In Your Neighborhood

A teaching moment when myth, reality collided and courage prevailed

With the U.S. government on the verge of shutdown, a former high school cheerleading coach shares her experiences with Planned Parenthood and women’s reproductive health

Photo courtesy of Toby Simon

Toby Simon, left, and four members of her cheerleading squad at Central Technical High School in Syracuse, New York.

By Toby Simon
Posted 9/28/15
A high-school French teacher, fresh out of grad school in 1970, volunteers to become the cheerleading coach, only to find that her cheering squad is becoming decimated by unintended pregnancies. Her response, and the no-judgment care provided by a Planned Parenthood teen clinic, changed her life and the lives of her students.
If no federal funds are ever used for abortion, as stipulated by the Hyde Amendment, why is Planned Parenthood now at the center of a concerted and renewed effort by Republicans in Congress and those running for president to defund its women’s health services? How much of the new drive has been spawned by the calculated release of videos that have shown to be purposely doctored? Has there ever been a poll that asked: how many men know women who have had received health care at Planned Parenthood?
The underside of job training and workforce development, not often talked about in the same breath as developing good, middle-class jobs, is the need for more, better support of day care and Head Start. And, at the same time, the need to decrease the number of infants born at highest risk in Rhode Island – those born to mothers without a high school degree, those born to single mothers, and those born to mothers under the age of 20, according to benchmarks from Rhode Island Kids Count.
The number of infants born at the highest risk has fallen by about two-thirds between 2009 and 2014 in Rhode Island; but, in 2014, there were 6,692 babies born – 64 percent of all babies born screened “positive” for one or more risk factors associated with poor developmental outcomes. Improving the health of mothers and children is still a critical factor in reducing economic and health disparities.
When the state of Louisiana, at Gov. Bobby Jindal’s direction, recently attempted to strip Medicaid funds from Planned Parenthood for women’s health, the state’s lawyers claimed that there were more than 2,000 family planning providers ready to accommodate new patients if Planned Parenthood funding were to be cut. But the judge, in turn, questioned the accuracy of state’s list, which included ophthalmologists, nursing home caregivers, and dentists. When the judge demanded a new list, the alleged 2,000 providers shrunk to a list of some 29 providers in the state.

PROVIDENCE – The year was 1970. Syracuse, New York. Central Tech High School, an inner city school. Racial tensions were high that fall at the start of the new school year. There were police assigned to Central, and it was my first teaching job. I was 23 and a very green, straight-out-of-grad-school French teacher.

At the first faculty meeting, the principal asked if someone would volunteer to be the cheerleading coach. The faculty snickered and groaned. As a former high school cheerleader [during a time when every girl would die to make the squad] I figured I knew a little something about cheering.

But mostly I raised my hand because I knew that if the girls on the squad got to know me and vice versa, perhaps we could build some trust and work together.

The squad was comprised of 12 girls -- 11 were African American and one was Native American. Early on in the fall, I noticed that some of the girls were no longer coming to practice.

When I asked the captain of the squad what was going on, she told me that they couldn’t cheer anymore because they were pregnant.

In 1970 pregnant teens at Central Tech attempted to conceal their pregnancies for as long as possible before dropping out of school. However, quitting the cheerleading squad came first.

A short time later, on our return to Syracuse from an away game in Watertown [a very long, cold bus ride] I was seated next to the captain. We had gotten to know each other quite well that fall. We didn’t talk for the first hour but then she said: “Miss Simon, are you a ‘V’?”

I realized she was asking me about virginity, so I replied that I wasn’t and inquired if she was a ‘V.’ Her answer didn’t really surprise me. She told me that she and her boyfriend had been “doing it” for some time.

I then asked the obvious. “What are you using for birth control?”

She quickly answered: “Oh, Miss Simon, I just piss it out of me.”

I asked her if she wanted to become pregnant, and she unequivocally stated she did not, that several of her sisters and cousins already had babies.

I calmly explained that if she continued to “piss it out,” she would become pregnant real soon.

Teen clinic
That evening I talked to my husband, who was a medical student at the time. Together we made an appointment to talk with the head of OB-GYN at his med school to see what kinds of reproductive health care might be available for teenagers who were sexually active.

The OB-GYN suggested we speak with another physician who had just started a teen clinic on Tuesday evenings at the local Planned Parenthood affiliate.

In school the next day I told the captain of the squad about the clinic and asked her if she wanted to go. If so, I said to meet me at my apartment on Tuesday at 6 p.m., and that I’d drive the short distance to the clinic.

Tuesday night she and four others showed up at my apartment. I packed the girls into our small car and drove to the clinic where they attended an hour-long educational session on reproduction, family planning and birth control options.

Each girl then met privately with a counselor before seeing the physician; the physician then prescribed what they jointly felt was an appropriate birth control method.

Planned Parenthood sent me the girls’ bills ($2 per visit) and I handed them out at school, collected the money and sent the funds to Planned Parenthood.

An underground movement started at Central Tech High School. The following Tuesday four more girls showed up. And it continued for most of the school year.

We had no more pregnancies on the cheerleading squad that year and in the following three years, only one. The clandestine runs to Planned Parenthood were not just for the cheerleaders.

Word got out and more girls showed up each week. Occasionally some of the boys sought out my assistance. At some point during my year-end evaluation with the principal, he looked at me and smiled and said: “I notice we haven’t had any more pregnancies among the cheerleaders. I don’t want to know what you’re doing but please don’t stop.”

In 1970, Roe v. Wade didn’t exist. And, there was no sex education in the high schools that might have provided ways to avoid pregnancies.

What did exist were the false notions that these teens wanted to get pregnant, they just wanted someone to love, the benefits of early motherhood were too good to pass up, and it was a way to get on welfare.

Numerous informal focus groups I had with teen-age girls in Syracuse [and subsequently Baltimore] proved otherwise.

And, Planned Parenthood knew that. They started one of the first teen clinics to provide birth control to sexually active teens well before anyone else. They provided “no judgment” care to these young women. They advocated for them. They knew the data about high school graduation rates when girls have babies. Planned Parenthood provided services in 1970 that no one else had the courage to do.

And, unbeknownst to both the girls on the cheering squad and Planned Parenthood, my career as a sexuality educator and trainer was launched.

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