To Have and Have Not

News & Politics

When I was eleven, I went to visit my two girl cousins -- one a year younger, one a year older -- in Kent, Ohio. My aunt and uncle took us to the A&W drive-in, to a water park and to play mini-golf; in the backyard, we played wiffleball and stayed in the kiddie pool until it was dark, at which point we went inside, built forts and played dare-free games of Truth or Dare. Until then, I had never quite experienced wholesomeness. When I returned to Manhattan's East Village, where I had grown up reading Russian novels and stepping over bums on my way to school, I, so the story goes, bitterly greeted my parents by saying, "You didn't tell me that was going on."

This week, I went back to Northern Ohio for the first time in many years, to see if I could figure out what was going on at Timken Senior High School, where sixty-four of the 490 female students are pregnant. The numbers were teeming with potential: male students impregnating for sport, girls in a pregnancy cult, fertility drugs in the water.

A crotchety August 21 editorial in the Canton Repository started the media frenzy, condemning "faulty priorities." CNN found one girl who said that she knew about birth control, but just wanted a baby. A local Christian radio station, The Light, urged teenagers to keep their sexual feelings "asleep" by listening to gospel music rather than romantic pop songs. One of the station's personalities is the author of a book called Kissed the Girls and Made Them Cry: Why Women Lose When They Give In. The fact that an abstinence-only program is reportedly in place at Timken has not stopped such virginity promoters from pushing their own versions, which have names like "Stay Strong."

The principal of Timken Senior High School, Kim Redmond, announced that she had "no idea" what had contributed to the extremely high teen-pregnancy rate at her school. Naturally, websites from Daily Kos to Drudge pounced. "Maybe that's part of the problem," dozens of bloggers snickered. "Maybe those teen girls could show her."

It's been a national running joke for days. There was the too-perfect matter of the school's team name: the Trojans. Someone's already floated the idea for an "I couldn't get laid at Timken High" T-shirt. When I told the gawky young rental-car counterperson why I was in Ohio, he put his hands up and said, "I didn't do it." The more you look, the more accidental jokes there are. My favorite was the sermon title on a church sign directly across from the school: "The Nature of Doing it Again ... Again."

Canton is a third-tier industrial city that was briefly successful decades ago. The downtown area is decrepit and vaguely dangerous. On the main street, there are boarded-up buildings, stretches of trash-strewn grass, gas stations (Regular costs $3.09 a gallon), fast-food restaurants, churches and car dealerships. During the day, only a few people are walking along the main street at any time, and menace hangs in the air. During my three days there, men followed me through the streets several times. One pursuer stopped cold when he saw my notebook and asked if I was a caseworker. When he found out I wasn't, he hit on me.

Timken is one of two large schools in the city; the other is McKinley, which is set in a cozy tree-filled suburban neighborhood, right behind the Football Hall of Fame. Timken is set in an imposing, Germanic-looking building on the main street that runs through downtown. There are multiple outbuildings, including one very shiny new one.    

Tuesday was the first day of school. Roughly half black, half white and most relatively poor, a crowd of students poured into school wearing their best jeans and T-shirts (one showed a cartoon squirrel and had the caption "Protect Your Nuts"). Since the principal hadn't returned my calls or emails, I stopped by to see if I could make an appointment. I caught a glimpse of her practical haircut, matronly glasses and administrator jersey tucked into pants just before she started yelling at me. "I want this whole thing to be over!" she said. "I'm not going to talk to you, and I don't want you trying to talk to any of our students on the way out!" She then picked up the phone and spoke with someone about having me removed from the premises.

When I stopped crying (after writing for several years about people who are desperate for press, I'd forgotten what it's like to try interviewing people who really don't want to talk to you), I cut her some slack. It makes sense that she'd be defensive. To review: one in every eight girls, or more than 13%, of Timken's female population is pregnant. The national rate is 8 percent. In the U.S., teen-pregnancy rates have been steadily dropping since 1991, declining 30 percent between that year and 2002. This makes Timken a sexual reactionary among American high schools.

Several girls I met had left Timken this year because of all the pregnancies, creating a kind of "childless flight" that has had the same depressive effect "white flight" had on cities in the '70s. One girl named Kayla went to Timken for ninth grade and half of tenth grade, but transferred to a school in nearby Massillon this year. We had French-vanilla cappuccinos around the corner from her apartment complex, at the Variety's Restaurant where she'd recently applied for a part-time job.

"I didn't like seeing pregnant teenagers everywhere I turned," she said of Timken. Kayla is a good girl, bright and friendly. The last time she got in trouble at home -- where she's raised by a single mom and has two older brothers looking out for her -- was on a Sunday, when she broke her curfew, which is eleven p.m. "I was with my friend Jamie at the park. He went to kiss me, and I was all, no. Then the cops came by at one-thirty in the morning and brought me home. My mother said, 'Do I have to have an unexpected surprise nine months from now?' I was like, 'Ew.'" She says nothing happened in the park that night with her friend, and nothing would. "I still think boys have cooties," she said.

At Timken, Kayla wore a T-shirt approximately once a week that read, "Abortion is Homicide." It's a prevalent belief in Canton. When asked why everyone at Timken was pregnant, Kayla cited boredom and lack of alternatives. She also said that in the two years she was there, she received no sex education.

In the three days I spent stopping dozens of Timken students on the blocks around the school (sorry, Principal Redmond), at the nearby Burger King and at the two area malls (Canton Centre and Belden Village), I received confirmation of this from every student. At a recent press conference, school-district superintendent Dianne Talarico announced that Timken has offered abstinence-only education for the past few years. But the students I spoke with claim it has been implemented scarcely, if at all.

"We don't have sex ed," said one girl in an improbably tight T-shirt, point blank. "Sex ed? Oh, I think we talked about it in health class once," said her friend. "I heard you can go to Planned Parenthood, but no one does," said one of several students hanging out on benches at the mall; her friends nodded.

About Planned Parenthood: the organization has been persona non grata in the school district since 2002. It was not invited to participate in the Canton City Schools pregnancy task force, which was established last February. (Locals have known about the high pregnancy rate at Timken for at least the past year.) That may change. "I'm preparing to submit a grant proposal that -- if approved -- will allow us to implement our community-wide pregnancy prevention public awareness media campaign," said Joanne Green, the community relations coordinator of Planned Parenthood of Stark County. "We are hopeful and believe there is a strong community need for such a program."

But the group probably shouldn't hold its breath, especially given who's building those fancy new outbuildings at Timken High: the Timken family, industrialists made rich by the manufacture of machine-lubricating ball bearings. William R. Timken, Jr. delivered such a large swath of Ohio (and hundreds of thousands of dollars) to the Bush campaign that many in the community have said the Timkens were a -- if not the -- deciding force in the outcome of the 2004 election. President Bush made Mr. Timken the ambassador to Germany shortly thereafter.

After my non-meeting with Ms. Redmond, I went to calm down at the bleak Burger King around the corner. An American flag hung over white bricks; the general color scheme was beige on brown on beige. There, I met Steve Adams, the unofficial mayor of the neighborhood, who spends his days yammering over coffee with his elderly friends, some of whom appear to be homeless. He worked at the steel mill for thirty years and smoked crack before he found God and opened a Christian coffee shop called the Turnaround.

"Of course she threw you out," said Mr. Adams. "My sister teaches there. They're sick of hearing about it. The thing is with these girls, their parents don't want them around because they want to smoke the dope. So they give them money, and they go out and do whatever they want. These kids are out in the street at two, three in the morning. There's nothing to do in this town. You don't see too many stores. It's all restaurants and bars."

While his and others' claims about crack dealing and prostitution in Canton couldn't be confirmed, I can say that I was physically afraid even in a locked car when I swung by the nearby Canton Inn, rumored hub of trick-turning teenagers.

But neither Mr. Adams nor almost anyone else in the neighborhood evinced sympathy for the Timken teens. When I asked about the girls who are pregnant, I repeatedly heard: "They're dummies." (From a guy at a local Christian diner, not Steve Adams'.) "They don't protect themselves. They deserve what they get." (From a Dylan Kleboldish Timken student on the street.) "They just want attention." (From a very eyelinered Timken grad who works at the T-Mobile kiosk at the Belden Village Mall). "It's the atmosphere. They think it's okay."

At one of the malls, I asked a group of Timken students where I could find a pregnant girl to talk with. "Shouldn't be hard," they said, smugly. It was, I should confess now, exceedingly difficult. At the beginning and end of the school day, most students were herded directly off and onto buses, flanked by teachers. I was chased from the school grounds by security guards twice. Several students promised to help me find a girl to provide a face to the shocking statistics; none called me.    
At times, I felt like I was on another planet, one where I was a dangerous criminal and the predatory men were model citizens. At the Belden Mall, a security guard said he'd been looking for me. I'd been reported for taking pictures of the family portraits on the wall of the food court. He informed me that cameras were "against mall regulations."

"Sure," I said, putting my camera away, "but why?" "You might be a terrorist," the guard said, only partially joking.

In looking for Timken girls who were pregnant, it didn't help that big shirts and fast food are still fashionable in Ohio. I chased several Timkenites and hapless passers-by for blocks around the school in vain. At one point, I spotted a very pregnant girl as I was driving. By the time I parked, seconds later, she had disappeared. One mother told me over the phone that she would let her daughter speak with me -- for a substantial sum of money. I started to feel like a creepy old man with a perverse fetish.

Luckily, at the mall there was no shortage of Timken graduates or drop-outs who had babies. I met a nineteen-year-old named Kittie at Canton Centre, where she and her husband were shopping with two children in tow: one her sister's, the other her own. Kittie's eldest was starting kindergarten that day.

Kittie got pregnant when she was fourteen and a student at Timken. That was five years ago, before it was all the rage. She had a hard time. "My friends pretty much disappeared," she recalled on a mall bench. "They were young and could still have fun." She went to Timken's GRADS class, which taught parenting skills. Then she dropped out and started cleaning houses, which she still does while her husband takes care of the children. But she plans to one day become a pediatric nurse, and she doesn't regret anything. "I've got my own place," she said. "I've got my husband [they were married in April after seven years together]. I've got my beautiful kids. I'm pretty happy."

Kittie is, of course, not what all those recently omnipresent magazine articles and books advising early procreation have in mind. Sylvia Ann Hewlett just wants young urban professional women to get pregnant at twenty-two rather than forty-two. And as obnoxious as she and her ilk are, they still suggest women should actually want to get pregnant in the first place. "Wanting" doesn't seem to enter into the equation much in Canton -- they just don't not-want it bad enough to seek out information to prevent it from happening.

And it's no wonder apathy thrives. For fun, Timken students have the option of walking around one of the two malls, or up and down the main street, Tuscarawas West, which everyone calls "Tusc". The rained-out county fair, a few minutes' drive from Timken High, seemed like an excellent metaphor for life there. At the only place downtown with wi-fi access, my waitress said she'd never seen a laptop before, and stared at mine in wonder. None of the teens I spoke with had email addresses.

Passing the mall's China Max on Wednesday, I inadvertently interrupted a tender moment between the counterperson -- a pretty black-haired girl named Brandi -- and her all-American boyfriend Mike, who wore an Insane Clown Posse baseball cap backward and looked much younger than his twenty-four years. They were holding hands over the counter, deep in conversation, and looked completely in love. When they disengaged, I got some food and we chatted about Canton and New York, which they were eager to hear about. Finally, I asked them if they knew any pregnant Timken girls; they said they'd call me if they saw one.

I went over to eat in the food court. About ten minutes later, Mike came over and asked if he could sit down. He'd been thinking about something, he said. When he went to McKinley, his fifteen-year-old girlfriend got pregnant.

"I dropped out and was working three jobs to support the child," he said. "I know kids ain't ready emotionally or physically to raise children on their own. I know I wasn't, and I let my education slip because I made a couple of dumb decisions. It didn't even cross my mind to use condoms. Not until she was ..." He paused. "And I still didn't know how to react. I didn't even think it was real." Mike was sixteen. After all that, his girlfriend's parents banned him from their house and threatened to have him arrested if he tried to come back. "I haven't seen my son in a year," he said, and his eyes filled up with tears.

That night, I went back to Kent and stayed with my aunt and uncle. It was nice, with soft carpet and fresh sheets and the sounds of crickets and an occasional train whistle out the window.

My older cousin is now married and living in Cleveland, an hour from Canton. She and her husband are successful businesspeople. My younger cousin is also happily married to a terrific guy and living near her parents, thirty-five minutes from Canton, with three children. They represent the perfect realization of two paths into one's twenties: child-free and child-rich. The difference between them and, say, child-free Kayla and child-rich Kittie, is that my cousins chose their lives. They had good sex education, loving parents and water parks, and were able to control their futures. From what I can tell, most of the girls at Timken just fell into theirs, for better or more often worse.

Right before leaving to catch my plane, I made a last-ditch effort to meet a pregnant Timkenite. In the school parking lot, which I thought might be far enough away from the building to be fair game, I met a lovely curly-haired girl whose good friend was pregnant. We were chatting jovially when a security guard approached and threw me off the block, radioing my location to the other guards. As I climbed back in the car, four people with walkie-talkies streamed out of the building, heading toward me. The original security guard approached from the other direction.

Speeding away -- or trying to speed, in my impotent Kia Rio rental car -- from what I imagined might be jail time, I felt like a failure. I hadn't spoken to a single pregnant girl, as CNN had, and I didn't have the principal on record, as did the Canton Repository. But as some kind of campus vehicle with flashing lights turned back after following me for half a mile, my adrenaline subsided and I just felt relief that I would be back in New York soon. Timken High is a well-policed fortress; it's a shame the real threats -- politically motivated ignorance and soul-crushing boredom -- lie within its walls.

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