On Monday, a Denver Post columnist wrote an article about this spring’s first-ever prom at Florence Crittenton High School for teen mothers, and the article elicited negative comments that so upset me that at first I was at a loss for words. I’ve been working on a project involving the school’s first-ever leadership class, and that class has turned the prom into a hands-on leadership project. Those who complain about the prom say it’s a reward for bad behavior. What they may not know is that this prom is also a practical training program in goal-setting, planning, and execution. It’s teaching this class the very accountability the naysayers complain they don’t have.
The main prerequisite to attend Florence Crittenton is to be a pregnant teen or teen mother. Like me, most of the students are Hispanic. Unlike me, most of them come from families or communities in which poverty, violence, and/or neglect form the soundtrack to everyday life. Many have lacked role models to teach them the sort of accountability my grandmother used to call common sense. Instead their models have come from a grab bag that may include such characters as: abusive or absentee fathers, unemployed or overworked mothers, gang-involved or dysfunctional boyfriends, and violent, or homeless, or divorced families in general.
So these kids left to raise themselves have made the mistake of getting pregnant. Maybe they felt desperate for affection. Maybe they were too immature to reflect on consequences. Maybe the condom broke. Unlike some, they chose to keep their babies. Unlike some, they didn’t drop out of school. Instead, they decided to take responsibility, learn from their mistakes, and attempt to build a better life for themselves and their children. They chose a school that would offer them the childcare and support they need so they can graduate, plan for higher education, and move past welfare to meaningful work.
Before there was ever a leadership class at Florence Crittenton, these girls practiced leadership. Some wake at five a.m. so they and their babies can take multiple busses to school. Some work to support not only their children, but also their parents. Florence Crittenton’s goal is to break cycles of poverty, dysfunction, and despair by instilling young mothers with both parenting skills and a belief in lifelong education.
The new leadership class targets girls with high attendance and top grades. A prom seemed a perfect choice for a class project: in a recent survey students said one thing they missed about traditional school was participating in social activities like prom. So the leadership class became the prom committee. But they’re treating prom like any large-scale project, complete with: team-building, planning, fundraising, presentation-making, marketing, sales, and logistics.
I’ve observed their progress first-hand, and the most inspiring growth I’ve witnessed is the girls finding their voices. Many learned to survive the violence and abuse of their childhoods by being seen and not heard, while others survived the same by acting tough. I’ve watched former mean girls strive to defend and consider input from quiet girls. I’ve watched once-quiet girls break out and speak up. I’ve watched girls who had trouble trusting anyone learn to work as a team. These are skills that will serve them throughout life, as parents, students, professionals, and contributing members of the community.
The prom chair is a nineteen-year-old senior whose mother kicked her out of the house when she got pregnant three years ago. She admits she used to be a bully. Then her son was born. Then her brother was murdered. Now she’s determined to use her leadership talents for good. She wants to become a nurse, a supportive mother, and an advocate for others. “I think a leader is someone who cares about others,” she says.
The chair of the food committee is a fifteen-year-old sophomore with an eight-month old daughter, an absentee father, and a mother with cancer. This girl used to be afraid to ask for what she wanted, for fear of being let down. That’s changing in leadership class. “It’ll make me feel stronger and believe more in myself because I can stand in front of people,” she says. She has been learning how to make pitches to request food donations for prom. Kids at this small school have few financial resources to draw on, so they’re putting on a humble prom, heavy on donated items like dresses, decorations, and cupcakes.
When the Denver Post article came out this past Monday, some complained, and I paraphrase: that these girls no longer deserve a prom, that it’s wasting money that would be better spent on their education, that it’s like giving party money to welfare cases. I’m still so upset by those sorts of comments that it’s hard for me to think of a reasonable response, so let me try my emotional response on for size:
“Let’s say you angry commenters are right. Then maybe we shouldn’t give the girls any more birthday parties either, because they should be punished – forever. Hey, maybe we should take them behind the school and stone them.”
To those who think these teen moms should forfeit the privilege of a prom, I’d like to pose a few questions: What’s the dumbest decision you ever made as a teen, and how long do you think you should have to pay for it? Do you think that all those other proms will only be filled with sainted teens who have never had sex? Can you stand it if a girl who has been dealt a crappy hand, and who made a mistake, but who’s turning her life around, earns back a moment of her youth?
I never went to my prom, but I’m proud to say I’ll be dancing at this one. That’ll show ’em — and I’m not talking about the girls.