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The Women in Literature and Life Assembly
of
The National Council of Teachers of English
Editor:  Patricia Kelly kellyp@vt.edu
Volume 8
Fall 1999


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Famous Mothers (And Others): Notebook of a First Year Teacher

Cynthia Miller, Iowa City, Iowa

Young Mothers Alternative School

September 6, 1979
At the Arctic Circle across from my apartment drinking bad coffee and looking at purple mountains, missing graduate school and Katherine Mansfield and Milton and worrying about tomorrow, when I begin student teaching at the Young Mothers' Alternative School in this strange gritty town of Ogden, Utah.

I flew in from Indiana three days ago and I'll stay here a year, teaching for credit toward my English certificate and my Master's in Alternative Education and learning who knows what. Not sure I'm interested in Alternative Education anymore, not sure I want to be a teacher--thinking I'd like to be a student for the rest of my life, really.

But yesterday I found an apartment I can afford, in the slum my part of the city, across the street from a Salvation Army store and down the block from a 7-11. Naomi Yasuda, the soft-voiced business teacher who directs Young Mothers, said my apartment ought to be pretty safe, as long as I buy a big dog. I put great-grandmother's quilt on the Murphy bed, stacked all my books in cardboard boxes under the window, and stuck silk roses on the garage-sale kitchen table. Then I called my mother. I didn't buy a dog.

September 7
The first day of school, the first class I've ever taught, Child Development. Sheesh, was it painful. Sitting at my desk, I read out loud the notes I'd written the night before, on the first six months of life, copied from the one textbook I could find. The ten girls in front of me sure looked bored. One girl with braces pulled up her shirt and nursed her baby while I talked; a pregnant classmate next to her knitted pink booties. I was in the middle of a sentence about cleaning the umbilical cord when the girl named September Jones stood up and said, "I hear my baby cryin'. Gotta go." Are they allowed to just walk out like that?

September 18
By the time I get to Friday my hair is dirty, my clothes need washing, and I'm so tired I lie down on my quilt after school and sleep till morning. That's how tired I feel today, eating heart-shaped sugar cookies and writing a Child Development quiz at my desk. I'm still bewildered at trying to teach Health and Foods and Child Development as well as two English courses, still nervous around these loud and confident stranger-girls, still confused about who I am as a teacher. But I love my classroom, which has a soft blue rug, a microwave for warming babies' bottles, purple and yellow finger paintings taped to the windows, and mobiles dangling above my desk. Sometimes the room seems too big, though, and empty--all my responsibility.

October 23
Last Sunday, sitting at the picnic table in her backyard, orange leaves falling around us, Naomi completed my first evaluation. Girls have been complaining about my teaching: I'm hung up on discipline, they say, I'm uptight and traditional and I wear weird clothes, besides. Naomi said I should get to know the girls more, worry less about teaching. She said I can be softer, looser in this alternative school than I could be if I were teaching in another school; she said it's okay to admit the students know more about some things than I do. "Ask how they discovered they were pregnant. They won't be mad, they'll tell you. Everybody knows why they're here." And September is allowed to get up and walk out of class whenever she hears her daughter crying in the daycare center down the hall. And remember, said Naomi, even though she has an eighteen-month-old daughter, September is still only fourteen. October 27

Jennifer Ryan, English
How I found out I was pregnant

I'll start from the beginning. I left Mike August 16 and was living with my mom at the time. Anyway I went over to my aunt's house for the weekend I wasn't feeling to great. I didn't want to eat anything and all I did was cry. I just thought I was upset over Mike, so anyway I told my Aunt Sherry that I wasn't feeling to hot so I asked her if she could take me to see a doctor. So that following Monday 20th of August she took me to see Dr. Taylor at Tanner Clinic. So Dr. Taylor ran a uran test so he told us to have a seat. We waited for about 15 minutes and that seemed like forever when finally came and asked us to go into his office right then and there I knew I was pregnant I just had a feeling.

November 1
Tyra came to visit me during lunch today. She is older than the other girls, a mother already, and tall, a knockout volleyball player. "You just don't be usin' your head, Cindy," she said. "These girls are pregnant,they got things to think about, they ain't gonna do that homework you ye been givin' them. And in English, that Hawthorne, what we're reading, what kinda shit is that? Most boring stuff I've ever read."

"Love," says the science teacher, "they like anything with the word Love in it--make up a unit on Love Foods, the Language of Love, they'll eat it right up." Sexist jerk.

November 21
So many girls came to my three-week Love Poetry class! The same bunch signed up for my next English elective, on Dreams (and this class isnotcalled Love Dreams). I'm having the girls read bits of Jung's autobiography and about how the Naskapi Indians pay attention to their dreams. I've asked them to keep Dream Notebooks--a way to get them writing, at least, maybe develop fluency. From Carla Mata's notebook:

November 17--I had a dream about me having my baby and as soon as the doctor brought her to me she looked up and smiled. I was so happy. Then the doctor told me that she was going to die and I said "No, please doctor get her though this please she has to make it!" I was so unhappy. Then I woke up.

November 18--I had a dream about me getting married to Lee Majors. Igot married in white but nobody announced us and I felt real bad. Then I had a dream that I had powers and I made a piece of gum rise from an ashtray and go into this girl that I don't like's hair and it got tangled up inside her hair and then I woke up.

November 27
Made my first Thanksgiving turkey, in the greasy old oven in my apartment. At Young Mothers we shoved long tables together and the whole school--five teachers and almost 100 girls--gave thanks. When she learned I'm from out of town, a new girl asked, "Do people outside of Utah read the Bible?"

December 2
English is my biggest, most unruly class. The girls are clearly bored. Last week I took Tyra's advice, gave up on the traditional textbook, and passed out all sixteen teenage pregnancy books I bought at the second hand store: Mr. And Mrs. Bo Jo Jones, The Girls of Huntington House, For All the Wrong Reasons, I Want to Keep My Baby! I told the girls these books are for outside reading; I asked for 2-page reports in two weeks. Not sure if I'll ever see the books again, the way the girls Just grabbed them up. In class we'll start reading A Taste of Honey out loud--we'll have to share, with only one copy of the play, five bootleg Xeroxes.

Little Anita from my English class invited me to her baby shower. I didn't go, but bought her the nicest wooden toy I could find. She says her mother gave her a .22 when she turned thirteen--"I lived in Tucson, Cindy! You've gotta have a gun if you live in Tucson."

Came home to find a present from my mother stuck between the screen and the door of my apartment: a UPS package: a biography of Katherine Mansfield and The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

December 8
Naomi observed my English class today. She said I should think about how the teacher's self-esteem affects what goes on in the classroom.

December 15
Foods class has been so terrible. For two classes in a row I just gave up and read to the girls from Grace Paley's The Little Disturbances of Man. But Naomi suggested I ask the girls to teach, and so lately they've all been bringing in recipes and stories, and demonstrating: As she's frosting her cake, shaped and decorated like a panda bear, Karen Crossley says, "Yeah, can you imagine having a nine year old kid right now, Cindy? When I'm your age, Becca will be nine, and I'll be a lot older than you are now." And casually of Becca's father, "Oh, he has ten other babies around. We're trying to get him for statutory rape."

From the other side of the kitchen, where she's showing four girls how to make macaroon-cherry-chocolate-chip nut bars, newly-married Kelly with the four month old says, "So, Cindy, when are you getting married?" All the girls advising me about how to get a man.

December 17
Snow-filled sky, black mountains. Watched my neighbor You Phet walk to the Salvation Army store with his wife walking respectfully ten paces behind him.

January 10
Back from vacation rejuvenated and frill of hope in my dusty apartment with the red silk roses. Loving this new teacher-self of mine, sometimes, feeling like I've found my place-I'm not a traditional teacher, I'm an older sister, helping the girls out, showing them things they've never seen before.

Frustrated that, still, when I mention feminism, the girls all say, "Oh, I'm so sick of women's lib!" But finding sneaky ways to fit it in is fun: did a 10 minute book-talk in Child Development yesterday, showing the class picture books filled with strong, lively girls.

January 27
Started an English elective on comparative religions two weeks ago, figuring we're in Mormon country, half of the girls have been excommunicated--they must be curious about that stuff. Maybe I should copy off parts of that book called Isn't One Wife Enough?
Took them to the Buddhist Temple today: three gold altars covered with apples, oranges, and roses and the Rev. Suekawa explaining that Buddhists don't believe in God, exactly. Afterward Carrie hanging around my room, telling me her mother wants to be a race car driver and is "real messed up," and saying, "You've kind of had a hard time this year, haven't you, Cindy?" This from a fifteen-year-old mom who has never missed a day of school, who works 30 hours a week doing bookkeeping so she can support her daughter Tiffany and the two of them can "be a family."

Teenage Pregnancy by Kathy Suarez

Teenagers have a number of mental problems such as drugs, alcohol, some runaway but teenage pregnancy is quite common. An estimated four million girls aged fifteen to nineteen and an additional 400,000 thirteen and fourteen year olds get pregnant every year.
Why do all these girls get pregnant? Most girls get pressured into having sex, others are curious as to what sex is like. Depression, feeling they need to prove theirsell family fights, are some reasons for girls having sex.

February 4
The kids from my Dreams course asked if my next English elective could be about Teenage Troubles. Teenage Troubles! Don't we have enough of those around here? But I'm doing it--I had a social worker come in last week to list the warning signs of depression; an addiction counselor is talking to us on Friday. Today I'm planning to read the girls this case study of Sarah, who is partly based on memories of myself at their age:

Sarah is tired of hearing her mother and father fight. She broke up with her boyfriend and she's stopped going to school; she doesn 't want to see her friends anymore. She never washes her hair or cleans her clothes because she's tired. Who is there to care? Lately she's been taking her parents' bottle of gin to bed with her --she drinks and takes a few pills to help her go to sleep each night.

What can Sarah do to help herself?

Where can she go for help or counseling? (Put list of counseling services on the board as the girls suggest them.)

February 20
After I read the piece about Sarah out loud in class, I said, "Write letters to Sarah, guys, tell her what to do, give her some good advice." Maybe they'll see how they can use reading and writing as therapy, I thought; maybe helping out a girl in a situation like theirs will help them help themselves sometime. But the girls started talking and spilled out their stories to me.
Susan Curry, who wants to be a psychologist, told me she shoved her hands through the glass of the hospital window after her daughter was born. She wanted to kill herself because her boyfriend stopped talking to her and because her grandmother wouldn't let her ride her favorite Appaloosa anymore.
Rosie Jamarillo is the one who the history teacher wishes could go to law school, she was so tough and quick as prosecutor in the mock trial against Ben Lomand High. She's eighteen, five months pregnant, the mother of a two-year-old already. "I was just like that Sarah, Cindy," she said. "I wanted to kill myself. I got pregnant with Nina on purpose, I know I did, I was real messed up. I needed a reason to live."
Rosie handed in a long letter, the first of her writing I've seen, and two weeks later, when we were onto other things, tough Rosie came up to me and asked, "Cindy? Whatever happened to that girl Sarah? Is she okay? I wrote a real good letter to her, I spent a lot of time on it. Did it help? Is she okay? Did she get counseling?"
How to explain that I made Sarah up? But I am beginning to love some of these girls.

March 1
The explosives expert who lives in the apartment behind me came over this afternoon. When he heard I teach at Young Mothers he hung his head and said, "To me, a woman is just as vulnerable as a motorcycle."

March 5

Lesson Plan on Famous Mothers

General Objectives: I have chosen four famous women, two white and two black, all of whom had children out of wedlock early in their careers. Each woman is a distinct individual with different reasons for having the baby and different reactions to having the baby. These women were chosen not so much because they were famous but because they are courageous, honest, articulate human beings who have gained a sense of their own self worth despite obstacles. All have compassion, ambition, and humor about themselves and their lives. In short, they are all good role models for anyone--but especially for young women with babies. Hopefully, reading about these women can help my students understand themselves, see a wider range of possibilities for their lives, and gain a sense of self- esteem.

As part of the Famous Mothers unit, I'm having the girls read the last chapter of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings---the chapter in which Maya gets pregnant and has her baby boy—mdash;and "Don't Have a Baby Until You Read This," Nikki Giovanni's funny essay from her book Gemini; and sections of From Union Square to Rome by Dorothy Day. I'm also using articles about Ingrid Bergman's out-of-wedlock birth—some of them are just scathing, attacking her morality. Maybe I could have the girls re-write the articles so the tone is more positive?
When I passed out the chapter from Caged Bird, Tyra said, "Of course it would be a black unwed mother we'd be reading about." I didn't know how to answer that one. Felt guilty.

March 10

Study Guide on Caged Bird

  1. What's a hermaphrodite?
  2. Look up uvula in Our Bodies Our Selves or in the dictionary and be able to tell what it is.
  3. Why did Maya have sex with the "handsome brother?" Did she enjoy it?

Tyra and September both asked me where they could find copies of the whole book. I loaned them the copy I've got, showed them where the library is.
Not one girl turned her study guide in.

March 18
From English class, Dorothy Day: "And now, just as in my childhood, I am enchained, tied to one spot, unable to pick up and travel from one part of the country to another, from one job to another. I am enchained because I am going to have a baby. No matter how I may wish to flee from my quiet existence sometimes, I cannot, nor will be able to for several years." All the girls quiet, reading this together. I'd guess that feeling of being "enchained" is one these girls understand. Jennifer Ryan, who gave birth two months ago, said yesterday she resents her daughter Joelie "about 80% of the time."
And the gossip this week is that elegant Joyce has decided to join the army as soon as she graduates. She'll leave her baby with her parents for two years, the girls say. She must be crazy, they say, doing a thing like that--her baby will never recover.

April 5
Anita had a 7 pound girl today, Brandy Lynn. Carrie told me the news, then showed me how to burp her daughter Tiffany. Jiggling Tiffany in her arms as she walked around my room, Carrie said, "English is getting better and better, Cindy, but Health class still stinks."

April 6
Betty Jones came back to school today. Betty, who always signed her papers "Mrs. Jones," who wrote a poem in my Love Poetry class that went: "I love you Joe oh yes I do/even when you beat me till I'm black and blue," Betty with her quiet dignity. The girls all say it wasn't SIDS her baby Ezekial died of. They say Betty left him with Joe when she went out for groceries, and when she came back, Ezekial was dead.

April 9
In English class, as part of the Famous Mothers unit, asked the girls to think of a woman they know and write down her three most admirable qualities. September said, "I don't admire women! I admire men!'

April 25
FAMOUS MOTHERS END-OF- UNIT TEST

1. What, if anything, did each woman gain at the birth of her child? How were the women's reactions to their babies' births different? Did any woman feel negative toward her child? Why or why not?

2. Briefly describe each of these women 's relations to the father of their children, if you can. Were they good relationsh4s or not? Explain what you think a "good" relationship is.

3. Explain what qualities each of these women have which you admire, if there are any.

May 13
Cream-colored roses on the railing outside my apartment. Pulling pink and purple finger paintings down from the windows of my classroom, unpinning "A" papers from the bulletin board, dropping my file folders into boxes. How the room got less empty as the year went on! I fly home a week from Friday. Told September and Tyra of the sweet smile about their grades. Tyra got an A- in English and September got a B. "Hey, you must think she better than I am," said September. Smiling, swinging out the door, she said, "I'm gonna git you for that, Cindy."

May 15
Tonight, under my great-grandmother's quilt in my lumpy Murphy bed, I can't sleep. I don't know if it's all the coffee or all the thoughts curling through my brain. Tonight Young Mothers had its banquet honoring the graduating seniors. I walked past blue mountains and the Arctic Circle and those delicate-leafed trees to the Mansion House, in my fancy new sandals and my grown-up-teacher dress.
The seniors wore high heels and backless dresses and ate roast beef at long white cloth-covered tables with their husbands and boyfriends and parents. When the awards ceremony started, the building principal introduced me as the only member of the staff who is still single.
Every senior received an award: for kindest, most dedicated student, most improved. Joyce and Tyra handed each teacher a bunch of yellow-ribboned daisies. Big red -haired Carrie hugged me and gave me a "special thanks" because I'd "meant so much to her." What a surprise!
My main job this year has been to believe that I have something to give to these girls who are so different from me, and so similar to me--did I teach them anything at all? And what will become of them, Jennifer, Carrie, September, Rosie? So much intelligence, so much liveliness, so much waste. I'll miss Ogden with its soft bright nights and the seagulls circling the streetlights. I'll miss the girls.
Couldn't decide whether to call my mother or to cry when I got home. Tried my mother, but the line was busy. So I cried.

Copyright 1999, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation: Miller, Cynthia. (1999). "Famous Mothers (And Others): Notebook of a First Year Teacher." WILLA, Volume 8, p. 3-7.


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