4.9.08

HABIT PERSISTENCE. Laura at 11-D posed a deceptively simple question. The ensuing discussion did become a flame war, but one observer offered a sensible comment about the continuing drama of Palin Place.
The upper middle class narrative of staying in school, getting a degree, going to grad school, working to get ahead, marrying at 30, and having children even later, is admirably productive, but it isn't the life trajectory most Americans choose.
High school cheerleader Bristol Palin's pregnancy by high school hockey player Levi Johnston is out of another narrative. Much of the conversation I've heard describe the pregnancy as an "accident". Reality is more complicated. First, one has to consider the neighborhood. Although Alaska is a northern state, its outlook is Appalachian. That's evident from this story, which suggests the two had intended to marry for some time.

Wasilla mom Jennie Johnston, whose son Jade played hockey with Levi, saw the young couple in January at a game.

"She was in a cute little outfit like young girls wear," said Jennie Johnston, who is not related to Levi. "She was with Levi."

She said her son told her the two were already engaged.

"They've been together quite a while, more than a year," she said. "I hope everything comes out well. These are local kids."

Here's a confirmation of that explanation, from a reporter who did reach Mr Johnson's mother.

The young parents-to-be haven't faced any pressure to wed, says the boy's mother, Sherry Johnston, reporting that the two teens planned to marry before it was known she was pregnant.

"This is just a bonus," Johnston said.

Evaluated with the perspective of that upper-middle-class narrative, that decision looks wrong, and the reference to a "bonus" misguided. Seventeen. Dating for less than a year. Engaged. That, however, was a narrative years ago. Consider the Beach Boys' "Be True to Your School," where the singer is a two-letter athlete and his girlfriend is on the cheer squad. We don't know if they married just after graduation. I suspect (my preferences running to Stephen Meader whose The Long Trains Roll, which commands a steep price these days, embellishes things that really happened, rather than to syrupy plots) that was the plot of some of the adolescent novels in the high school library, although there were probably other novels in which the second-stringer connects with the cheerleader or the outcast girl wins the athlete's affection. (That's one possible outcome of I Am Charlotte Simmons.) Those adolescent novels left the seamier side of winning those affections to the reader as an exercise (and at one time Grace Metalious took stick for helping the reader complete the exercise).

That puts Mr Johnston and Ms Palin squarely into the high-school-sweethearts-pairing narrative, one that worked for her parents. It's not a surprise to me. From my high school, which a former athletic director characterized as "out of the 1940s in terms of athletics" and "a blue-collar neighborhood", a majorette from the class of 1971 did marry a football starter from 1970, this after both had graduated, however, and I don't know of extenuating circumstances.

Whether that narrative is the best for young people is less obvious. We don't know yet whether these two will be together when that child qualifies as an adult. Senator Obama, whose "punished with a baby" remark has antagonized some people, is working from a more tragic narrative, in which the girl "proves" her love and the boy skips out. It might be the case that the sports stars and the groupies of the most popular clique have peaked at 17 or 18.
The cult of popularity that reigns in high school can look quaint from a safe distance, like your 20th reunion. By then the social order may have turned over like an hourglass: teenagers who were socially invisible have emerged as colorful characters, confident, transformed. Others seem preserved in time, same as ever, while some former princes and queen bees are diminished or simply absent, now invisible themselves.
Wasilla's most famous couple, however, might not be invisible.

There's more to the mating rituals of the young, however, than a sojourn in the back seat gone wrong. Consider the engagement diamond. A simple symbol? This set of notes, from David Friedman treats the diamond as a performance bond, by which a cad would have to compensate the woman he defrauded for taking her virginity. (To a non-economist such an argument sounds crazy, but the argument has testable implications, some of which stand up to casual empiricism.) There's also a strand of social science research about opportunism in shotgun weddings. (The problem with a career researching problems of heavy industry is that sometimes interesting things I read get lost because I didn't flag them. Such is the case with this strand. Perhaps she wants a commitment and he's ambivalent, so she accidentally-on-purpose neglects the precautions and now he's got to commit. Perhaps some men have reason to advocate for abortion rights.) Combine the research, and perhaps something went wrong, or perhaps they committed to each other and stuff happened, or perhaps she (or he) wanted to nail down the commitment.

Best for those kids? Too soon to tell. Unexpected? No.

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