Another fascinating essay in Best American Essays 2013 is “The Girls in My Town” by Angela Morales (it originally appeared in The Southwest Review). It is written in thirteen sections, which one of my students astutely pointed out matches the age of her daughter at the time Morales wrote the essay. That’s important because becoming a mother is what this essay is all about.
But it’s not about motherhood in general. It’s about teenaged girls becoming mothers, especially the teenaged girls who surround Morales in California’s San Joaquin Valley, which has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country according to Morales. She is surrounded by girls who are growing up surrounded by poverty, drug abuse, and everything else you can imagine.
Morales lives down the street from the “bad” high school, the one kids go to when they cannot go to their home school. In a lot of places, these schools are know as the bad-boy high schools, but Morales points out that this is the bad-girl high school with a program for pregnant teens where they learn life skills related to nutrition and childhood development. When the school day ends, the girls ignore what they’ve been learning and hang out at the donut shop across the street.
The major theme in the essay centers on the extent to which our lives are predestined by circumstances beyond our control. Does the future really lay out in front of all adolescents? Or do some have more options than others? Are these girls living in the middle of a cycle of love and loss they and their children doomed to repeat? Morales tells the story of La Llorona, the woman who drowned her children to be with the man she loves, but he rejects her. She drowns herself, and the legend of her wandering waterways looking for her children and crying out in pain spreads. Morales also tells the story of a teenaged mother in their town who drowns her child. This is not legend. The dead child is proof.
On the day Morales gives birth to her daughter, she shares a hospital room with a fourteen-year-old girl who also gives birth to a daughter. Morales has no idea what happens to that girl or her child, but she can make some educated assumptions. After all, she’s been watching such stories unfold throughout her life.
Here are some of my favorite lines from the essay.
“We drive on Highway 99 in search of something to look at and find FOR LEASE signs, abandoned western-themed restaurants, and peeling billboards advertising brand-new housing developments that never panned out—a picture of a two-story tract home adorned with a Spanish tile fountain, a father holding a plump toddler, a chemical-green lawn, a happy yellow dog” (171).
“They are told that they will not be alone and that caring for a child requires both strength and humility. We are your support system, the girls are told. We are here for you” (174).
“Unlike my grandmothers, the girls in this town have access to birth control pills, integrated schools with specialized programs, and guidance counselors who are supposed to tout the merits of college—even to the brown and black kids. The girls in my town have more choices, though some people might argue that when you’re young and poor and your own mother lives on welfare, those choices are hard to find” (176).
“And if you can love babies when there’s nobody else to love, sometimes you hurt babies when there’s nobody else to hurt. You don’t mean to, exactly–you just can’t control it. Maybe it’s payback for all that’s ever been done to you” (181).
“But babies get annoying real fast. They get bigger and then they squirm away from you and then they call you names like butthead and they take off their shoes and hurl them at you and as soon as you get the shoes laced up again, they pry them off and toss them behind the dresser, and inevitably you lose that shoe and now you’ve got four mismatched shoes without mates” (186).