Southern senior's triumph shows the odds young face

MICHAEL OLESKER

May 30, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On the March morning Bobbie Collins found herself headed toward the delivery room at Mercy Medical Center, Bobbie's mother glanced at her watch and wistfully remarked, "Eight o'clock. I guess the kids are all headed for school now."

"Yeah," Bobbie said between labor contractions. "We have a big Spanish test today. I guess I can make it up when I get back."

She'd gone to school the previous day, completed her homework that night, and then she went into labor. The morning after she gave birth to a son, she had her parents bring books to the hospital so she could work on a term paper for English. She went back to class nine days after Damian Joseph was born.

She was not alone. On Friday, as the senior class at Southern High gathered at school for the last time, teachers estimated that about one-fourth of the girls in the graduating class already had children of their own.

There were no estimates on abortions, no figures on those who'd simply disappeared from school for reasons relating to maternity. There is now a program at Southern on parenting skills.

And last week an English teacher recalled, "A ninth-grader came to me one afternoon and said she wouldn't be in the next day. I asked why. She said she had to go for an abortion. She was 14. I told her I was sorry I asked."

On Friday, Bobbie Collins was not only among those gathered for a final morning at Southern, but her name was called again and again at a farewell awards assembly: as the school's top student in English, in mathematics, in science, in social studies, and as class valedictorian.

And now she sat in a little room, with classmates hugging goodbyes in a hallway outside, and Southern's principal, Cecilia Chesno, beamed proudly at Bobbie and mentioned her grades: a perfect 4.0 grade point average, which translated to about 96 or 97 on a scale of 100.

"What'll you do in the fall?" Bobbie was asked.

"In the fall?" she said, running a hand through her blond hair.

"Which college?"

"Well, nothing in the fall. In the spring, maybe I'll go to Villa Julie."

All plans are now reduced to maybes. She intends to marry her boyfriend in the spring, but he just started a new job, and he may be transferred out of town. So any college thoughts will have to wait for his employment possibilities.

"But I'll go to college," she said. "I'm not gonna be one of these women who sits at home with the baby. That would drive me crazy."

At Southern, roughly 40 percent of the graduates expect to head for college or trade school. There are about 150 in the class, although last Friday, at the close of school, it was not clear how many will qualify for graduation. When this class entered Southern four years ago, there were about 500 of them.

Where all the dropouts have gone, nobody can say. Of those graduating who now begin looking for jobs, no one knows the future. Labor officials say it's the worst job market in 20 years for graduates.

But the picture at Southern is vital, for the school is at once an oddity and an absolute microcosm of the city itself: odd, in that it's one of the last couple of city high schools with a truly integrated student body; but a microcosm, in that its 60-40 black-white student ratio mirrors the city itself, and thus offers clues where we're heading.

"They're real nice kids," Principal Chesno said now. "And this young lady is remarkable."

There is no question of that. But this city still has one of the highest rates of unwed teen-age pregnancies in the country, and not everyone has Bobbie Collins' tenacity, or her brains, or her will to succeed.

Nor is Southern High alone in having roughly 350 of its original 500 kids from the Class of '93 drop out somewhere between freshman year and graduation. And its junior class, which once had about 500 kids, is now down to about 180 with a year left to go.

On Friday, there were cheers in the school auditorium when the names of award winners were announced, and then everybody marched outside, teary-eyed and filled with that mix of triumph ,, and anxiety felt by all graduates.

They were lovely to watch. But the world does not greet them with open arms, and now some of their teachers stood there for a moment and took a last look at them.

"How many will find work?" one asked.

"How many of them?" said another. "Hey, I'm still looking for a summer job for myself, and I have no idea where that's coming from."

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