A Small Town Grapples with a Moral Issue: the Rights of An Unwed, Pregnant Teacher

updated 01/17/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/17/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Most years East Hampton (N.Y.) High School has at least one unwed mother-to-be on campus. Last fall there were two. "It's always nice having someone else who was going through the same thing," confides Patricia Hope, who is now eight months pregnant. "Between classes, when we'd see each other in the hallway and no one was looking, we'd compare stomachs." But unlike her expectant friend, Patricia Hope is not a student—she's a 41-year-old teacher.

To some residents of this fashionable Long Island resort, Hope is a heroine, a symbol of courage and rugged individualism. But to others she's the archetypal "fallen woman," a disgrace to both her sex and her profession. "Patricia Hope's behavior is rather animal-like," complains a local mother, Shirley Anderson. "If she wants this kind of life-style, she should step down as a teacher. She should be a research chemist or a secretary."

In recent weeks Patricia Hope has kicked up an emotional controversy perhaps unmatched since the town fathers of Boston marked Hester Prynne with a scarlet letter. Last November, 19 East Hampton residents signed a petition accusing the biology and human behavior teacher of "immorality" and calling for her dismissal. "Her example certainly does not reflect the principles by which we feel teachers should live," it read. In a nation where 191,073 unwed high-school-age girls gave birth in 1980, the concern was understandable but far from universal. Hope's supporters retaliated with a petition signed by 469 parents, students and former students. "Pat Hope's genuine concern has made her without question one of the most valuable teachers we are privileged to have teaching our youth," it declared. "She is being unjustly judged, in that no one has the right to declare the morality or immorality of an individual."

The twice-divorced Hope, already the mother of a 20-year-old daughter, says she became pregnant because she wanted to have another child "before time ran out." She refuses to name the baby's father. "The relationship was a romantic dalliance," she says. "It ended before I found out I was pregnant."

That was not the case in 1980, when Hope became pregnant by a man with whom she was living. "We would have married if things had worked out," she says. During that pregnancy, school officials removed Hope from the classroom for excessive absences due to illness and assigned her to an office job, developing curriculum. But after 10 weeks Hope miscarried and returned to her teaching post. Still, the school board called her in for a lecture. "One board member asked me to apologize," Hope remembers. "Another shook his finger at me and demanded, 'Don't ever do this again!' "

When she did, she provoked a storm that engaged the passions of East Hampton. Four days before Christmas agitated residents gathered at a school board meeting and demanded Hope's dismissal. Even some clergy showed up. "This should reawaken us to the immorality of the nation," exclaimed the Rev. Fred Jones, pastor of the Cedar Street Baptist Chapel, as ABC network television cameras whirred away. Hope's supporters rose to her defense. "It's her own business," said student Trisha Holmes. The school board agreed. After deliberating in private for a half hour, the board said it would take no action against Hope. When she returns—probably in April or May—from a paid leave that began Dec. 22, she'll still have a job. Says Bob Freidah, the school superintendent, "Pat is a good teacher. She has promised me that the father is not a student. There's no reason to remove her from the classroom."

Hope's detractors see many reasons. Keeping her in school is "going against the values of the family unit," says Mrs. Anderson, who led the move for Hope's dismissal. "We're trying to find out if there's any other action we can take against her." According to New York law, teachers can be dismissed for "unbecoming conduct," which does not automatically include unwed motherhood. An important consideration could be the emotional effect of a teacher's deportment on students. As Freidah explains, "This time pregnancy did not affect her teaching. She was in good health and only one parent threatened to remove her child from Pat's class." Had there been mass withdrawals, he adds, "the situation might have been different."

At the heart of the criticism of Hope's pregnancy, her supporters say, is that it's tangible evidence of illicit sex. Says one East Hampton father, "There is a male teacher at the high school who is having affairs with students. No one gets upset with him. Why? Because he doesn't have a big belly." Another teacher in the area is widely rumored to be the father of an illegitimate child. School officials deny any knowledge of this. "We didn't know about it," says Mrs. Anderson. "Anyway, that wasn't flaunted around like this. You have to be discreet."

Many parents in this traditional community (pop. 14,029) plainly worry that Hope's "indiscretion" is setting a bad example for their children. Beatrice Steiner, whose daughter was in Hope's human behavior seminar, said she was appalled to discover that the sensitive topic was being taught "by a woman about to deliver out of wedlock. Had we known, we never would have considered this course," Mrs. Steiner told the school board. Hope's Lamaze coach, Elizabeth Holmes, thinks such fears are ridiculous. "I'm the mother of a 16-year-old girl. I know that a lot of her friends are sexually active. It's something I've regretfully learned to accept. If students are going to be promiscuous, it's not because of Pat." Agrees Hope, patting her melon-round belly, "If it was so easy to pick up ideas from teachers, all my kids would be reading the classics."

Pat Hope knows the value of education; she had to struggle to get her own. The daughter of a journalist and a housewife, Pat grew up on Manhattan's East Side with her twin sister and older brother. In 1959, at age 17, she married her high school sweetheart. Their daughter, Hillary, now a sophomore at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., was born four years later. After the couple's divorce in 1966, Hope worked as a medical secretary by day and by night attended college. In 1974, after getting her degree from Southampton College, she found her current job. She also joined a local theater group, the Spindrift Players, where she met and married an Irish actor. They were divorced within a year, but Hope retained her interest in the theater. She is now director of the Saloon Players, who perform every summer in the basement of a bar in nearby Bridge-hampton. "I'm a terrific teacher, director and mother," boasts Hope, who has had four foster children over the years. "My only failures are in marriage."

Ironically, her current predicament may lead to Hope's greatest success. Reader's Digest Entertainment and ABC-TV have approached her about movie deals, and she's had requests to appear on many talk programs, including Donahue. To handle the deluge, Hope has hired an agent—a move which, to some, casts doubt on her motives. "She loves publicity," observes Mrs. Anderson. "She's an actress, you know, and this is her stage."

Hope's current life is not that of a star. She awaits the birth of her baby girl—its sex disclosed by amniocentesis—in a tiny room on the second floor of an East Hampton rooming house. She's been living there—alone—since Nov. 15, when she left her rented house to save money. But her biggest problem may begin next month, when her daughter is born. Then Pat Hope must try to give the girl a normal childhood under the glaring eyes of a small town where, though unborn, she is already a celebrity.

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