In San Francisco, Teacher Robert Valverde Fights Teen Pregnancy with Flour Power
"Oh, man," whines one student. Another chimes in with the Twilight Zone theme music.
"What if I cut class?"
"Take the baby with you."
"What if it rains?"
"Buy a raincoat."
"Hey, this is too heavy for a 2-week-old baby. I can't do this."
"Class," responds Valverde, his voice rising above the pandemonium, "tell this young lady who is responsible for her baby."
"You are!" the students shout.
And another warning from Valverde: "If you put the baby in your locker or your backpack, that's an automatic F."
It may seem like absurdist theater, but there is method to this maternity madness. Troubled by the high rate of teenage pregnancy at Mission High—last year 20 girls dropped out—Valverde has started giving students a crash course in parenting. In order to pass Family Life, a mandatory course at the school, boys and girls are required to participate in the flour-child experiment. "With teenagers, everything is peer pressure and being cool," Valverde says. "Carrying around a flour sack is embarrassing. I wanted something that would actually intrude on their lives."
The rules are very strict. Students must not leave their children unattended, even for a few moments. To check who is minding the baby at night and on weekends, Valverde calls the parents of several students at random. If the student has an after-school job or other activities, the flour child must have a babysitter. "A broken flour sack equals a dead baby, and the student must call the funeral parlor to make arrangements," Valverde explains. (When that's happened, understanding morticians have obliged the bereaved students with information on burial costs and cremation.) "A lost sack equals a kidnapped child, and the student must call the police and report it missing."
Though most of the kids are horrified at first, they quickly learn to cope. Protective instincts emerge. "Don't anybody touch my baby or you're dead meat," one new parent warns classmates. "I loved it when people got up on the bus to give me a seat," says Trina Brigham, 16. "They'd ask to see the baby and I'd say, 'No, it's sleeping now.' "
By the second week, many of the sacks are dolled up in borrowed baby duds and have been christened with names such as Beastie Boy, Omar Gaddafi, Little Caesar and Sleepy Hollow. The boys in particular endure a lot of razzing from their peers, and the girls report a dwindling social life. "My friends would get mad when they wanted to do something and I said, 'Sorry, I have my baby,' " says Suzi Kiresh, 15.
To be sure, disaster does strike at times. Darryl Miles, 16, was ordered to stand trial in front of a jury of his peers after his wolf dog hijacked the flour baby from its crib and tried to eat it. Miles asked for mercy, pleading that he was in the shower when the tragedy occurred.
"What if it had been a real baby?" Valverde asked.
"If it was a real baby," replied Miles, "I would have heard it scream when the dog grabbed it."
The class found Miles not guilty.
Not every student was as lucky. Darmistha Patel's sister dropped her flour sack on a flight of stairs and it broke. Darmistha might have been exonerated but for the fact that this was her second baby. The first one broke too. She was found guilty, and as punishment sentenced to stand on one leg and whistle Dixie at the next assembly.
Valverde is encouraged by the program's gradual success. "When we started last fall, there was a 40 percent failure rate," he says. "This time only 19 of the 101 failed." Adds school principal Patricia Aramendia: "The students go in thinking it's a game, but after three weeks, all they say is what a big responsibility it is being a parent."
When the experiment is over, some teens experience loneliness. "I was a little bit down," says Tony Palacios, 17. "I was getting used to having the baby around. But I realize I'm not the right age to start a family now."
Others, though, worry more about the practical problem of how to dispose of their children. "When I left the sack at home," says Sathia Mey, 16, "my mother said she wanted to make cookies out of it."