Single, Teenage Mother Defying Stereotypes, One Success At A Time
June 11, 2009
They were hardly slackers, these Hartford High students I talked to back in November. They were among the school's top performers. Role models, really.
In fact, I'd sought them out to talk about marches they'd organized against violence in the city.
It showed real leadership, I told them. More than our so-called leaders typically exhibit.
They appreciated the praise. But then they pointed me elsewhere.
"You know who you should meet?" they suggested. "Jenicebeth."
Meet Jenicebeth Santiago.
One-time member of the Latin Dance Troupe.
Member of Law Club.
Frequent name on the honor roll.
Recipient of a couple of prestigious scholarships.
Oh — and a mom since middle school.
Santiago, who's 19 now, was surprised and a little embarrassed by the attention when we talked. She shrugged when I asked why classmates she barely knew admired her.
"Maybe because I didn't give up," she guessed.
She certainly had plenty of reason to. Several women in her own life have left school after getting pregnant. The father of her 4-year-old son, Jorge, hasn't been in the picture for a couple of years now. To outsiders, Santiago's just another doomed, single, teenage mom.
Except that somewhere between telling her parents she was pregnant and her graduation Tuesday, she discovered a drive that even she can't explain.
"I guess I like to prove people wrong," she says.
It certainly wasn't easy. Her days are a constant juggling act: Getting herself and Jorge off to school. Rushing home to feed, bathe and spend as much time as she can with him before sitting down to get her own homework done. Each night, preparing to do it all over again the next day. She's luckier than most; she lives with her mother, who helps, but even so, it's tough.
Santiago's caught herself watching the carefree lives of her classmates, thinking back to how much easier it was before Jorge. But she doesn't dwell on that.
The thing is, she says, she's not sure if she'd be where she is if she didn't have him. Having Jorge is what's pushed her, what's driven her to succeed.
A little boy who could have been a stumbling block instead became her steppingstone.
Come September, Santiago's headed to St. Joseph College in West Hartford, where she wants to major in math and hopefully go on to law school. But for now, she's preparing to get her own apartment for her and Jorge before the start of classes.
She's excited, but nervous — about going off on her own, away from her family and her teacher and mentor Bridget Allison.
When Allison and I talked this week, she wasn't at all surprised that students looked up to Santiago.
"To me, a true role model is someone who's truly been tested, who overcomes with grace," said Allison, a dean at Hartford High's Law and Government Academy. "And I think Jenny has really done that."
As admirable as Santiago's accomplishments are, the real test may lie ahead.
Often, it isn't so much about getting to college — it's about finishing. About trying not to get so overwhelmed and frustrated while navigating a world that's both exciting and frightening that you just give up. Believe me, I can relate. I still remember closing the door to my Boston University dorm room after my scenic road to college and thinking, "Now what?"
But there's something about Santiago's quiet resolve that makes you hope — no, believe — that she'll make it all the way, perhaps humbly showing a whole new set of classmates at St. Joe's what's possible despite the odds.
Santiago smiled shyly when I congratulated her the other day, and wished her well.
"I'm ready," she said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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