Memoir by former teen mom, Summer Owens, seeks to both inform, inspire girls
By Barbara Bradley, Commercial Appeal
Owens, who grew up in Jackson, Tenn., was raped by an older teenager, a friend of a family member, she said. They were left alone, they fooled around, he took it further. She didn’t even know his real name.
Owens, who said she was a virgin at the time, easily could have been headed for a life of ignorance and poverty. But she would prove remarkably determined. Now 31, a senior marketing specialist for FedEx in Memphis and mother of 15-year-old son Jaylan, Owens has self-published a book about her experience, “Life After Birth: A Memoir of Survival and Success as a Teenage Mother.” Detailing her struggle to work two jobs, be a mom, and stay in school, the book follows her to the University of Memphis, where she was a highly active student with a child often at her side, sometimes even during class.
It is meant both to inform girls about the consequences of sexual activity and to encourage those who find themselves traveling her path.
Teen pregnancy has been a hot topic lately for Memphis City Schools. Data that appeared to show a sharp spike in the birth rate for teen mothers in Shelby County, especially among African-Americans, prompted the school board in October to resolve to take a fresh look at sex education, get a count of pregnant students and work more closely with agencies seeking to prevent teen pregnancy.
The spike reported by the Urban Child Institute was based on a U.S. Census Bureau survey population estimate that appears to be flawed, said Catherine Joyce, director of data management for the institute. New data for 2009 show pregnancy rates more in line with previous years, and not much changed from 2007.
But that’s nothing to celebrate. About 15 percent of babies born in 2009 in Shelby County were born to mothers ages 10 to 19. The birth rate was about 41 per 1,000 among black girls and about 16 per 1,000 among white girls.
“When you compare Shelby County to other comparable areas, such as the New Orleans metropolitan area, our teen pregnancy rate is still higher,” said Joyce.
Nationwide, 60 percent of teen mothers live in poverty. Their children are more likely to need remedial work in school, to drop out of school, to use drugs and alcohol and to get involved in crime. A teen mother’s own education often stops with the birth.
But Owens knew early on she wanted to finish school, enter college and have a career. Out of school for six weeks with her baby, she struggled to catch up with her class at Jackson Central-Merry High School. She moved in with her grandmother and at age 16 took a part-time job as a fast-food server. She would get up at 5 a.m. to make bottles, attend school and after-school meetings, go home, tend the baby, do homework, go to her job, return home, tend the baby again and finally hit the sack about midnight.
Soon she added a weekend job as a restaurant hostess and continued this schedule until she graduated. “Babies are expensive, and we needed the money,” she said. Meanwhile, Owens also was the school yearbook editor and served on the student council.
“I cried a lot, and a lot of times I wanted to give up,” she said. “But I have a strong faith.” She also cited “the silent strength of my mother and grandmother. They didn’t say a lot. They weren’t cheerleaders. But they were there for me. No one told me I couldn’t do it.”
She graduated eighth in her class of about 300 and won an Emerging Leaders Scholarship to the U of M.
In 1997, she moved into the U of M dorm while her grandmother kept Jaylan; she joined a lot of organizations and earned a 4.0 grade-point average her first year. Gradually, she incorporated Jaylan into her life. Sometimes, she kept him at the dorm. Roommates and even faculty secretaries in their offices baby-sat while she went to class. Sometimes, she took Jaylan to class.
“No teacher said I couldn’t,” she said. The child would sit up front with her and color with crayons. “I was thankful he was a pretty quiet kid. He learned how to write his letters and numbers while I was in class.”
During her sophomore year, she got an apartment for herself and Jaylan and eventually got him into a day care program. A hotel marketing internship helped with expenses.
“She was unusually disciplined,” said Dr. Don Carson, former vice president of student affairs, now retired, “very positive and ambitious in the best sense of the word.” But what impressed him most “was how happy and at ease she seemed. As if she didn’t have a worry in the world.”
Jaylan was almost a member of the student activities council, said Tammy Hedges, the former director. “He was about 4, charming and good-natured. I can’t ever remember that child crying,” she said. “You missed him when he wasn’t there.”
Hedges sometimes kept Jaylan overnight when Owens had a big test.
In 2001, Owens was named Miss University of Memphis and graduated with honors.
She began selling tickets for the Memphis Grizzlies and rose to become marketing manager for the team and FedExForum. At the same time, she earned a master’s in business administration from Belhaven University, bought a house and worked on her book. In 2007, she joined FedEx Corp.
Owens has sold more than 800 copies, many in bulk to church and youth groups, but also online and at Davis-Kidd Booksellers. She hopes to get the book into schools.
She tells girls plain truths; but for teenage mothers, she also offers words of hope: “If I can do it, you can do it. There’s no excuse for not being the best you can be.”