What Are Her Choices?

I don’t remember her name. In fact, I don’t even know what happened to her. But her story was recently resurrected in my memory.

We were in the 9th grade, our first year of high school, 1970. There were only a few of us who were permanently in an adaptive physical education class. There was a guy who had epilepsy, another who had severe asthma, one who had his leg amputated due osteosarcoma, another with osteosarcoma, but by the time he was diagnosed it was too late to do anything, and me with a wrecked knee. Our teacher was the varsity football coach (I have no idea how he was assigned to us!). We watched a lot of football films. I knew everything there was to know about the NFL teams of the 1960s. We also played croquet.

Every once in awhile, we’d get a new classmate while they were recuperating from some lengthy illness or injury. Physical education was a daily, required class so if you couldn’t participate in regular P.E., you were sent to the adaptive PE class. Of course, we had our own non-politically correct term for ourselves. The only advantage was you didn’t have to buy a gym uniform. However, we were assigned gym lockers for storing our books during P.E.

This girl whose-name-I-can’t-remember was only in our class for one week. I didn’t have any other classes with her or any mutual friends. We’d talk in the locker room as we were dropping our books off and then walk over to wherever our class was meeting.

We were walking back to the girls’ locker room at the end of class and I asked her if she was going to the dance that night. She told me it was her daughter’s second birthday and they would be celebrating it.

Before I had any opportunity to react or say anything, she looked around and grabbed my arm and said, Please don’t tell anyone! No one’s supposed to know and I’m not supposed to talk about it! If anyone finds out, I’ll be sent to a special school.

When we got back to the empty girls’ locker room, she told me her story. She had just started seventh grade and was having a hard time staying awake in class. Enough of her teachers were sending notices to the office that her mother was called in. They recommended taking her to the doctor for an exam. That was when she and her mother learned she was pregnant.

Her step-father had been sexually assaulting her for a few years (and yes, that is rape). She was terrified of him and never said anything to anyone. Now she is 11 years old and pregnant. This was 1968 and there was virtually no legal recourse for either she nor her mother. Abortion wasn’t legal. There weren’t any social service programs for dealing with these types of issues. She wasn’t allowed to return to school. Since her mother’s husband owned the house in which they lived, they had to vacate and find a place of their own. It was very difficult for them to find a place who would even rent to them. Her step-father had no financial obligation to this child, so her mother was left to shoulder the entire medical burden. Health insurance wasn’t available to her mother and certainly not to her as a minor. Her mother had only a high school education and was now thrust into finding several low-wage jobs to pay the rent and obstetric bills for her 11-year old daughter.

They struggled with the decision about keeping the baby and giving it up for adoption. Her mother had a friend who still regretted giving up her baby for adoption, and so they made the decision to keep the baby. Once the baby was born, the girl changed her last name and transfered to another junior high in the area.

Now she was starting high school with a two-year old. It was illegal to attend school if you had a child “out of wedlock”, no matter the circumstances. Her only hope was to finish high school so she could support the two of them. College, much less a regular teen-life were not options for her. And nobody was talking about, or allowed to talk about, any of these realities.

I’m not sure she graduated with the rest of us. We moved to Massachusetts my junior year in high school, and when we returned to California the following year, I never saw her. She would now be 56 years old and her daughter would be 44 years old.

It wasn’t just this girl who was victimized. Her mother and her baby were victimized as well. That’s what happens when women and girls aren’t granted full and equal rights legally and morally. Equal pay for equal work. Access to education, health care, and economic opportunities. Being able to make their own decisions and choices regarding their reproductive health. Access to and unbiased protection under the legal system. Nothing that men and boys don’t also expect.

My faith teaches that God is a God of love, mercy, and grace. We can’t be people of faith and also be apathetic, shun, and judge … ever.

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