How do you go from giving birth as a sophomore in high school to proudly crossing the stage, after earning a doctorate in education? 40-year-old Rhonda Powe, an elementary school vice principal and her twin sister Wanda Powe-Greenwood, a fourth grade teacher, are still perplexed, pleased and jarred by their nearly unbelievable achievement. “We weren’t supposed to be successful,” says Powe-Greenwood. “People had given up on us before we had come of age to prove we could beat the odds,” she adds.
Statistics don’t encourage anyone to believe teen mothers can prosper. Research shows that teen mothers are at a greater risk of being poor, ending up on public assistance and dropping out of high school. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, in 2002, almost 100 teen girls got pregnant every hour. The CDC reports the United States has the highest level of teen pregnancy rates in the world.
Like a lot of girls who become pregnant at a young age, Powe and Powe-Greenwood believed their high school boyfriends would do the right thing, marry them, help raise the child and live happily ever after. Just like most pregnant teens, their assumptions were wrong. The instant denial and rejection from their high school sweethearts wasn’t the only abrupt dose of reality for the sisters. “My dream of running track was over, says Powe.” “Once my stomach got big, I lost a lot of friends because parents felt like I wasn’t the type of girl they wanted their daughter to hang around.”
However, there was no time to sulk in isolation or even stew in depression. Home life for the girls became stricter, when the babies were born. “I was bitter and I felt like it was cruel but we made the choice so we had to deal with the consequences,” says Powe. Their parents stripped away extracurricular activities and the girls had to get jobs. “We had to stretch that $3.35 an hour salary because my mother made us pay our siblings for babysitting,” says Powe.
The teens could not use disposable pampers because of their mother’s rules. “She really had us washing out cloth diapers,” says Powe-Greenwood. “It’s like having to grow up overnight,” she adds. “There’s no middle ground because this child is depending on you.”
With the basic support of their parents and older siblings alternating babysitting shifts, the and successfully completed high school without dropping out. While they’d crossed one statistical hurdle, at 18, they crashed into two others, welfare and subsidized housing. The sisters grew tired of their mother’s demands and moved into a local housing project with their children. “We lived one floor away from each other,” says Powe.
The disappointment that filled Powe’s heart following her heart-to-heart with her young daughter became the fuel of motivation needed to ignite determination. She enrolled in a local community college, where she majored in education. Her sister enrolled too. “It was not easy. We were not A-students in high school and a lot of times we wanted to give up,” says Powe-Greenwood.
Instead of quitting, they reached out to each other constantly, surpassing the initial bar they’d raised for themselves. “Once we got that associate’s degree, we kept going,” says Powe. “It really felt good to have someone going through with you and you knew they felt exactly the same pain and aggravation you felt,” says Powe-Greenwood. "We did not want our children to grow up and stay in that environment."
The women received bachelor’s degrees in education from the University of West Alabama. They worked for several years as full-time teachers, in Mississippi and Georgia. “When I bought my first home and got the keys, I don’t know how to explain how I felt that day,” says Powe.
Their success in the classroom extends beyond the books. Their children grew up and defied the odds as well. Powe’s daughter is pursuing a master’s degree in nursing administration. Powe-Greenwood’s son is attending school to become a dental hygienist. Neither were teen parents.
Their story of surpassing statistical limitations and seizing opportunities shouldn’t be the only one, says Powe-Greenwood. “Sometimes when we talk to people they think we advocate teen pregnancy but we don’t,” she adds. “However, we do think it’s important for ever pregnant girl out there to know that she doesn’t have to hang her head in shame, just do what you need to do to make your situation better.”
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