HARVARD DIARY
Moral Anarchy, Moral Necessity

January-February 1992By Robert Coles



For many years, with the help of two of my sons, now medical students, I talked with teenagers who were pregnant or already mothers, and with their boyfriends. We were interested in learning about the lives of these young women and men — their hopes and wishes, their worries and troubles. Not that the widespread occurrence of “teenage pregnancy” has been denied attention by newspapers, magazines, and radio or television networks. Long ago I stopped clipping journalistic reports, some of them first-rate, with their stories of 12- or 13-year-old mothers — and fathers no older. Periodically I watch “special reports” on television devoted to the same, general subject matter.

Rather often, such coverage emphasizes, correctly, the social and cultural and economic side of things, or of course the psychological forces at work among these children, really, who are themselves now parents of children. By now, for many of us, a picture of sorts comes to mind: an urban ghetto, with minority families living hard, even desperate lives, among them youngsters old enough to be sexually active, to create children, and yet still children in so many important ways. By now, too, all sorts of diagnostic and prescriptive formulations and theories come to mind. we have been told and told, for instance, that these youths need more and better education — that they need to stay in school, need to learn all sorts of lessons there, not the least of which are those that have to do with “personal hygiene” and “sex education” and “birth control.” We have been told and told that these youths also need “more opportunity” — need to have better prospects available to them: jobs and more jobs, especially of a kind that hold out the hope and the reality of a decent, solid life. We have been told and told, as well, that many of these youths (even given such an improvement in what is possible for them) have substantial trouble taking advantage of what the world offers them — are fearful or all too apathetic or sullenly cynical, hence woefully unprepared for the world that might well be more beckoning than they realize. Such being the case, we are reminded of another need those youths have — for what gets called these days “mentoring”: careful, sustained, edifying, sensitive, kindly (but of course firm) consideration and attention and. devotion from teachers, social workers, and volunteers who will take them in hand educationally and emotionally.

Surely, such recommendations, the stuff of numerous research projects and commission reports, are utterly worth being realized — though, needless to say, many of us who have worked in shelters with the families who live in them are well aware of how hard it is to find the kind of people who will be able to “deliver” the kind of “services” required: a special sort of commitment from a special (and all too rare) sort of person. I have to say, though, that after a 30-year effort to work with and try to understand what happens to poor and vulnerable children of various kinds in various parts of this country, I sometimes get a bit bleary-eyed and dazed as I read about yet another panel’s recommendations, yet another tough, probing survey, be it the work of a resolute journalist or a determined social scientist.

The more I read (or the more I hear, as statements are made to reporters, to politicians, to me and my kind) the more I hearken back to the fiery, impassioned words of a black mother and grandmother I heard 10 years ago in Roxbury, the heart of Boston’s impoverished community. She was in an impatient, even truculent, mood as she rendered her analysis, made her judgments: “All the folks are wringing their hands and saying something is wrong, really bad wrong, and something has got to be done, and right away. Yes sir, I’m with those folks — you bet I am! Who would want to argue with them? We need all the help they want to offer — and then a little bit more, I’ll tell you! We need schools that aren’t. falling apart, and our kids need the doctors to teach them what’s right to do, how to take care of themselves, all that, and boy, we all need jobs, the more of them for people the better, and the better the jobs, the better for us.


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