Q.I’m not going to be able to walk at graduation. There. I said it. I feel horrible. It’s my own fault, I guess. I tried so hard at times, but other times I just was like “Who cares?” and I couldn’t get it together. I missed stupid things. My senior project was a mess even if I knew I could start on it in 10th grade. I don’t completely blame myself for that one because I was in three high schools from 10th grade until now. But here I am, and it’s too late to change things. I don’t know you. I wish I did. My foster mom tells me to read your column online. I’m not from Pennsylvania, but she used to live in Washington when she was in school and she follows the paper there. I like reading your column. I think I could talk with you. I wish the kinds of programs you do were here. I had a baby when I was 15. She’s 3 now. I love her like nobody else. See, that part of my life is good. This foster mom is OK, but there were four who weren’t. When I was pregnant, that foster mom was OK, but she didn’t want a baby in her house, so I got moved when my daughter was born. Then the next one only cared about my daughter. I’ve been in this place since January. Last Christmas sucked. My foster mom says it will get better, but I don’t know. She says as long as I get my diploma, it will be OK. I will get it after I repeat English this summer. I still feel like such a loser. I’m writing because my foster mom said if I did, you’d put it in the paper and you’d write back to me even if my stuff doesn’t go in the paper. I doubt you will.
Mary Jo’s response: You are not a loser. You are a survivor. You are strong, resilient and brave. You faced serious challenges in your young life. You’re a mother who cares about her child, a young person who finally has a trusted adult for support and a determined person who will move forward and succeed.
Let’s talk about graduation. I’ve been blessed to spend time with young people for decades. I’m known many seniors who completed requirements after graduation and were not able to walk with their classes. They were not losers. They graduated and went on to college, technical school, military service or employment. Not walking at a graduation ceremony doesn’t define you.
I wish I’d known you in the past, but I do know you now. Your email took a lot of courage. Since then we’ve texted and spoken via phone. Please continue to connect with me. I also enjoy talking with your foster mom. We’ve arranged a conference call with your school guidance counselor. Your school district may not allow you to receive an empty diploma at graduation, but a few districts do consider the circumstances of each student at graduation. If the rules are firm and you may not walk with your class, we both think you should still attend graduation, celebrate with your friends and enjoy the graduation party she plans to host for you. It’s up to you, of course. I believe you should celebrate your life. Your foster mom agrees.
Let’s talk about your greatest accomplishment. You’re the mother of a 3-year-old. Your foster mom tells me you put your daughter first. Your daughter is young enough to be happy when you’re happy; she looks to you for guidance. She’s also lived through some challenging changes in her life. You’ve been her constant – her anchor through those changes. She’s proud of you. By standing strong beside her and fighting for the right to be her mother, you’ve become a wonderful role model. You never gave up. I’m incredibly proud of you.
Let’s talk about young people who parent. My first mission with teens was with young moms, just like you. I believe age does not determine how well a person parents. Some people in their 30s are not ready to be mothers. You embraced your pregnancy and prioritized your daughter. At times school work came second. Your worth is not measured by a diploma on graduation night but by the bold, tenacious way you’ve lived your life. You will finish high school. You will move forward with strength and create a good life for you and your daughter.
I’d be honored to remain in your life. I also suggest counseling. I know you may be frustrated with adults. Your foster mom will help you find a counselor with whom you connect. Sorting through your feelings now will help you in the future.
I contacted one of the many young mothers I’ve been privileged to know. Her experience was similar to yours. Not only was she happy to respond to you now (her words are below), she is also willing to talk with you. Our next conversation can include both of us if you wish.
Here is my blessing for you: May your life be filled with joy, health and beauty. May you discover your great worth. May others honor and respect you just as you honor and respect yourself. Good luck. I know you have the courage to make great choices.
Former teen mother: I’m in my 30s. I echo what Mary Jo said. I’m proud of you. I didn’t walk at graduation either, but I did finish high school that summer and got my diploma. Then I went to technical school and studied cosmetology. I own my own salon now. My daughter is older than I was when I had her. She’s great. When I aged out of foster care, I stayed with my foster mom until I entered independent living. Like you, I finally was placed with a great lady. We’re still in each other’s lives and I consider her my mom. My daughter calls her grandma. You were handed a tough life, but you’re strong enough to turn things around. Walking at graduation means little. You’re OK.