Them and Us
“How you doing today Jade?” I ask. It’s a chilly Tuesday morning in May with a hint of drizzle, just enough to make the walk to class more of a monotonous task than usual. I ask in a way that I hope comes across motherly and genuine because I do truly care about Jade. She’s still a baby, even though she may be fifteen – only two years younger than I am. I feel instinctively protective of her, though I couldn’t tell you why, and I have no particular reason to be. But she’s vulnerable to the world in a way I can’t quite put my finger on, which is weird, because she’s far more well versed in the ways of the world than I will probably ever be. I don’t know what it is she needs so desperately, well actually I do have a pretty good idea, but I just don’t know how to give it to her.
“I feel like s***” she replies. “My stomach is killing me.”
I shrug sympathetically. Stomach pains at our all-girls school are just about as common as the Auckland rain that continues incessantly as we slope towards class.
“You know right?” She asks curiously, almost probingly, in a way that makes it pretty clear that I do not know.
“Hmm?” I respond noncommittally.
“I’m three months pregnant.”
Even I’m surprised with my response.
“Oh. Right. Yep.” I say, as though she had told me no more than that we were late for class, which we were. Jade carries on talking without pausing, without even looking, at me. I know I appear to be listening, but my mind is awhirl with thoughts and questions. I can feel Fai gazing quietly at me and I know she is reading me more deeply than Jade is; my facade isn’t fooling her. Dazed, I can vaguely hear Jade burbling on about baby names (turns out it’s a girl), where the baby will sleep, how she’ll dress her – making it clear she’s decided to keep her. And what can you say? I nod politely, gripping my wrists and swallowing back the words I want to scream. Does she realise this isn’t just a plastic baby-doll that she can play with and then discard? Does she realise that growing inside her right now is a real life human being? Does she realise she’ll have to give up school, give up everything for this creature?
“See ya later Jade” I hear myself say as Fai and I turn to go up the stairs “Take care of yourself”. She carries on, entirely oblivious to the impact her “news” has had on me. Fai and I carry on in silence, seeing our own emotions mirrored in the other’s eyes. I feel old and horribly aware of the repercussions of what Jade has just told me. But I also feel disconcertingly young and innocent. I can’t help selfishly thinking about how I haven’t even ever had a proper boyfriend yet, never been kissed, while Jade clearly…It’s like our roles have been cruelly twisted and the two of us are both adult and child at once. I can see all too well the implications of a baby, but I’m not the one having it. Jade’s blindness to the enormity of it, well, it’s even more of a reflection of her childish nature. She’s going to have to do a hell of a lot of growing up in the next six months. Like it or not, there’s going to be another living, breathing human being in the world.
“How can she possibly raise a baby?” I say aloud. “She’s just a baby herself”. It might have come across judgmentally, even aggressively, though I don’t mean it like that. I just can’t imagine Jade, the girl I give forty cents to to make sure she has enough for the bus home and scold affectionately for wearing mufti hoodies, having a child. Fai pauses before answering.
“You have to understand something Iz” she says carefully. “Stuff like this, it’s common for Jade. Her mum had Jade young, just as her grandmother had her mum young. In a way, it’s almost expected.”
She means well and there’s no awkwardness between us, the statement only acknowledging something that is glaringly obvious. I don’t need her to explain it to me, I can see it everywhere already. In the way my very ordinary lunch appears a feast in the eyes of around eight percent of our school population. In the way that same eight percent stare as I’m picked up by Mum after kapa haka in what, to me, is a very ordinary car. In the way my blonde hair, blue eyes and, most significantly, my white skin, stands out like a sore thumb in our, albeit small, Maori class. People think I don’t see it, or care, but I do. The invisible minority glossed over in our decile ten school. I hate the unacknowledged, division between us. I hate the way I sometimes feel like the solitary bridge between them and us.
As a reasonably well-off white girl, it is hard to comprehend Jade’s pregnancy. But then again, no one’s ever expected me to get pregnant. No one expects me to drop out of school. Everyone expects me to make sensible decisions, get good grades and go on to university. And so I do. Are Jade and I really that different? We’re just fulfilling what’s expected of us.
So I do understand it, I suppose, but it still frustrates me in a way that makes me want to cry. Does she realise she’s just becoming another statistic? Another Maori teen pregnancy. Doesn’t she want to be the one to break the cycle? Didn’t she want to be the one to break the cycle?
It’s hopeless because I know with a resigned certainty that Jade will leave school and go on to have her baby, who will go on to have her baby, who will go on to have her baby. Nothing’s going to change until we make it. Who knows, maybe if we’d all expected Jade to finish year 13, go on to university, get a job and have children in her own sweet time, that’s what would have happened. But we didn’t.
Surely another world is possible? One where we don’t see a hooded brown face and instinctively check our car is locked. One where a pakeha politician can introduce himself in Te Reo without making people squirm. One where we don’t see a young Maori girl with a child and assume it’s theirs without question.
I don’t know a lot about the big wide world and I don’t pretend to, but from what I see, there is a heck of a lot of room for improvement when it comes to inequality. We can start in our schools, but change has to go deeper than that. We need to acknowledge the stereotypes we hold in society and then go about changing them. And yes, in some cases, this may mean changing situations. Stereotypes, after all, don’t come out of nowhere. But if all students, all people, were treated as what they have the potential to be, we’d help them to become more than they, or anyone else, could have ever imagined.  It’s not going to happen overnight, it might not even happen in my lifetime, but with the investment and commitment of schools, the government, the media and everyone else in between, another world is possible. Another world that’s better for them and us.
 Adapted from Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s quote “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you will help them become what they are capable of becoming.”