PROFILE OF A TEEN MOM: Yaskaira Benitezby Jessica Campbell
In fifth grade, Yaskaira Benitez stood in the nurse’s office, glaring at the mirror. Bloody scratches cut the smooth bronze of her face. The fight had been broken-up. Then she saw her reflection.
“I don’t know what came over me,” Yaskaira recalled. “I just bum-rushed through everybody, ran through the whole school looking for her, and when I found her I tried to scratch her as much as she scratched me.”
Yaskaira, now 18, is quick to generalize her early life: “I was baaaaad.” In kindergarten she used the word “butt.” Principal. In fifth grade she got into fights. Suspensions. In sixth grade she cut class. Parent conferences. In seventh grade she threatened to hit the assistant principal. Court. In eighth grade, at 14, she had a baby.
By her tenth grade year at the Brooklyn School for Global Studies, that baby had saved her. Now a senior, her Facebook posts read like her happily ever after: “I passed ALL my classes w/ a 80% Average. College, here I come! :D”
Yaskaira is not like the girl-next-door teenagers on MTV’s Teen Mom, and she is not famous and dancing like Bristol Palin. She is far more representative of the demographics of teen motherhood. Like many teenage mothers, she is Hispanic, and she does not come from an upper-class background.
Yaskaira lives in a two bedroom apartment in Brooklyn’s Red Hook Housing Projects. She shares a bed with her three-and-a-half-year-old son, Sean, and one of her older sisters. Her younger brother shares the other bedroom with her parents, who both immigrated from the Dominican Republic.
One morning earlier this school year, Yaskaira, her son and her sister were asleep in bed. Yaskaira’s framed communion portrait dominated the bedroom wall above them. The young Yaskaira smiled out from a cloud of white: white gloves, white headpiece, white dress. The sleeping Yaskaira wore a red long-sleeved t-shirt and a hair wrap. Save for the big eyes, the two versions of the girl were irreconcilable.
At 7:03 am, her mother screamed from the doorway, “Yaskaaaira! Are you going to school today? Yes or no?” The answer has been increasingly “yes.” In fact, if all goes as planned, Yaskaira will graduate in June and attend college in September. This would defy the odds—moms under the age of 18 have a 38 percent chance of attaining a high school diploma; for women without a child, the rate is 89 percent. Yaskaira, though, is not successful in spite of her son, but because of him.
“He helped me to grow up,” she said. “Finally!”
Yaskaira first thought she was pregnant after missed periods and chicken wing cravings. When she took the test, she remembers her boyfriend standing guard outside of the bathroom in her apartment, while her mother cooked dinner four feet away.
“He bought the cheapest pregnancy test. I think it was like eight dollars,” she said. “I was trying to read it and I was making sure. I was like, ‘is this right?’ I just remember it was one line and I was trying to read it—does one line mean I’m pregnant or does two lines mean I’m pregnant?”
Yaskaira’s family first thought she was pregnant on the fall day she took home her eighth-grade class pet. She was munching on cheese-doodles when she noticed the “annoying” smell of the bunny. Within minutes, she was bent over the garbage.
Then there were the family conversations, which started with shouts and threats directed at Yaskaira, but ended with a clear and committed focus on the baby. Then doctors appointments and a growing belly. Then it was May. Other eighth graders prepared for state tests and graduation. Yaskaira prepared for her son.
Yaskaira crawled out of bed, showered, straightened her black hair and flattened her bangs. She buttoned her plaid shirt and tucked her khakis into fringed boots. She tickled Sean awake, dressed him in jeans and a hoodie and packed his superhero backpack. Then mother and son were off to school.
As they entered Sean’s daycare, the PAL Miccio Center (which he no longer attends), Benitez hoisted him on her hip and lamented, “He’s cranky today, he wants to stay home.” He nuzzled his face into his mom’s neck. When they entered his class, she rolled him off of her and onto his teacher.
The F train then carried her away from the Red Hook Houses, whose brick exteriors blended in height and color with the bare trees. It carried her away from the booming Gowanus Expressway, the Checks Cashed Now Center and the Warehouse Outlet, delivering her to Cobble Hill, a neighborhood brimming with brownstones and boutiques.
Yaskaira entered first period Art. She grabbed a smock and squirted yellow paint onto her palate. Standing over her bucolic painting, she silently swooshed the brush back and forth. The teacher walked to Yaskaira’s side, and rubbed her own pregnant belly as she evaluated. “Impressionists didn’t mix paint on their palate, they did it on here,” she said, pointing to the painting. Yaskaira nodded and dipped her brush back into the yellow, pressing new paint on the trees.
Yaskaira’s life is its own impressionistic painting, earlier layers blotted out with new ones. It is like the familiar narrative she tells herself about herself over and over again: I was bad, I had a baby, I realized I had to change, I changed.
In ninth grade, she still struggled with school. She was suspended for the last time after punching a classmate who accused her of throwing a pencil at him. Then she was asked, “Do you still want to be in this school when Sean comes here?”
Ms. Jarvis—the assistant principal Yaskaira once threatened to hit—has long forgiven her. She noted the sensitive line Yaskaira flirted with when she was younger: “She was a typical child that could have been slated for turning to the streets and not completing school and not going on the straight and narrow. But, she has defied a lot of those odds.”
However, with a deficiency in credits from freshman year, Yaskaira needs to pass every class, attend afternoon school, and present her capstone Roundtable Paper in order to graduate.
In Advisory class, an overhead projector cast the assignment on the board: “Personal Statements: Due 10/29.” Yaskaira has already taken her SATs (although she was disappointed with her score of ten-something), been accepted to nearby colleges (Medgar Evers and City Tech) and committed to a career in either nursing or forensics (as a little girl she got in trouble for calling 9-1-1 so frequently). Her usual story emerged as she wrote her Personal Statement: “Going into my sophomore year, I went in thinking I have to change my actions in order to pass. And that is what I did.”
In English class, her paper was posted on the bulletin board under a picture of Sean. Again, her story: “But it wasn’t until one day, one day it hit me...I cannot fall into a place where society will see me as ‘just a statistic.’”
When the bell rang for Gym, two safety agents scattered students from the hall. Yaskaira remained with a small group of boys.
“Why you not writing a story about my life, Miss?” one of the boys asked me.
Before I could answer, Yaskaira said, “Because I’m interesting.”
The boy scoffed. “‘Cause you have a kid?”
“Yeah, that makes me interesting.”
“Or maybe ’cause in ninth grade you really were retarded, and now you’re not.”
“Don’t try to play me,” she said. Then she laughed and walked into the locker room, swinging her plastic bag of gym clothes.
When the last bell of the day rung, she met up with her sister and they walked to pick up Sean. He ran into her hug, flailing his construction-paper caterpillar in her face. “You did this?” she asked. He nodded with pride as she buckled him into his stroller.
Yaskaira wheeled Sean down Clinton Street, and his raspy pleading landed him a detour into the blue and silver maze of Coffey Park. A group of older girls swarmed around him and cooed that he was so cute. To their delight he said, “I know.”
Yaskaira sat down on a bench and her sister swooped Sean up to the monkey bars. His small arms gripped the metal rungs and his legs swung wildly in the air. Sean screamed, “Mommy, I do like a monkey!”
His aunt dropped him to the ground and he ran to Yaskaira.
“I did it mommy. I did it from up there, I do it like a monkey.”
“How does a monkey go?”
“Ooh ooh ah ah.”
The sisters laughed.
Sean and his aunt went off to play on the big slide. Again, Sean ran back to Yaskaira.
“You love me?”
Yaskaira giggled and smiled big. “Yeah, I love you.”
JESSICA CAMPBELL is a freelance writer and a graduate student in NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.