly the right thing from the right-wing perspective (at least omitting those right-wingers who'd be horrified by her having a mixed-race baby in the first place): she met a guy; she fell in love; she took him home to meet her parents; they got married; while young, healthy and fertile she had a baby; when the guy left her she made an effort to provide her son with a father by marrying again; and when this second relationship was failing, sent her son to his grandparents where he would continue to have a man in his life. And of course, all along she was waking her kid at dawn to study and prioritizing his education rather than his b-ball skills. Short of forcing men at gunpoint to stay with Obama's mom, I'm not sure how much better she could have done for her son, at least from a social conservative viewpoint.

(And yes, unlike Bristol Palin, Obama's mom was not an "unwed mother" -- though she was still a teenager when she wed and birthed, as were many women in the 1950s and early '60s. I seriously wonder whether certain conservatives grasp that there are black people whose parents Actually Got Married... the Fox News caption referring to Michelle Obama as the then-Senator's "baby mama" comes to mind.)

Also, the rap on "Dreams from My Father" that I'd heard from folks like Dinesh D'Souza was that it didn't celebrate his white Kansan mom enough, but instead indicated a dangerous interest in his Kenyan, Muslim, Hussein-middle-named, anti-colonialist father. Evidently the only safe strategy for the president is to pretend that he came, Superman-style, from another planet that has neither single mothers nor Muslim fathers.

Looking at Bristol Palin's celebrity among conservatives (there's no other way to explain how she nearly beat Jennifer Grey on "Dancing with the Stars"), I suspect that one is exempt from getting married before giving birth -- much less from making an effort to stay with the baby's father -- when said father has committed the high crime of dissing Sarah Palin.

As for whether teachers should be discussing life choices with students, it's appropriate when those are related to the known goals of American public schools: to educate citizens capable of running a democracy, and to educate workers capable of participating in a modern economy. (Variations on that theme can be found in various state legal codes, e.g. Texas's: So it's appropriate for teachers to encourage students to habituate themselves to behaviors that will get them jobs (bathing counts here); to study hard; to continue their education; even to vote -- but I've never heard of a public school in the U.S. that put forward "establishment of traditional nuclear families" as part of its mission.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


All good points re: Obama's mother. The thing that stood out to me most wasn't the difference between Bristol Palin's case and hers - although it's great you point this out - but the fact that people were simply not that interested in Obama's mother during the campaign season, certainly not compared with how fascinated everyone was with the Bristol-Levi drama. It struck me as all kinds of disingenuous for a conservative to bring up Obama's mother as the example of Our Culture and Single Mothers from the last election. It was a sneaky way of pretending that it's those on the left who are rah-rah single motherhood, when even if he were going to argue that that's generally the case (which is itself dubious), he'd have had to allow that the Affaire Bristol was an exception.

As for what teachers can and can't say (and I couldn't get that link to work), I suppose the social-conservative reply (MSI, correct me if I'm wrong) would be that trad nuclear families are best for society and for children (insert here some conservative-approved stats on children raised in two-parent families, on the relative stability of marriage vs. cohabitation), and that being pro-marriage is just being pro-your students becoming good citizens. And perhaps if same-sex marriage were legal as well as socially accepted, for a teacher to express this in general terms would not be the end of the world. It could be excused as (devil's advocate, kind of), this is the kind of information upper-middle-class kids get (implicitly at least) from their families, peers, and communities, so poor kids need to get it at school. But thinking a 15-year-old should promise marry the father of her child, or that the father should promise to do so, isn't an issue of social promotion. It's pure, subjective moralism.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

* social mobility, that is.