“Oh yeah, it’s Friday: Vivian day. I’m so glad you’re here!”
I was relieved to get such an enthusiastic greeting from Valerie King when we arrived at the same time in the high school parking lot. She was a special education teacher who had been with the district for twenty years.
Secretly, I had wanted to hide when I saw her: she and I had both recently learned that one of the girls in her class was pregnant. She had referred the girl to me three years prior, and she knew I had been meeting with her frequently.
“I’m glad to hear you say that, and I’ll admit it, a bit surprised.” Playfully, I added, “I thought you’d wanna send me packin’! I know this is a tough year for you with Shelby pregnant.”
“Oh, goodness, are you kidding? That is so nothing. I mean, hell, she’s a senior! She made it a lot farther than any of us thought. And anyway, the school year is almost over, and she’s the only one! I mean yeah, she’s a tough one, but hey, it’s not like it used to be here. It used to be like I’d have five or six every year! One year we had eleven; you’re making such a difference!”
I thanked her for the support but was also careful not to accept the compliment as mine alone; without the network of people sharing a vision and a commitment to it, I couldn’t have done anything alone. But working together, we had made a big difference in our community.
I remember when Eileen, my boss, confirmed both how effective and unique our model was: having me serve as a support to individual teens and as a bridge to medical services. A few years after we started the project, my Planned Parenthood affiliate, like many in the nation, merged with another local affiliate, doubling our territory overnight. So Eileen suddenly had to oversee education services in four counties. She immediately hit the ground running, setting up meetings with key people in the two “new” counties, building relationships with professionals in health, human services, and education in this vast new area.
Several months after the merge, she told me, “Vivian, you have to realize something. You’ve spent more time with teenagers—alone and in small groups—listening to them talk about sexuality in a non-clinical setting than anyone in four counties. So any time you’re talking with anyone in our four counties, you need to realize: you’ve got more direct experience listening to teens than anyone.”
She also said why she was telling me that: she wanted me to realize that in my day to day interactions with other professionals in related fields, I should always trust my experience first. If someone told me something about teen sexuality that didn’t sit right with me, I should be confident in my gut reaction, because it probably comes from a more realistic perspective. And I should not be hesitant to “call people” on things I hear in the community about teens; how they think, how they behave, what they need: there are a lot of misconceptions out there, and I should use my voice to correct them.
“That’s impossible!” I insisted. “And anyway, you can’t possibly know that yet. Yeah, you’ve met a lot of people, but even within our four counties, you don’t know everyone.”
“I know I don’t. But I don’t need to. I’ve looked at the computer; I’ve studied the numbers. If there was anyone else who was talking with teens the way you are, and having the impact you’re having, we’d see it in the numbers. We’re Planned Parenthood: the vast majority of teens who access reproductive health services come to us. We’d see a little blip in the numbers; some zip codes would have a disproportionate number of teens initiating and continuing services. And we’re not seeing that. We always see a certain percentage of teens; it doesn’t vary that much. But the work you’re doing in Springfield, we see a disproportionate number of teen patients, both initiating coming in for services and following up. You need to realize nobody else is doing work like that in our four counties…”
Wow. Although it was affirming to learn that my work was having a measurable impact, it was chilling to hear that nobody else in four counties was doing similar work, having a similar impact. I still considered myself “new” at this; I had been with Planned Parenthood for less than five years; with something as important as preventing teen pregnancy, I didn’t want to believe that our society didn’t have a lot of people with more training and experience than I had.
But the sad truth was that she was right.
And the sadder truth is that that’s true for most of our nation.