How she proved them wrong, stayed in school, and raised a kid

Jacqueline tells her story.

 

 

To the other 16 students in David Pena-Guzman’s philosophy class, senior Jacqueline Schaffer is just another Emory student.

 

She experiments with an array of hats — furry hats, blue snapbacks, and a knitted beanie with a panda’s face and flaps that cover her ears. When she doesn’t have a hat on, she’s got an Afro the size of a basketball to replace it, unless she straightened her hair that day. Some days, she wears decorated long socks with diamond-studded flats and other days, she sports simple Emory apparel. One day, the words “Tatooed & Employed” were imprinted on her black, tight T-shirt. The sticker on her laptop reads, “Only Tupac can judge me.” Some days, she falls asleep. Other days, she is alert and awake, passionately disagreeing with her fellow classmates about racism or rape.

 

The professor leads discussions about sensitive topics: prostitution, the Holocaust, mass incarceration. When they discuss the crack epidemic of the 80s, they don’t know that Jacqueline’s mother was addicted to crack when she had Jacqueline. When they discuss the institution of marriage, they don’t realize that Jacqueline has been doing everything she can to convince her boyfriend to put a ring on her finger. When they discuss those who have babies out of wedlock, they have no clue that one of the students in their class had a baby — her freshman year of college.

 

As Jacqueline discusses the rough parts of her life, there is almost never any sadness in her voice. She is candid about everything (she told me about her kid the first time we met walking out of our philosophy class), she swears occasionally, and her grammar can be a little off when she speaks. As she talks, she commits to eye rolls often, accompanied by a sassy, complicated eye flutter. She furrows her eyebrows and purses her lips when she disagrees with something. She has a matter of fact attitude about everything. A “life happens” sort-of outlook. In some ways, she carried that attitude when she found out she was pregnant.

 

It was December 5, 2011. Jacqueline’s freshman year of college and her boyfriend, Desmond Rucker (she calls him Des), was hanging out in her room in Harris Hall, like they always did. They didn’t go out to parties much; they enjoyed just drinking in their room together. Even when Jacqueline was moving between Atlanta and Cleveland — her hometown — the two were strong. Desmond wasn’t in school; he was doing landscaping at Kennesaw State University — a job he didn’t enjoy.

 

It was 2 a.m. and Jacqueline told her boyfriend that she wanted some pizza and hot wings.

 

“You’re pregnant,” Des said of her craving.

 

Jacqueline remembers that it wasn’t a joke but it was nonchalantly stated. “It’s something casual, until it’s real,” she reminisced.

 

“No, I’m not,” she snapped back at Des. She didn’t even really think about the statement at first. She didn’t think it was true.

 

“Yes, you are.”

 

Jacqueline began to wonder: “Maybe, I am.”

 

The next day, Des pulled up Jacqueline shirt, looked at her stomach, and said it again. “You’re pregnant.”

 

The two left to buy some tests, came back to the dorm. She took one.

 

The stick sat on the windowsill and Des was the one ready to look at it after three minutes of waiting.

 

“All right, three minutes up,” he said, while taking a look. “Aight, we good.”

 

Jacqueline breathed a sigh of relief.

 

“Does this line count if it’s kind of faded?” he asked her.

 

“Yes, that counts if it’s faded!”

 

Whatever, Jacqueline thought. That test must be wrong.

 

She chugged “as much water as (her) body could handle,” took a second test, and watched the two solid lines appear distinctly.

 

She thought to herself: “None of these tests work. They’re all broken.”

 

Looking back, she can’t recall what she actually believed at the time but there was a period of disbelief. “You don’t want to believe it. No … no … I had never saw a pregnancy test come back pregnant never. I had never took a pregnancy test! I’m like, nah, this isn’t real.”

 

Des’ reaction, Jacqueline recalled, was the exact opposite. Jubilant and excited. He rubbed her stomach. “Awww, I’m going to be a dad.”

 

“Don’t touch me,” Jacqueline said. She didn’t want to talk about it any more that day.

 

The next morning, Jacqueline remembered that a morning pee test is the most accurate.

 

Before heading out to breakfast, she took the third test in the box. She walked out of the dorm toward the car and chucked the stick at Des.

 

“That’s all three in the box. I guess they’re telling the truth.”

 

It turns out Jacqueline was five weeks pregnant at that point. The disappointment briefly washed over Jacqueline, but never once did she shed tears. “I’m not that type of person. I’m really realistic. Being sad and crying, that’s a waste of energy.” She even claims she didn’t scream or cry throughout labor. “That’s such a waste of energy. I’m convinced.”

 

Childcare access on college campuses is disappearing to the point of inadequacy. In 2012, 47 percent of community colleges offered a childcare center on-campus, a 10 percent decline since 2002.

 

Out of the four million U.S. college students, almost 25 percent are parents, like Jacqueline. More than a third of first-generation college and low-income students have dependent children, like Jacqueline. Almost two out of every five black college students are juggling being a parent and being a college student, just like Jacqueline is. And out of all the college students that are parents, 53 percent drop out, unlike Jacqueline.

 

Getting pregnant was never part of Jacqueline’s plan. And Jacqueline, as everyone contends, has always been a planner. She taught herself to read when she was three. At eight, she decided she was going to be a lawyer. After third grade, she tested into the gifted program. In high school, she took honors and AP courses.

 

“She always said she wanted to wait to have kids,” Ebony Cornelius, Jacqueline’s older sister and closest sibling, says. “She’s more by the book. She’s always going by the plan.” Emory, then law school.

 

“Getting pregnant the first semester of college? That was never in the script at any point in time,” Jacqueline says, chuckling.

 

But she was going to keep it. “My son is not an accident. He just had bad timing.”

 

There was never sadness.

 

“It was disappointment and then immediate, ‘All right, what’s the next step? What’s the plan?’” From then on, she made sure Subway heated up her lunchmeat. When her friends went out for a smoke, she went the other way. She couldn’t “turn up” for New Year’s. She had to think about how to get money. She had to get a car. She had to get out of the dorms.

 

It wasn’t the plan she had in mind, but she never regretted it.

 

It was Christmas time. Jacqueline didn’t even have a chance to schedule a doctor’s appointment before she went to visit her family in Cleveland for the holidays.

 

“I didn’t want to tell them to their face,” Jacqueline says. “I didn’t want to deal with that.” She knew there would be judgment, negativity. She knew what her family would say: “You’re going to drop out.”

 

“None of that would be beneficial to me or my child.”

 

So she snuck into her room after breakfast every day to take her prenatal pills and prayed that she didn’t get morning sickness. She didn’t like how anything smelled and she couldn’t eat her aunt’s food. “If I eat anything of this, the truth is about to come out. All these women have been pregnant. They know what’s up.”

 

Thankfully, she wasn’t showing yet. If anything, they probably just thought it was freshman 15. “That’s what I was going to go with.”

 

When Jacqueline was 10 weeks pregnant, she called Ebony to give her the news. When they were young, Ebony and Jacqueline had to practically sleep on top of each other in the same itty-bitty bedroom of their grandma’s home in Cleveland. They were both acutely aware from a young age that they didn’t live a normal childhood.

 

For one, their mother was addicted to crack. Jacqueline remembers the glass room with an armed officer in the halfway home where she met her mother when she was three. She remembers that her little sister weighed two pounds when she was born.

 

Jacqueline’s mother sent her several books in the mail while she was growing up and Jacqueline slowly began to realize that her grandma wasn’t her mother. In elementary school, Jacqueline went to counseling for her anger issues. She got into physical fights whenever anyone at her school made a “Yo Momma” joke.

 

The girls’ mother gained custody of Ebony when she was 10. Jacqueline would visit her sister and see that there was no structure. It was weird, staying out all night, riding bikes without any questioning. “I was like, ‘This is not good for me.” Their mother tried to gain custody of Jacqueline but Jacqueline resisted.

 

The first time Jacqueline saw her dad she was 8. From them on, he was only in the picture every once and a while.

 

Jacqueline didn’t realize that she was poor till she started comparing herself to other students. Watching cop cars zip down their street, she knew she didn’t live in a normal neighborhood. “I didn’t care. I always knew you had money or you don’t.”

 

Her grandma was very over-protective and strict. Ebony and Jacqueline couldn’t go out or have friends over. They were each other’s only friends.

 

When Ebony found out about the pregnancy, Ebony knew Jacqueline would plan it all out. She knew Jacqueline would eat all the right things, read all the right books, and take all the right classes.

 

“She’s broken stereotypes,” says Ebony, who had her first child when she was 19. “I got pregnant and dropped out of school. She got pregnant and she continued with school.”

 

A week later, Jacqueline had an ultrasound at her first doctor's appointment and saw her baby, sitting “like a little cowboy.” Des couldn’t make it because he was working at Kennesaw, “’cause at this point you have to go to work every day. Like, no missing work for nothing now.”

 

“Oh, look at him!” the doctor said.

 

“Him?” Jacqueline asked.

 

“Well … look at the baby.” The doctor wasn't supposed to say the gender yet.

 

Jacqueline looked at the screen. She remembers it vividly. “His legs were open. I’m like that’s a boy. That’s a boy. Simply.”

 

Jacqueline had prayed for a boy. She knows she has a bad attitude and any girl of hers would inherit it. She would name him Desmond II. “Deuce” for short.

 

That semester, all she wanted to do was sleep all the time. Somehow, she made it to her work-study job in the Psychiatry department and her classes. She only saw one A when she was pregnant — not her usual GPA.

 

But getting pregnant didn’t slow her down. “It just motivated me more. I have to feed a kid now. What is a high school degree going to get me? A little bum ass job and I am going to struggle with him forever?”

 

As Jacqueline began to show, she felt like she was the only pregnant undergraduate on campus. It was very awkward.

 

She remembers reading a tweet that read something like “#didyouknowemory has a pregnant girl.” She deleted her Twitter and signed out of her Facebook.

 

She got “hella looks.” She could read it on their faces: “Like, what’s the pregnant girl doing here?”

 

“How did she even get in here?” people said behind her back.

 

“Just because I’m pregnant means I’m not smart?” she asks.

 

“I feel bad for her,” one girl said. Jacqueline says she told the girl: “When I have my baby, I’m going to fight you.” The girl transferred.

 

It began to irritate Jacqueline. “It’s not your business, you know? Feel how you wanna feel but to say something behind me, that’s pretty annoying.”

 

But the whispers didn’t change how she felt about her choice. “I don’t feel bad at all because hella girls get pregnant and kill their kids. I just chose to keep mine. So that makes my sin apparent? Because you can see it?”

 

During her pregnancy, Jacqueline had one true supporter. Des and Jacqueline talked to each other on the phone all day, every day. He visited every weekend. He wouldn’t drink in front of her. He would say, in a singsong voice, to Jacqueline’s stomach: “Hey, little Deuce.”

 

In March, Jacqueline’s grandma was griping about Des over the phone to Jacqueline. She has always had issues with Des, partly because he is four years older than Jacqueline.

 

“However you feel about him,” Jacqueline told her grandma, “you need to get over it. Are you going to feel that same way about his child?”

 

“What?” her grandma said.

 

“I’m pregnant,” Jacqueline replied.

 

The grandmother wrath ensued. All the hard work that she put into Jacqueline was now wasted, she said. Jacqueline was going to drop out, she said.

 

“Whatever,” Jacqueline said. Her grandma should know her better than this. “I ain’t never quit on anything else I wanted. Why am I going to quit just ‘cause I had this baby?”

 

Her grandma ended the phone call with an “I love you” and didn’t speak to anyone for a week. Jacqueline’s aunts became worried because Jacqueline’s grandma wasn’t answering anyone’s phone calls.

 

Eventually, Jacqueline’s grandma began telling the rest of the family. When they started calling, sometimes Jacqueline answered them. Sometimes, she didn’t. Once she heard her grandma’s negativity, she didn’t feel the need to hear it from anyone else.

 

Sooner than Jacqueline expected, Jacqueline’s grandma gradually began calling Jacqueline again, but when Jacqueline was seven months pregnant, her dad found out. He stopped paying her phone bill. He didn’t want to talk to her. He was disappointed. “That’s real mature. You’re mad so you don’t pay my phone bill?”

 

Now, the only thing that Jacqueline is getting from her parents is a class ring as a graduation present. She doesn’t take handouts.

 

“They just put the whole weight of the world on my shoulders, expecting me to be perfect,” Jacqueline says. She is the one who went to Emory. The only two other people in her extended family who went to college after high school are in state schools. She’s supposed to do great things.

 

From then on, it was one step at a time. Jacqueline moved out of Harris and, while she took summer classes until July, lived in Clairmont with two of her friends. One of them, Emory senior Lilly Robinson, remembers walking to class together. Jacqueline carried her pregnancy with grace. “She was accepting things as they were and taking things one step at a time.”

 

When Jacqueline was 8 months pregnant, she stopped working and lived with Des in an apartment in Stone Mountain. It was the best. Jacqueline would wake up and Des would make her breakfast. They didn’t have cable or Internet. “We are always the happiest when things are the most simple.”

 

“We throw everything out the window, throw a mattress on the floor, we’ll be happy again. I’m convinced.”

 

The baby was due August 8. August 8 came around and Jacqueline walked past an empty crib every day.

 

She was booked into the hospital August 16. On August 18, after 20 minutes of throw up, sweat, and swearing, Deuce was born at 12:37 p.m. to a hospital room with his mother, his father, Des’ mother, Jacqueline’s grandmother, and Jacqueline’s aunt. He was born with football shoulders, his chest out. “Hey, little Deuce,” Des sang. Deuce opened his eyes and looked at Jacqueline. His eyes were grey. Jacqueline missed the first day of each of her classes her sophomore year.

 

Going back to school when Deuce was eight days old wasn’t easy. She would come home, take Deuce from her grandma, and play. Her GPA stayed low.

 

A couple times, when her grandma was busy, Jacqueline had to bring Deuce to class. Her classmates loved it, playing with him and distracting the class. Once, she gave a presentation in front of her class, while 2-month-old Deuce slept in her arms. Her professor sent her an email, asking Jacqueline to figure out a consistent day-care situation.

 

After two months, Des got a job at Macy’s and UPS. He paid the rent and Jacqueline paid the side bills. When Deuce was 10 months old, Jacqueline started to take out loans to put him in a day care that a co-worker recommended.

 

Last year, they moved out of Stone Mountain. Jacqueline started a second job at a law firm in Decatur. She got a condo for her and Deuce about seven minutes from Emory’s campus and things began to change.

 

She and Des started to fight because of “some stupid shit.” Des can’t pay the rent for this location, and Jacqueline knows that’s an issue for him.

 

“At the end of the day, I’m always going to make the decisions because I’m the parent he stays with the most and I’m the parent who pays for more things. Simply.”

 

That could change if they get married, but Des isn’t ready yet. Jacqueline says its because he doesn’t think he earns enough to take care of a family. (He is working for Kennesaw again.)

 

She remembers when they met in high school. He told her: “I’m not going to make you my girl till I can take care of you.” They met on the neighborhood basketball court where Jacqueline, a sophomore in high school at the time, was the only girl on the court. After that, they saw each other every day, but he waited until he got a construction job, a year later, before asking her to be his girlfriend.

 

Since then, Jacqueline thought they were going to get married. Her mouth quivers a little when she talks about. He’s never proposed but he’ll call Jacqueline his fiancée in front of the realtor. “That’s weird. Where my ring at?” Jacqueline says. Jacqueline tells Des, maybe more than she should, that she is waiting.

 

“I don’t want to be shacking up forever. You know how many people just shack up forever? I’m better than that. Simply.” Des never used to shut off communication to Jacqueline. But, ever since Deuce, he has. But Jacqueline sees Des trying. He cut off his dreads. He’s trying to get a better job. Jacqueline still loves him.

 

Between her school refund checks, paychecks, and loans, Jacqueline gets by. For three years, she has been keeping track of her own bills. Her trick is to pay in advance whenever she gets money. When she falls behind, she knows how to use the “art of persuasion”. After talking to her landlord’s mother, her landlord doesn’t bother her anymore. She tacked on a job at Kaplan Test Prep and a nearby arcade. Taking care of a kid and going to school wouldn’t be hard if she didn’t have to work. “But it’s a decision I made and it’s a decision that I had to deal with.”

 

“She has the ability to put everything aside for her duties,” Lilly said of Jacqueline. “People get stressed. She can’t worry about that because she has to worry about her baby.”

 

“It’s a hula off? I’m about to win.” At Emory’s DUC Day in the Coca-Cola Commons, Jacqueline was carrying her two-year-old from booth to booth, mostly focusing on the free food and shirts, until she saw that the coordinators were requesting volunteers for a hula dance-off.

 

“Why he can’t do it? He a Emory student!” she shouts while pulling Deuce to the large marble steps in the middle of the DUC, where a boy speaking into the microphone was gathering participants.

 

Jacqueline hollers: “The Deucey monster!” Short dreads fall from the back of his head and he struggles to carry around a plastic blue ball that is bigger than his head. He naturally gravitates toward cake and pizza and he can eat by himself when his mom isn’t looking. He bumps his hips left and right whenever he hears music and, sometimes, he nags his mom to stop what she’s doing and dance with him. He says “Deucey cute” and “Deucey strong”. He gets too nervous to pee in public bathrooms and, despite numerous pleads telling his mom that he needs to go, Jacqueline knows he won’t actually do it once he sits on the toilet. He tries to snap and say “Aww, man,” just like Dora the Explorer, but he can’t snap. Right now, Jacqueline is struggling through the parroting phase where Deuce innocently repeats inappropriate household phrases, like “shut up.”

 

Jacqueline isn’t about to take that. “Just ‘cause I’m a young parent, doesn’t mean I’m a friend parent. I am ‘Mommy’ always.” Whenever Deuce steps out of line, Jacqueline is tough: “Whose the Mommy? Whose yourself?” she says in an elevated tone. Jacqueline and Des have agreed to use military punishment methods in a couple of years. Push-ups and sit-ups rather than hitting or spanking.

 

By the time the hula dance off was getting started, Deuce’s eyes were starting to get heavy with sleep. “We’ve got our first contestant!” Jacqueline calls out. She wraps the grass skirt around her son’s tiny waist over and over again and ties the end. “It’s going to be fun, okay? Don’t get stressed out.” She puts a white lei over his head and carries him up to the stage at the top of the stairs where three other girls wore the same skirts and leis. The moment the Hawaiian music blares, Jacqueline holds Deuce’s arms up shouting, “Come on, Deuce. You got it!” Deuce lets out a cry, resisting the music and Jacqueline gives up, disappointingly carrying him down the stairs and then, putting the skirt on her own hips.

 

While she was hula dancing on the stage with Deuce, one of the event coordinators asked me, “Is that her kid? How old is she?”

 

Jacqueline sees how people stick her in a “stereotypical bubble” when they see her kid, making her out to be a statistic. The statistic says that 53 percent of student parents drop out. This month, Jacqueline will be graduating Emory and she’s thinking about taking some time off before tackling law school.

 

“She’s broken stereotypes,” Ebony says. “She’s proven everyone wrong.”