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Tanazia Matthews, 18, was a pretty typical teenager. She was popular in high school, involved in the Green Club and the dance team and did well academically.
“I was a well-rounded student. My grades were always As and Bs, they never fell below a 3.0 GPA," she says.
She was also dating a boy she had known since elementary school. Then when she was 15, she found out she was pregnant.
“I took two pregnancy tests and they both came back positive and I told my son’s father and we tried to calculate how far I might be," Tanazia says.
She hadn’t noticed any changes — no weight gain, no pain, no nausea. Tanazia was certain she was just a couple of weeks along. But when she went to a clinic and saw a nurse, she found out she was much farther along.
“I was actually farther than a couple of weeks. She said I was 24 weeks and 5 days, so doing the calculation that’s 6 months, 5 days,” she says.
Tanazia was practically a baby herself, only in the tenth grade.
“I was scared, I didn't know what to do or like what I was going to do with a baby at 15,” Tanazia says. "I didn't find out the sex of my child until I was like eight months because at first I didn't want to know so when we sat there and found out that he was a boy that’s when I realized this is real, like I’m really about to be a mom, and we got my due date Jan. 14 a month before I turned 16, so I was like most people have sweet 16s for their birthdays and I had a baby shower.”
She laughed to hide all the fear she felt inside.
"I didn’t speak on my thoughts or how I felt, I wrote it out. That was the best way for me to cope and when I was ready to speak about it knowing that I wouldn't shed in tears or get upset then I would speak on it. On the outside I was just smiling and making jokes about it, but on the inside I was really scared about what my life would turn out to be," she says.
Her boyfriend was supportive. Her mother and grandmother were upset at first, though they came around after a few months. Her father took it hard.
“He stopped talking to me, he basically left my life from when I was 6 months pregnant until my son was three months, so that was a long time for us to not talk or communicate. I was very hurt because I felt like he left me when I needed him the most," she says.
Getting pregnant is the most common reason girls drop out of high school. But Tanazia hadn't really thought much about how her pregnancy would affect her academic future until she was riding the Metro and a stranger struck up a conversation with her.
“They asked me how old I was and I told them that I was 15. And then they saw my stomach and asked me if I was pregnant and I said yes, and then they asked me if I was going to, you know, drop out of school and I told them no. And then they said ‘well you think that, but you actually are and you are not going to become anything but a statistic,'" Tanazia says. "I was really upset to the point of I got off the train because I was feeling like I was about to break down because I was already scared of becoming a teen parent and then somebody telling me that I am not going to be anything but at statistic it stuck.”
That conversation made Tanazia determined to graduate high school: “I can't just drop out and let my son see the struggles of you know being a statistic and I just thought about his future and when he would get older and what did your mom do? Oh she dropped out she don't do anything.”
The secret of continuing to get good grades, Tanazia says, was sticking to a very strict schedule. Right after her son Jamil was born she took seven weeks of leave from school, but every Monday she would go to her class to drop off work and pick up the next week’s assignments.
“I wouldn’t try to cram it in to one day, I would do it like English on Tuesday and math on a Wednesday you know I would start a project on a Thursday and finish it on a Saturday like I would break it up to where each subject would get its own time, but the time that is put in is worth the effort and is A quality work," she says.
Now, her son is 2 years old, and she still divides her day into little chunks of time.
“My son was an every four hour eater, so it would be like 3 a.m. in the morning and I would get up before he would and go make his bottle and warm it up so that by the time he woke up by 4 a.m. that bottle is there, so I don't have to go through the crying and wake up the house, I already had the pampers and wipes or his father would get up and go get the bottle while I change him.”
Then she’s up at 6:45 a.m. every morning.
“I am usually ready by 7:15 a.m. and then I start getting Jamil dressed. We go in the bathroom and we sing our ABC’s and our 123’s; he can count to 15," Tanazia says. Then she walks him to his day care center. “After that I usually head from the school no later than 8:15 a.m. and then after that I will walk to my school which is down the street from his and I’ll be to school by 8:20-8:25 a.m. And on morning I have meetings with teachers, I will push my schedule back, so instead of waking up at 6:45 a.m. then maybe 6:35 a.m.”
In the evening, she picks him up at 4 p.m. for playtime.
“And then he goes off and plays with number games and puzzles while I do some of my homework until about 7-7:30 p.m. we eat dinner, he takes a bath, and he is usually in bed by 8:30 p.m. When he goes to sleep I finish my homework then I go to bed at about 9:30-10, and we do it all over again the next morning.”
She says staying organized is the only way to cope with the competing demands on her time.
“Especially with a toddler because it’s easier to lose track or lose things and when I lose track, nothing after that feels right so I have to make sure I stay on the schedule with him.”
Tanazia says she works really hard and pushes herself to complete her school work. But she says she has a lot of support from her family. Other teenage mothers, she notices, aren’t as lucky.
“They have their baby and they don't have the support at home, they don't get it from school. When they become pregnant they already have the mindset they aren't going to the next grade and then you don't have any support it gets overwhelming," she says.
She’s become the go-to person in her school for other teens who need advice on parenting — everything from how to find daycare to how to feed their babies on a schedule. She wants to organize a club through which organizations can come in with clothing, food, diapers.
“Places that would help them find shelter if they have been kicked out or if their living condition isn't up to par to raise a baby there. Some kids have ran away or have not came back we haven't seen them, or you don't see them until you are walking down the street and you're like 'hey where've you been?' and they are like 'I had to leave.' I want these boys and girls to continue; they don't have to transfer schools or drop out,” she says.
Tanazia has a baby face herself and when she talks about financial worries and her dreams for her son, you just want to hug her and tell her it'll be alright. But she’s also got a wise and thoughtful manner that makes you feel you can learn so much from her. She laughs and says she used to spend more than an hour getting ready. And now she wakes up earlier and races through her morning routine because of her son.
“He was my main motivation for waking up at 6:45 or 6:35 to get to school on time or make sure that I would graduate with honors like I did and keep my GPA over a 3.0 like I did, to show him that sometimes there’s struggles but you can push you can get through it, and I did,” she says.
Tanazia’s going to Trinity College in Northeast D.C. this fall to study human relations and social work. Between all her different scholarships and grants, all four years are paid for. Her father is back in her life and she decided to stay local so she and her son can be close to Jamil’s dad.
“I don't feel comfortable taking the baby away from family and friends and just going to college and leaving my whole support system behind. He'll be like 'Mommy, where’s Nana at where’s Dada at' and I can't tell him they are back in D.C., he won't understand that, so I have to keep him here until he understands that if we move that Nana and Daddy and Grandma are still going to be there.”
Tanazia says the most important lesson she’s learned is to always ask for help.
“You never know where asking can get you” she says, “It can open new doors."
Kristen Sorensen contributed to this report. Special thanks to Lindsey Sperber.
Partial support for WAMU's education reporting comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Listen to previous stories in our Beating the Odds series WAMU.org/Beating_The_Odds