Growing Up Fast

Joanna Lipper

Picador

Chapter One

BILL AND DORIS WERE ADDICTED TO SKYDIVING. FALLING through space and time, their survival instincts kicked in. The adrenaline rush was pure and unparalleled. Parachutes snapping open, they surrendered to a blissful sensation of weightlessness, drinking in a bird's-eye view of the world, far above the burdens, frustrations, and disappointments that awaited them down on the ground back home, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

During the week, Doris drove a long yellow school bus. She had started this job when her two daughters were little, intending to move on to something else once they were older. Fifteen years later she was still driving the same bus, thankful for the benefits and paid vacations.

As Doris watched her daughters grow up, she felt her own youth slipping away. When she looked in the mirror, she saw barely any trace of the young woman who at nineteen had given birth to Jessica. Doris had subsequently divorced Jessica's father and married Bill, with whom she had her second daughter, Catherine, all before the age of twenty-three. All that seemed so long ago. As Doris studied the thin lines trailing out from the corners of her eyes, she worried that her life had been defined solely by the roles she played in relation to others. She was afraid that she hadn't done nearly enough for herself.

Skydiving was the only activity Doris indulged in solely for the purpose of her own enjoyment, but there was one hitch-each jump was wickedly expensive. Doris maneuvered her way around this obstacle by getting a weekend job at the drop zone, packing parachutes and videotaping other sky divers from a small camera strapped onto her head. In exchange for performing these duties, Doris was given a special pass that allowed her unlimited jumps at a huge discount.

Bill, a machinist, put extra money aside to support his skydiving habit, but as the years went by and jobs became more and more scarce, decent work was harder to come by. Starting out as an apprentice, Bill had worked his way up the ranks, taking time off to fight in Vietnam. His steadiest employment had been at a steel company that relied on subcontracts from General Electric. In the late 1980s, as GE pulled out of Pittsfield, that company went bankrupt and Bill found himself unemployed. He subsequently worked various jobs spinning steel, but none lasted very long or provided the steady income and security he longed for.

Bitter and disillusioned, Bill languished at the bar, passing long, uneventful hours reminiscing and joking around with his buddies while Doris, at home waiting up, covered his plate in Saran Wrap and stared out the window, watching as the trees in the backyard turned ashen and then disappeared, engulfed in darkness. The hours blurred into one another. Her eyes grew heavy. Sometimes she dozed off.

When the doorknob finally turned and Bill stumbled through the front door, Doris jolted herself awake and summoned up the last of her remaining strength. She fought and pleaded with her husband about his alcoholism. The sound of their arguing voices-his slurred, hers tired and high-pitched-wafted through the thin walls to where Jessica lay in her bed with a pillow over her head, doing her best to sleep through it all.

Bill acknowledged that his drinking and reckless spending put a tremendous strain on his marriage. "But guess what?" he remarked. "When you're screaming through the air at one hundred and twenty miles per hour, a bad day at home doesn't really come up!"

In the summertime, Bill and Doris crammed as many jumps as they could into a day, stopping reluctantly only when thunder crackled or the sun sank. Meanwhile, down below, fourteen-year-old Jessica and her younger sister spent lazy, humid afternoons in an overgrown field adjacent to the runway, listening to music, cooking hot dogs on the grill, bouncing on the trampoline, and stretching out on the hoods of cars in their bikinis, competing to see who could get the best suntan. When Jessica heard the plane's engine idling overhead, all she could do was hope for the best as she craned her neck upward and squinted into the glare of the sun, holding her breath, always terrified that her parents' next jump might be their last.

For the first few minutes Jessica often couldn't see her mother and stepfather at all. At such high altitudes, clusters of thick, fluffy white clouds usually obscured the rough contours of their bodies. With her heart pounding against her ribs, Jessica learned to force herself to imagine what she couldn't see-their canopies gracefully unfurling, creating the gentle tug of resistance that would cut the velocity of their steep, rapid descent.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity to Jessica, her parents would float into view, two small black specks on the distant horizon with nothing but thousands of feet of air between them and the hard, unforgiving earth. "No way would you ever catch me jumping out of a plane with a parachute," said Jessica. "A piece of cloth? No, no, no. I like my feet right on the ground, thank you very much!"

Blond, blue-eyed, willowy, and a stellar student to boot, Jessica entered high school with substantial potential. She rotated from one after-school job to another, unable to last long at places like Burger King, Pretzel Time, and Bonanza. Convinced that a good education would be her ticket out of Pittsfield, Jessica much preferred to spend her spare time working hard to get good grades.

Among her peers, Jessica hid her intelligence and ambition under a flippant, giggling, exaggeratedly feminine persona, often inviting comparisons with the character Phoebe on the hit television show Friends. Despite her widespread popularity and her movie-star looks, Jessica suffered from low self-esteem. She was unable to feel special unless she was the special girl in some guy's life. She explained, "I was one of those girls who just always had to have a boyfriend."

While Jessica steered clear of risks as extreme as skydiving, she was less careful when it came to sex. At the age of sixteen, she got pregnant. Too frightened to confide in anyone, Jessica hid her pregnancy for six months, hoping that the problem would just disappear so that her life could go on uninterrupted.

"I was in denial," she recalled. "I didn't want to be pregnant. All my friends would say, 'You're getting bigger.... Your stomach's getting bigger....' I'd shrug and say, 'Oh, I'm just eating a lot.'"

Every day at school, Jessica felt sick and anxious. It was hard for her to concentrate on anything. Most nights she spent awake, tossing and turning in her bed, inhabiting the lonely, dark space carved out by insomnia as the clock beside her bed ticked and ticked. As she entered her third trimester, Jessica took a long, hard look in the mirror and saw a dramatically different body reflected back. She was enormous. None of her clothes fit. After one too many sleepless nights, she decided to break her silence. Too terrified to face her mother in person, Jessica chose to put her thoughts down on paper.

"I wrote a letter to my mom. It said, 'Please don't abandon me, I love you and I'm so sorry.' My mom was going skydiving, so I asked my sister to put it in her parachute bag, so she'd find it before she jumped!"

After reading Jessica's note on the plane, Doris floated down toward the ground. Airborne beneath her unfurled canopy, she had time to reflect on the sixteen years she had spent building up her hopes, dreams, and plans for her studious, spunky, beautiful daughter. Now all that would have to change, or at least be deferred indefinitely. In tears, she drove back to Pittsfield to confront Jessica.

ard"When my mom got home, she sat me down and said, 'Are you going to have this baby?' I said, 'Yeah.' I was already six months pregnant. There was nothing I could do. I wasn't gonna have an abortion. My parents-they weren't angry, but they were very disappointed. I had so much going for me, and it was all thrown in the garbage."

Jessica promptly transferred out of Taconic High School into the Teen Parent Program, affectionately dubbed "TPP" by its students. This alternative, nonresidential day school was located five minutes from the center of Pittsfield, in a small building attached to St. Teresa's Church. Upon enrolling, Jessica gained access to an array of special services, including one-on-one tutoring, child-development and parenting classes, medical care, counseling, and day care. Under the auspices of this support system, Jessica carried her fetus to term, gave birth, and nurtured her son through his first year of life while simultaneously completing the requirements she needed to graduate on time with her high school class.

Jessica was surrounded by many other pregnant and parenting teens. Between 1995 and 2000, an average of fifty-nine teenagers from Pittsfield gave birth each year. Approximately 81 percent of these teen mothers were white, reflecting the demographics of city's overall population, which the U.S. Census 2000 officially calculated as 92.6 percent white.

Prior to transferring into the Teen Parent Program, most teen mothers were registered at one of Pittsfield's two public high schools, which enrolled a combined total of approximately 1,570 students: 730 boys and 840 girls. Within these locker-lined corridors, every student had some exposure to teen pregnancy and parenthood, if not through their own direct experience, then through classmates or, in many cases, through elder siblings, cousins, and other family members. When Jessica was asked why she thought there were so many teen mothers in Pittsfield, she didn't mention the words "abortion," "adoption" or "choice."

"Pittsfield is very boring," she said. "There's nothing for us to do. I used to just drive around in my car with all my friends and hang out at the parks or hang out at some friend's house. We don't have anywhere to go. Nowhere ... That's probably why there are so many pregnant people around here, because there's nothing else to do but have sex. I mean, there is nothing else to do!"

Jessica's negative impressions of her hometown were echoed by many of her contemporaries. When talking about Pittsfield, these teenagers often resorted to using words like "dead," "boring," "frustrating," and "hate." Many of their parents shared this extreme pessimism. Pittsfield's history illuminated the backdrop against which the dramas of these individual lives unfolded.

Located in western Massachusetts, approximately 150 miles from New York City and Boston, Pittsfield evolved throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as one of several major pockets of industry. Imposing and strikingly urban, Pittsfield-with its towering smokestacks and gigantic, fortresslike factories-was always a bit of an anomaly, surrounded by the predominately mountainous and pastoral, picturesque terrain of Berkshire County, a region renowned for its sweeping open landscapes and the meticulously preserved elegance of its small Old New England towns with their Gilded Age mansions, world-class resorts, pristine spas, and thriving summer communities.

With its clear blue lakes, peaceful hiking trails, burnished autumn leaves, and necklace of cultural gems, Berkshire County never fails to attract throngs of tourists. Year after year visitors from all over the world are irrepressibly drawn to Tanglewood, the Williamstown Theater Festival, Shakespeare & Company, the Berkshire Theater Festival, Jacob's Pillow, and MASS MoCA. Adding to its allure is the fact that the region has been home to several major artists and intellectuals, including painter Norman Rockwell, psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, and legendary American authors Edith Wharton and Herman Melville.

Less often highlighted in Berkshire County's tourist brochures, but impossible to ignore in the context of teen parenthood, is Pittsfield's long, bittersweet industrial heritage, inextricably intertwined with the General Electric Company.

In its glory days, Pittsfield was endearingly referred to as "the Plastics Technology Center of the Nation." In addition, numerous industrial buildings housed GE's Power Transformer Division and its Ordnance Division, a major producer of armaments during World Wars I and II and the Cold War. GE's defense activities included contracts for the Polaris missile, naval ballistics missiles, and the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

During the early postwar period, approximately three-fifths of Pittsfield's workforce was employed by General Electric. Then in 1960, Jack Welch joined GE's Plastics Division as a chemical engineer. For the next seventeen years Welch lived and worked in Pittsfield as he evolved into the legendary CEO whose leadership, vision, and strategy helped the corporation arrive at and maintain its enviable position as one of America's most profitable and valuable companies.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, GE maintained a vested interest in preventing other businesses from coming to Pittsfield, determined to control the workforce and the wages. The company's management exerted influence over the city council to ensure that protective measures were taken so that Pittsfield remained securely under GE's jurisdiction, conveniently isolated from competition. As anthropologist Max H. Kirsch explained: "The community was dependent on the corporation for the tax dollars that maintained the city's infrastructure developed to house its workers; workers were dependent on the corporation for jobs; families on wage earners; and secondary industries on the wages the workers generated."

Then, quite abruptly, GE's happy marriage to Pittsfield came to an end when Jack Welch led the corporation into a period of major downsizing and globalization, shifting the focus of U.S. operations from production to high technology and financial services, dramatically scaling back the blue-collar labor force; replacing thousands of U.S. workers with robots and cheaper nonunionized foreign labor; increasing efficiency, productivity, and profits while cutting costs. It was inevitable that high-tech solutions would eventually replace old-fashioned assembly lines, and as operations became more streamlined, jobs were tailored to those with higher education and expertise. Many blue-collar workers were laid off as GE edged its way toward the twenty-first century, wholeheartedly embracing the spirit of capitalism.

On Wall Street, shareholders' pockets jingled with profits. Jack Welch was hailed as a hero, and competitors around the world sought to emulate his strategies once they saw just how seductively lucrative they were. As globalization became more and more widespread, the purchasing power of the average American increased, thanks to the availability of goods that, because they cost less to manufacture, subsequently cost less to buy.


Copyright © 2003 by Ruby Slipper Productions, Inc.