The XX Factor

No Pregnant Teen Left Unblamed

Gerry Garibaldi, a “former executive and Hollywood screenwriter” who now teaches at an urban high school, is an excellent example of someone capable of caring about his beleaguered charges while utterly misunderstanding why they do the things they do. Ditto, understanding how public policy should respond to those doings. He’s so focused on assigning blame and, most importantly, envisioning the appropriate punishments, that his thoughts can simultaneously drip with disgust and bring tears to your eyes. I believe he cares about his kids. I also believe that he thinks them, at their core, amoral, beyond help and deserving of social quarantine.

Garibaldi is of the ‘don’t feed them or they’ll breed school’ of urban policy. Cataloguing the millions of federal dollars flowing into urban schools these days, he begins his essay thusly: “…the money, the reforms, the gleaming porcelain, the hopeful rhetoric about saving our children-all of it will have a limited impact, at best, on most city schoolchildren. Urban teachers face an intractable problem, one that we cannot spend or even teach our way out of: teen pregnancy. This year, all of my favorite girls are pregnant, four in all, future unwed mothers every one. There will be no innovation in this quarter, no race to the top. Personal moral accountability is the electrified rail that no politician wants to touch.” (itals mine.)

There’s a lot of muddled (where not frightening) thinking in this essay, fueled as it is by a fire-and-brimstone condemnation that constricts the critical faculties, but “personal moral accountability” brought me up short. Where’s the amorality in teen pregnancy –is it in having sex, in not using birth control, in getting pregnant, or in keeping the baby? Kinda makes a difference and that difference lies in gauging the true motivation and aims of the speaker (and his fellow-travelers). And since when have politicians been afraid to ‘go there’ with teen sex/pregnancy? Since he means “no liberal politician” why not just say so? Why? Because he seems to believe he’s actually impartial, just calling ‘em as he sees ‘em. The rest of us have agendas and partisanships, but not Gerry.

As far as can be told from this essay, Garibaldi’s only aim is minimally funding urban schools  and leaving unwed mothers to sink or swim on their own while we Scarlet A them for their sins. There’s no mention of either birth control or abortion (or of the majority of kids who don’t get pregnant.).  There is talk, though, of the bazillions spent on supporting these young moms, from tutors to subsidized housing:  “In theory, this provision of services is humane and defensible, an essential safety net for the most vulnerable-children who have children. What it amounts to in practice is a monolithic public endorsement of single motherhood-one that has turned our urban high schools into puppy mills. The safety net has become a hammock.”

Puppy mills.

Poor, presumably uneducable (and ipso factor amoral) unwed urbanites produce dogs, not babies. And tax dollars, if I follow him, shouldn’t be spent on animals.

And so we come to his real point:  “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.  None of this is lost on my students. In today’s urban high school, there is no shame or social ostracism when girls become pregnant.”

It’s been awhile since I read a more hysterical, and frankly silly, paragraph. Notice the rhetorical sleight of hand, from unwed mothers to Mrs. Obama. Last I heard, she was a single mother because her husband split, not because Madonna told her it was cool to be a baby mama.  And damned if she wasn’t heroic for raising him alone. Was she supposed to have put him in an orphanage? Shipped him to Africa with his dad? And “fishing tropies”?  One needn’t be a Freudian to wonder at Mr. Garibaldi’s second animalistic reference in this context.

I’m often suspicious when critics deride an offering for failure to promulgate solutions – there’s great value in simply describing a problem – because it’s usually just a way to derail an argument and change the subject. But in this case, Mr. Garibaldi, and this cohort, need to have their feet held to the same flames they throw at poor, unwed mothers and the godless liberals who reward their puppy-making amorality. He should come out and say that urban schools should only be minimally funded even though most students don’t get pregnant (exactly how do the pregnant girls keep the others from learning?). He should say that pregnant girls/unwed moms and their kids should receive little, or no, services. He should spell out what “shame” and “social ostracism” mean (automatic expulsion? No decent man will have them?) and why it doesn’t apply to the baby daddies. He should do all this so we can talk about what we’re really talking about: whether or not tax dollars, and public attention, are simply wasted on ‘certain’ segments of society. Because I think that’s what he really thinks.