“Could we have lunch with you fifth period?”
I was in an office in the high school with Peggy, my new colleague, training her. I didn’t know the girl who spoke, or either of her two friends in my doorway.
“Sure!” I replied. I was glad that Peggy would get to “shadow” a visit with a new group. When they showed up for lunch, they had two more friends with them.
“Could they stay, too?” the leader asked.
“Sure,” I replied. They were delightful girls, eager to talk, jabbering away as they munched on their pepperoni rolls, unfazed by the fact that my tiny office could barely fit us all. They quickly identified that they knew to come to us because of the program we had done the previous week; they said it had been really helpful.
“I’m glad you found it helpful,” I said, and added, “So, do you agree with what we said; that most teens who get pregnant didn’t want to? That it’s by mistake?”
“Definitely! More like all than most!”
“And do you think most teens think about that?” I asked.
“Like, since that program, I been thinking about it a lot,” one girl said.
“Me, too!” chimed in her friend.
They went on to tell us stories, often with several of them talking at the same time. Two of them had never had sex and were determined to wait. Two others thought they might be pregnant, including one who admitted she had had unprotected sex for weeks including as recently as the weekend. I was glad they were all willing to talk so openly with us and with each other, despite their varied experiences. We talked about everything from how to involve their parents to how to get birth control to correct condom use and pregnancy tests. It was a lively and productive visit and they all wanted to meet again next week. Each one took a parental permission form and promised to get it signed, so we could continue to meet in school. When the bell rang and they left, I was glad we didn’t have a student scheduled the next period; that visit had provided an important glimpse into how teen girls’ minds work, how they communicate, and how we can help them. I wanted some time alone with Peggy to make sure she was learning what she needed to learn.
“Wow, that was pretty intense; I’m glad you got to see it,” I said to Peggy.
She was exhausted just from watching. Exasperated, she said, “I can’t believe it! I mean: did you hear those girls?” She was outraged. “I mean, weren’t they listening to us last week? They said they were there, they said they liked it, but I mean—what the hell?! One of them admitted she had unprotected sex this past weekend: that’s after our program! I mean—we might as well have not even been there! How do you do this? I mean, we told them everything, but she still had unprotected sex! What’s the point?!”
“Well, yes, she admitted she has been having unprotected sex, and she admitted she did it this weekend, that’s true. But think about it. I mean, she’s been having unprotected sex for several weeks; that’s what she said.”
“I know. I can sort of see it if she hadn’t thought about it before. But last weekend?! That means our program did nothing!”
“Well now, wait a minute. It’s true that she didn’t just go from having unprotected sex to protecting herself immediately after our forty-three minute program. But to me, what’s significant about that visit is not the fact that a teenage girl who attended our program had unprotected sex anyway. What’s significant to me is the fact that she’s been having unprotected sex repeatedly and after our program she now has adults she can turn to for guidance in changing the direction: she clearly stated that she wants to graduate without getting pregnant first, and that she’ll keep meeting with me to make a plan to go on a method. She’s only in ninth grade: it’s just luck that she hasn’t turned up pregnant already, but who knows how long that luck will last. No, what I see as significant is the fact that in high schools all across this country there are girls just like these, many of whom are having sex. But this group has someone to talk to about it. The fact is that we helped start her on a road in a different direction.”
It took a little more prodding, but within a few minutes Peggy did see that just because there wasn’t immediate behavior change on the riskiest girls’ behavior didn’t mean we had failed. It meant we had started a valuable process that I’d continue and that we had hopefully reached her at a pivotal time, before it’s too late.