One thing was clear to Taniah when she got pregnant: She was staying in school.
“A lot of people said I would be a dropout and I said ‘Nah, that’s not me,’” Taniah said. “School's always been important to me ever since I was little.”
“I was like, ‘Guess it’s time for me to be a grown-up’ — gotta skip the teenage years and become the young adult I know I can be,” said Juan, the father of the child.
Juan had actually thought about dropping out so he could work full-time and support their daughter Taliyah, now 3-years-old. But his mom encouraged him to stay in school — to set an example for his child.
“Our parents would always tell us we can't give up because we don't want our baby seeing that,” Taniah said. “So we didn't really have a choice. We couldn't even really think it through. Just do it.”
Something a lot of teens want school leaders to know is they have lives and responsibilities outside of school.
Some of those responsibilities, like Juan’s and Taniah’s, are daunting and add to students’ anxiety, making it hard to graduate. But Juan and Taniah are determined to build a brighter future for themselves and their daughter and they’ve found a school to help get them there.
Juan, now 18, and Taniah, 17, are both quiet and exude calm. But there’s plenty of stress in their lives.
After their daughter was born, their regular high school wasn’t flexible enough. They transferred to Denver Online High School. But their daughter was sick a lot. And they worked — a lot. The school took more concentrated focus than they had. They got way behind, Juan said: “Like months’ worth behind and it just started building more stress on us.”
They landed at Montbello Career and Technical High School, where the classes are smaller, learning is more personalized and there are a lot of career and technical classes. Even then, it wasn't easy.
“When they told me I wasn't going to be able to graduate on time, I did everything that I could to [be able to] graduate on time,” Taniah said. “I did everything I could. I worked so hard.”
“That's where never giving up comes in,” adds Juan.
Their days are long — and full.
It’s clear their daughter is their anchor. She’s what inspires and motivates them.
Taniah feels overwhelmed sometimes, but she just puts her head down for a minute -- then gets it done. Taniah and Taliyah live with Taniah’s mom. Juan lives with his mom. But the teenagers are together a lot during their long days.
Juan wakes up at six. He warms up the car, then drives five minutes to Taniah’s house to pick up his daughter. The young family heads back to Juan’s house where he lives with his mom. Juan gets his little sister dressed, finishes getting ready for school himself, drops his daughter off at daycare, takes his little sister to school and then he and Taniah go to school.
School ends at 3:15 p.m. They hurry over to pick their daughter up by 3:30.
Taliyah bounds up the daycare’s steps in a light blue winter jacket and hugs her parents.
“What’d you do at school today?” Taniah asked as mother and daughter shared a laugh.
The whole family then drives home. The mood is joyous at times. The family, especially Taliyah, sings to the “Frozen” soundtrack. Taniah teases Juan about singing.
Both teens work, at Walmart and King Soopers, from about 4:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
After school, Taniah gets the 3-year-old settled and fed, changed out of her school clothes and hands her off to her mother or a sister. Then she walks to work.
Taniah’s money helps pay daycare and for a phone. Juan’s money helps his mom pay rent, goes to payments for the car he uses to take Taniah and their daughter to the doctor and to school. If there’s homework, the young couple doesn’t fall into their beds until midnight or 1 a.m.
Teen parents are more likely to experience depression and poverty can make it worse.
Taniah struggled through depression and anxiety during her pregnancy. She still has trouble sleeping. The most stressful part of her life is money and still needing her mother’s consent sometimes to make decisions for her daughter.
“She can't always catch the bus with me to go to these doctor's appointments and stuff,” she said.
The biggest stressors for Juan: “Probably working a lot and still not having enough money for my daughter,” he said. “I've always wanted to make sure my daughter had everything I didn't and I can't do that for her right now because I don't make a lot and I’m still in school.”
When he was younger, there wasn’t enough food or clothes. Keeping up in school is also stressful. And there’s even more change on the horizon. His mother just moved to Arizona. Juan and his older brother are going to try to survive in Colorado without her.
“It’s very expensive in Colorado,” he said.
His brother works in construction and with the weather, Juan said, there is not always steady work.
“We’re struggling to see how this is going to play out and it's really hard on us,” Juan said.
“I'm kind of his support system right now so I'm just trying to help him push through in this situation and tell him not to give up,” Taniah said.
After high school, Juan plans to work for a couple of years or more. He’s going to try and save money. One day he’d love to go to college and own his own business.
“That’s how I want to show my daughter if I can do it, you’re going to be able to do it,” he said.
For her part, Taniah is just focused on getting through high school.
“If you really want what you want and you want to get it, then you can't give up no matter how hard he gets. You just have to keep going.”
By the end of our interview, Taniah’s resting her head on the table. She has trouble sleeping at night sometimes.
I asked Juan what’s helped him get through these past few years.
“My daughter,” he said softly.
“Yeah, our baby,” Taniah said with a smile. “She'll tell you some real stuff. She tells us not to give up. Like, ‘Yeah, girl, just for you. We won't give up.”
“She’ll come and mess with you, you know, make you smile. She’s my happiness, right there.”
We want to know more, and we hope you do, too.
CPR News will spend the next few months investigating the factors that have created the ultimate pressure cooker for some teens. We’ll go into their world through audio diaries, interviews, reflection and analysis. Most importantly, we’ll examine what teens, families and schools can do to let some of the pressure loose.
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