"Mom, how old do I have to be to have sex?”
I knew this question would come at some point. I just figured it would be, you know, some other time. Perhaps when I was out of the country. But, no, here my son and I were, standing at our kitchen island, decorating three blown-out eggs to make them look like triplets, and a basket to serve as their transportation for the infamous eighth grade Egg Baby Project. You know, the one where you have to carry around some viable substitute for a baby for three weeks (like a five-pound bag of flour) to convince 13-year-olds (before their hormones erupt) of the horrors of becoming a teenage parent. At Lawrence Middle School, they use blown-out eggs. They used to use real eggs until the janitors got tired of cleaning up all the dropped eggs.
Students are assigned the project either in the fall or spring. All fall, I enjoyed seeing this one eighth grader walking to school, always at the same spot on the sidewalk as I drove Mackenzie to school. The crotch of his black denim pants hung down about his knees, several chains were hooked into the pocket and clanged against his thigh, and a giant black hoodie blocked my view of his face. Everything about him said, I may be short but I’ll kick your ass good. As he walked with an alarming lack of speed towards school, his shoulders hunched against life itself, you could see if you looked carefully that buried in that sea of black, his right hand gripped a small white Easter basket decorated with pink ribbon. A lone little egg nestled in pink tissue peeked over the top, a beacon of baby love against a storm cloud of pubescent darkness.
Spring rolled around and one day Mackenzie came home and announced, “I have triplets. You pick the sex of your baby out of a hat and two students get triplets. Me and my friend Richard got triplets. But the teacher said she’d help us. We’ll see.” He didn’t sound convinced.
That night as we decorated the triplets — two boys and a girl — Mackenzie dropped the bombshell that a 14-year-old at the high school was pregnant — and planning on keeping the baby. My Obama-Mama heart thumping in my chest, I recognized a teachable moment when I saw one. I launched into a tirade about how her life would be ruined, she would never finish high school, never go to college, never pursue her life dreams. I stopped short to see what kind of effect my ranting was having on Mackenzie. He was concentrating very hard on gluing a tiny pink dress (which I had found in the scrapbooking section of Michael’s) onto one of the eggs. Without looking up he said, “Mom, don’t worry, I agree with you.” A beat of two or three seconds. And then, “Mom, how old do I have to be to have sex?”
I knew I had zero wiggle room here. It’s moments like this that parents wish their children came with a remote control so that they could press Pause while they figure out what to do next. I thought very hard, very quickly, and then said, with all the seriousness I could muster, “30.” (I figured I’d give it a shot.) “Mom,” came the reply, “I can’t wait that long!” Check, please.
The next day Mackenzie came home from school and announced, “This whole egg baby thing is a total chick magnet. I got four compliments from girls saying how cute or adorable my basket and eggs are.”
The project involved carrying the basket around 24/7 — though, Mackenzie told me, some teachers have “day care” and let you put your basket at the back of the room during class — as well as keeping a journal and completing a budget worksheet, baby supplies shopping list with actual prices from stores, and various other worksheets to determine if a teen parent could really make ends meet.
An “Egg Baby Responsibilities” letter was sent home for parent and child to both sign, with ominous rules like “The baby must be with you at all times with the exception of lunch where he/she will take a nap in your locker” and “Abuse/Neglect Evidence: If an egg becomes cracked or broken, the student will be provided a project to get partial credit back on the egg.” Mackenzie said that the project was a report on child abuse. Apparently tripping other students with their baskets was common, thus the addendum, “If another person (other than the student) intentionally breaks the egg, then Mrs. Reynolds will evaluate the situation, give an assignment, and deduct points at her discretion.”
Mackenzie, who had somehow determined that his wife had died in childbirth (his final report was titled “Baby X’s 3 and Me: My Adventures with Three Kids and No Wife),” named the babies Sarah-Mariah (a blend of two of his cousins), Achmed (after that insanely funny YouTube video by the ventriloquist with the Achmed the Dead Terrorist sidekick), and Sunshui (to reflect his adoration of all things Japanese). He was assigned the job of groundskeeper — talk about a grass ceiling. But when he misplaced his job calculations worksheet, his teacher demoted him to fast food cook, the lowest paying job in the class. He got a crash course in how hard it would be to feed three little mouths and his own on $5.50 an hour. He ran out of money quite quickly and after buying three of almost everything was reduced to having the three babies share one book, one stuffed animal, and one stacking toy. He wrote in his journal, “I’m an estimated $2,650 over my budget! At least I’m able to keep my minimal average of four hours of sleep. Luckily, the kids are still doing fine, and I hope they aren’t angry at me once they realize what’s going on.”
Mackenzie even got the experience of having a sick child. In his journal he wrote, “Today Sarah-Mariah looks like a tomato. I took her temperature and was surprised to find that it was 101.2 degrees. The doctor prescribed a medicine that tastes like bubble gum She seemed to like it, so much that she eventually couldn’t go to sleep without having some. That was a tough week. She got over it, almost instantly, by the end of the week. Achmed and Sunshui were very tolerant throughout the whole scenario. Neither of them cried during any of Sarah’s midnight fits. Babies are so hard to predict these days.”
The 13-year-old papa came home day after day with tales of mass destruction — “Three kids got tripped and dropped their egg babies” or “Mrs. Reynolds told us that one kid last year made it all the way through to the very last day, then dropped his egg while handing it over to the teacher.” He and I became obsessed with making it to the end of the project with three unbroken babies. Mackenzie sleeps over one night a week at my mother’s and she refused to let him bring the egg babies to her house. “I just wouldn’t be able to handle it if one of those egg babies broke at my house,” she announced. Mackenzie asked me how much I would charge to babysit on those nights. “Mackenzie,” I said. “Here’s an important bonus: grandparents don’t charge to babysit.” “Sweet,” he said, handing over the basket.
There were some good days: “Dear Journal, today I took the kids to the zoo to celebrate Sarah-Mariah’s recovery. We saw around 50 different exhibits including the penguins, Sarah-Mariah’s favorite, as well as mine; the lions, Achmed’s favorite; and the cranes, Sunshui’s favorite. For some strange reason, I think each of these choices means something, but I can’t place my finger on it. After lunch, I took them to the gift shop where we saw a short film on safari life. The narrator was a cheaply drawn cartoon character with an Australian accent named Outback Jack. All the kids seemed to love him, so, of course, I had to buy everyone of his DVDs just to keep the ‘Terrible Trio’ quiet. Hey, I like that, ‘The Terrible Trio.’ It fits rather nicely.”
Mackenzie made it through the whole project, all three egg babies intact. He called me at work after receiving his grade, a whopping 375 out of 385. He was jubilant. In my typical killjoy fashion, I asked matter-of-factly, “Why did you get 10 points off?” “Oh, that,” he said sheepishly. “It was, like, the dumbest mistake in the world. On my birth announcement, I gave each of the triplets a different birthday!” (I later saw the teacher’s very polite comment on the baby announcement, written in deadpan perfect-teacher script, “would all have the same birthday.”)
Apparently, the objective of the project worked. He wrote on his “Reflections” worksheet, “I don’t believe that teen parents, on their own, could possibly make ends meet. My cost, with three kids, was around $1,000 (math is not his strong suit, neither is vocabulary — he wrote on one worksheet that having babies would make him “financially corrupt”). There’s no way that a teen parent could be able to afford all of that and still be able to make ends meet. I learned that having a baby as a teenager is a horrible idea. After watching that video of real life parents, I realized that having a child would be devastating to my health, sanity, and finances. I’ve also learned that once you have a baby as a teenager, all of your life dreams are lost. Since the baby takes up 99 percent of your time and around 70 percent of your money, you don’t have time to study to own that corporation or to create that gold mine store. All you can do is take care of your child and hope for the best.”
My son now knows about teenage pregnancy and sex and financial hardship and dashed hopes. It’s enough to make any mother fall on her knees, Martha Graham-like, keening for those baby powder days, but what saved me was that I realized my son also seems to have developed resilience. His last journal entry concludes with, “As my final sentence, I would like to state this: ‘I made it, and I’m happy to be me.’”